Saturday, September 26, 2015

"Yesterday" - Fifty Years

For those who missed it when I posted a clip of Paul McCartney performing the song as my Music Video Of the Week, here are my comments (slightly reworded here) on the fiftieth anniversary of "Yesterday," which was released as single in America in September 1965 . . . with lots of videos! :-)
Paul McCartney woke up with the melody in his head one day and thought he must have heard it somewhere. How could have have written such a perfect melody in his sleep - literally? Convinced that he couldn't have been that lucky, Paul went around playing the melody and asking anyone if they'd ever heard it. No one - not even Beatles producer George Martin - had heard it before. Assured that he had something original, Paul gave the melody the working title "Scrambled Egg" and thought of a dummy lyric to fit the meter (Scrambled eggs, Oh, my baby, how I love your legs") while he tried to come up with permanent lyrics. His work on the song annoyed the other Beatles. "Blimey, he's always talking about that song," said George Harrison. "You'd think he was Beethoven or somebody!"
Eventually, Paul thought of "Yesterday" as a title, and the lyrics came easily. Not so much the arrangement. When George Martin heard "Yesterday," he didn't think a standard "beat group" arrangement was suitable for it; to his ears, it required strings. Paul resisted the idea of a Mantovani-style arrangement, but Martin had something better up his sleeve; Paul would sing "Yesterday" to his own accompaniment on an Epiphone Texan steel-string acoustic guitar, with a tastefully dry string quartet. It worked like a charm, and when John Lennon heard the playback, he made it a Lennon-McCartney song by making his contribution - giving the thumbs-up sign when the recording hit a blue note that kept the song from being too schmaltzy. (Paul actually led the Beatles in the taping of "I'm Down" the same day - June 14, 1965 - and he recorded "Yesterday" in two takes.)
Still, "Yesterday" was a ballad, with strings and a sort of guitar that doesn't need to be plugged in, and the group decided to bury it by releasing it as a song on their Help! LP. It was the penultimate song on side two, the side containing the songs that did not appear in the Help! movie. They refused to release "Yesterday" as a single in the United Kingdom because they didn't think it fit their rock and roll image, plus they were afraid it would be perceived as a solo Paul McCartney, not a Beatles, single.
They couldn't stop its release as a single in the United States, where it was left off the Help! album and issued on a 45. Of course, "Yesterday" hit number one, staying at the top of the Billboard singles chart for four weeks beginning in the week ending October 9, 1965, and the pop press in America did indeed declare, "Paul McCartney is number one without the other Beatles." Remarkably, there was no jealousy within the group, maybe because John was happy to receive half the songwriting royalties from it.  Its popularity was such that it provided the title for the North American Beatles album Yesterday and Today, released in June 1966, giving the LP its selling point.
The Beatles couldn't bury the song no matter how hard they tried; back home in England, ballad singer Matt Monro, a fellow artist on the Beatles' Parlophone label, covered "Yesterday" almost as soon as the Beatles' original came out, and he released his somewhat lusher cover as a single. While it didn't chart in the U.S., it reached number eight in Britain.

Monro's version was the first of some 2,200 covers to date, and its popularity was such that, in their concerts, the Beatles did a stringless version. Even Cilla Black, the female fifth Beatle, couldn't resist having a go at it.

Both of these covers were, I believe, produced by George Martin.
There's no understating the effect of "Yesterday" on pop; ironically, the song itself is understated. It's a very dignified, stately ballad, and it doesn't give in to sentimentality. The narrator has lost his girl, for which he accepts responsibility, and he suddenly has to deal with the separation. Though he believes in the past, he needs a place to hide and contemplate the future. He doesn't want pity; all he wants is understanding. The subtle, dry string quartet takes "Yesterday" out of traditional balladeering and puts it in classical terms in dealing with the reality of love and loss. It opened pop to new possibilities, not just for rockers but those working in other pop forms as well.
The influence on rock was almost immediate, as other rock acts produced string-arranged ballads. The Rolling Stones in 1965 recorded "As Tears Go By," which Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and then-Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham wrote and gave to singer Marianne Faithfull a year earlier, and used a string arrangement on their own version.  Though the strings (arranged by Mike Leander, who later scored the Beatles' recording of "She's Leaving Home" on Sgt. Pepper) might have been inspired by "Yesterday," "As Tears Go By" was obviously not written as an answer to "Yesterday," as some people (people who never heard of Marianne Faithfull) believe.

In the seventies, rockers would create standard ballads that would be somewhat lusher.  Elton John would do several orchestrated ballads with string arranger Paul Buckmaster, and one of them, "Your Song," became Elton's first American hit, from his self-titled 1970 album.

The Eagles recorded Desperado, their underrated 1973 concept album about outlaws in the Old West, and while the album's sound was mostly their trademark country-rock, the group featured an orchestrated ballad with the title track, arranged by Jim Ed Norman.

That same year, the Rolling Stones produced another string ballad, "Angie." :-)

Kiss even produced an orchestrated ballad called "Beth," from their 1976 album Destroyer, produced by Bob Ezrin.

By the way, even a heavy progressive rock band like Family could be counted on to produce an orchestrated ballad of their own, as with "Mellowing Grey," the second track on their 1968 debut album Music In a Doll's House. Roger Chapman singing a ballad more appropriate for Johnny Mathis? Yes, and he wrote it with Charlie Whitney! :-)  It's more in the vein of "Yesterday" than other "Yesterday" wannabes.  

To think . . ..  Most of these songs were more or less inspired by a tune that Paul McCartney literally wrote in his sleep.
Incidentally, people have known about the "Scrambled Eggs" title and lyric for years.  When talk show host Jimmy Fallon had Paul McCartney on his late-night show, the two performed their version of the song Paul might have written had he kept the dummy title and lyrics and written a song about food.    
Unfortunately, while there is a video of that, the embedding has been disabled by request.  But you can access it here.
So, yes, "Yesterday" has had a profound effect on popular music for the last half century.  And it will continue to do so for the next fifty years.  Long may it play.
"Wonderful, beautiful, and I never wished I'd written it," said John Lennon.
And, without further ado, here's the original record:

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