It's been named the No. 1 pop song since 1963 by Rolling Stone
and MTV. HEATHER MALLICK examines the genius and the staying
power of Yesterday, the most covered tune of all time
Wednesday, November 22, 2000
Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away,
Now it looks as though they're here to stay,
Oh, I believe in yesterday.
Suddenly, I'm not half the man
I used to be,
There's a shadow hanging over me,
Oh, yesterday came suddenly.
Why she had to go, I don't know,
she wouldn't say.
I said something wrong, now I long for yesterday.
Yesterday, love was such an easy game to play
Now I need a place to hide away,
Oh, I believe in yesterday.
There's really no need to reprint the lyrics of Yesterday. You know them, even if you don't know that you know them. When you see them printed, your brain automatically plays the tape for you, and will probably do so for the rest of the day or week (sorry about that).
The song, which lasts precisely two minutes and four seconds, has been played on the radio seven million times.
It is the most broadcast song of the modern era, and has been covered by at least 2,500 other performers with the same sincerity you displayed when you sang it in the shower this morning.
When you listen to it on 1, the "new" collection of Beatles' No. 1 hits that is currently one of the fastest-selling albums in music history, you can hear Paul McCartney singing in his deceptively simple manner, playing acoustic guitar along with a string quartet that McCartney originally thought would be "Mantovani" syrup but soon realized would bestow the blessing of sophistication and emotional depth.
Yesterday was cut from whole cloth; McCartney dreamed the melody, woke up, played it on the piano beside his bed and initially couldn't figure out what to do with it. The original dummy lyrics, "Scrambled eggs, oh my baby, how I love your legs," were replaced when McCartney wrote new ones on holiday with his then-girlfriend Jane Asher.
It was the evening of June 14, 1965, at EMI Studios on Abbey Road in London. The four Beatles tried the song with drums and guitars, even with John Lennon playing the organ, but it didn't work. Probably only a producer with George Martin's personality and inventiveness could have talked them into using the quartet after they turned down his idea of a strings track.
They may even have been humouring him. (A famously gentle and courteous Englishman, he once helpfully took an obviously ill Lennon up to the unfenced studio roof for some fresh air and a walk round, not realizing that Lennon was tripping on acid.)
There is nothing rock 'n' roll about Yesterday, but then no rock 'n' roll purist could possibly approve of the Rolling Stone list. It is emphatically a collection of pop -- not rock -- songs "according to their influence on pop culture" as opposed to their quality. Pop purists, if there is such a thing, will be irritated by the inclusion of hits like Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive. Even Rolling Stone seems embarrassed by some of the selections. "The Backstreet Boys are hard-wired in your brain," one editor said. "In a year or two, you might succeed in unwiring them."
Yesterday is a ballad of great musical complexity with sophisticated chord changes, yet it was recorded in only two takes and is, for all intents and purposes, a Paul McCartney solo. He wrote it, sang it and played it.
McCartney was only 22 then, yet the genius of the song lies in its universality. Everyone, male or female, straight or gay, young or old, can identify with its theme of lost love. Depending on your romance quotient, the song backs up the crude truism that all pop music is about either getting sex or not getting sex. McCartney himself said recently, "I remember thinking that people liked sad tunes; they like to wallow a bit when they're alone, to put a record on and go, 'Ahhhh.' " It's a lament. Some would call it one of the most effective ever written.
Others would argue that it is merely an anthem for nostalgic depressives, the point Nick Hornby was making in his 1995 novel, High Fidelity, about the pernicious effect of pop songs on the lives of young men. Hornby's novel is really McCartney's song spun out to 323 pages, in the course of which the narrator, a sad-sack pop-music junkie named Rob, speculates as to what came first, "the music or the misery."
"People worry about kids playing with guns, and teenagers watching violent videos; we are scared that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands -- literally thousands -- of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss."
It's an interesting question. Is the most influential pop song of all time actually bad for you?
Seen from the point of view of an older pre-Beatles person, McCartney was far too young to be looking backwards at life, and what's more, to be so good at it. McCartney doesn't sneak up on the song; he is already in the midst of it emotionally and vocally, and the artlessness of his approach is part of what creates the effect of fingernails scraping on the heartstrings. There is nothing saccharine about the lyrics. They are adjective-free. They are direct. They hurt.
As for the ex-lover that McCartney is singing about -- the one who "had to go" but why, "she wouldn't say" -- the lyrics are a classic piece of evasion. "You know perfectly well why I had to go," millions of women are responding. "You hit me/flirted with the waitress/didn't pick up after yourself/got fat/hung out with the band too much/watched football during/fell asleep right after/had a sliver of glass in your cold, cold heart." Love works, or doesn't work, both ways.
Everyone goes through this wretchedness and it's particularly hard to listen to the song at times like that. But if McCartney makes the listener feel this way, what of the thousands of other versions of Yesterday out there?
For reasons related to the weaselly nature of the record industry, the remaining Beatles have no control over most of their own music. Michael Jackson owns much of it. McCartney's jewel of a song has been bought, sold, stripped, brutalized, dressed up in feathers and rhinestones, and made a laughing stock by people ranging in talent from Perry Como to Don Ho. Two young men named Ross Clement and Scott Galuska have created a Web site listing every version ever made of every Beatles song ever written. Those who have paid a musical tribute just to the song Yesterday include Elvis Presley, Benny Goodman, Michael Bolton, Boys II Men, the Ray Conniff Singers, Bobby Goldsboro, the jazz bandleader Acker Bilk, someone called Eliot Popkin, Kiri Te Kanawa, Liberace, the Scottish tenor Kenneth McKellar, Nana Mouskouri and Frank Sinatra.
Happily, Yesterday was not included on the album Golden Throats 4: Celebrities Butcher Songs of the Beatles which features Joe Pesci singing Got to Get You into My Life and Xaviera Hollander singing Michelle. (In 1998, George Martin, going deaf and likely with grandchildren to support, produced a Beatles cover album featuring Sean Connery's In My Life and Goldie Hawn's A Hard Day's Night.)
Yesterday has been rendered via jazz, reggae, brass, salsa, synthesizer, soul, funk, folk, the Boston Pops and the harmonica. It hasn't been so much covered as smothered. There are thousands of Beatles tribute bands. Three degrees of yesterday: Literally, you could have heard Yesterday performed yesterday by the band Yesterday in Oberlin, Kan. Next week they'll be in Fargo, N.D., and in Guam for Christmas.
Sometimes though, it has been honoured. Ray Charles did a fine version in 1967 that reached No. 25 on the charts. Marianne Faithfull, a performer with things to regret, sang it with feeling. Marvin Gaye included it on his classic That's the Way Love Is album.
Anita Baker says she always loved the song, but not for the lyrics, which she said she was far too young (at age 20) to appreciate. "It was the musical content. We used to trip out on that chord progression. It's irrelevant to me whether Yesterday has become a cliché. It's a great song. Especially when you're old enough to sing it."
Bob Dylan said in 1966 that he hated it, claiming people like Joan Baez were using it in a pathetic attempt to attract teenyboppers. "If you go into the Library of Congress, you can find a lot better than that. There are millions of songs like Michelle and Yesterday written in Tin Pan Alley." (Four years later, Dylan would record, but not release, his own version.) He sounds eerily like the conservative commentator who wrote at the time of the Beatles' emergence that they weren't as good as Milton, Wagner, Debussy, Matisse, Proust or El Greco.
That's the odd thing. What all the above have in common is their individual voices. That was the genius of Yesterday and of pop music generally, that it takes the "unique sonic presence" of the individual voice and makes it universal.
Critics have said that the history of rock music has a recurrent pattern of emergence, appropriation and decline.
It is true of forms and genres, but it is not true of pop songs at the level of McCartney's creation. Pop music is fungible -- a notion and an influence that is so widely dispersed that it is largely untraceable.
But Yesterday itself has the remarkable quality of irreducibility. It emerged from McCartney's head, it was listened to by billions and appropriated by thousands. Yet the song itself has not declined. Simple and truthful, it is as good as it ever was.
Top of the pops
The Top 15 from the 100 greatest pop songs since 1963, as determined by experts at MTV and Rolling Stone magazine:
1. Yesterday, The Beatles (1965)
2. (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, The Rolling Stones (1965)
3. Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nirvana (1991)
4. Like a Virgin, Madonna (1984)
5. Billie Jean, Michael Jackson (1983)
6. I Want to Hold Your Hand, The Beatles (1964)
7. Respect, Aretha Franklin (1967)
8. With or Without You, U2 (1992)
9. I Want You Back, The Jackson 5 (1969)
10. I Want It That Way, Backstreet Boys (1999)
11. Hotel California, The Eagles (1977)
12. Where Did Our Love Go?, The Supremes (1964)
13. Sweet Child O' Mine, Guns N' Roses (1988)
14. Brown Sugar, The Rolling Stones (1971)
15. Imagine, John Lennon (1971)
DO YOU AGREE?
Don't like the list? Vote for your own top 10 pop songs by voting at http://www.globeandmail.com/series/songs/#vote .