yesterday -- 8/11/23

Today's selection -- from Tell Me Why by Tim Riley. With more than 2,200 cover versions, Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” is one of the most covered songs in the history of recorded music:

"If ‘Yesterday’ isn't the most esteemed recording the Beatles ever made, it certainly is the most celebrated song they ever produced. Its universality guarantees cover versions for years to come, from Las Vegas singers to ‘Gong Show’ contestants. The Muzak royalties alone account for a great deal in the Lennon and McCartney estates, even though Lennon admitted the song is solely Paul's. The landmark use of a string quartet on a pop song was immediately copied by several groups, notably the Rolling Stones on ‘As Tears Go By’ later that same year. 

"The narrative is implied; the lyrics don't spell out the story the way Paul's other small dramas do (‘Eleanor Rigby’ or ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’). But the emotional impact is stirring--it's the kind of song that sounds immediately familiar and yet original, as if it already existed before it came to McCartney: 

“I really reckon 'Yesterday' is probably my best ... I like it not only because it was a big success but because it was one of the most instinctive songs I've ever written. I just rolled out of my bed one morning and ... just got the tune. I was so proud of it. I felt it was an original tune, it didn't copy off anything, and it was a big tune, it was all there and nothing repeated." (Paul McCartney in His Own Words, p. 17) 

Yesterday (With Spoken Word Intro / Live From Studio 50, New York City / 1965)

“His gift for lyricism has never equaled this moment, and it follows through on the promises made in ‘And I Love Her’ and even 'I'll Follow the Sun.’ In the verses, a three-syllable melodic fragment (‘Yesterday …’) grows to two arching phrases: the first rises (‘all my troubles seemed so far away’), the second gently falls (‘now it looks as though they're here to stay’) before returning to the opening word (‘Oh I believe in yesterday’). The plaintive opening guitar introduction and solo verse from Paul establish a mood of complete loneliness, of being left behind in the starkest reality of all--where romance suddenly turns into a haunting illusion. As the strings enter for the second verse, everything swells with questioning heartache. George Martin's quartet arrangement is so tasteful that it barely draws attention to itself; all the focus is on the singer and the song. The way the viola pulls away from the voice's held note at the end of the bridge is so effective that Paul sings this viola line himself the second time around. The first violin holds a single note for the entire final verse; instead of soaring, it weeps. Where others try to wring buckets of emotion from the song, Paul's simple delivery winds up being the most effective; his poignancy is simple and direct. It is a great recording, then, because it frames the emotion without intrusion, capturing the honesty of the sentiment without affectation.

“Paul's most famous lost-love ballad stands out in part because it's also his saddest, drawing on the same melancholy that laced ‘And I Love Her’--his seemingly boundless geniality becomes more three-dimensional in such songs. ‘Yesterday’ received such wide acclaim as a result of its release on this album that it was subsequently chosen as a single, and Paul played it by himself in the middle of a full Beatles set on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ appearances that followed its release. ‘Thank you, Paul,’ John said after Paul sang it to respectful silence. ‘That was just like him.’"



Tim Riley


Tell Me Why




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