'Yesterday' is much more than a song. A mere two minutes of plaintive, romantic sentimentality and mournfulness, it is one of the most exceptional and triumphant moments in the history of popular music. It is either beautiful or mawkish, depending on your view. What is beyond debate is its power to touch the spirit, as with the greatest songs. 'Yesterday's deceptively simple words and music are the perfect example of music's strengths ... as art, as therapy, as entertainment.
The song has defined and divided the life and work of its composer, Paul McCartney. Since he is a writer who aims to reach people with memorable songs rather than deal in the obscure, 'Yesterday' must be considered his greatest songwriting achievement. He considers it his 'most complete song' and, in view of his output during four decades, that is a remarkable statement.
Its statistics are unparalleled. Nearly 2,500 artists have recorded it. It has been played on American radio six and a half million times; if broadcast continuously that would take nearly thirty years. As the most recorded song in history, 'Yesterday' has versions by artists with styles as diverse as Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Placido Domingo, Liberace, Benny Goodman, Dr John, Howard Keel, Jose Feliciano, Erroll Garner, Elvis Presley, Tito Rodriguez and Billie Jo Spears, plus many internationally celebrated orchestras. Only a really special piece of music could reach such a wide span of performers, and be interpreted so in-novatively.
Music, like other art forms, brings highly subjective responses, and to touch a nerve with artists and audiences to the degree that 'Yesterday' has done requires some rare ingredients. Where did it come from? What motivated its writer, who sang it first? What was his frame of reference, his muse, for creating both the lyric and the melody?
Paul McCartney was twenty-one years old when he began writing the song. It was the first time a Beatle had ventured into solo recording and, in the context of their story in the mid-1960s, it was considered a pretty ballad. In Britain it was not released as a single until 1976 - eleven years after it was recorded and six years after the Beatles had split. In America, where it was released as a single in 1965, the year it was recorded, it went to the top of the chart and stayed there for four weeks.
Though it featured McCartney singing alone and playing acoustic guitar with a string quartet, the recording was credited 'The Beatles', and the song bore the songwriting partnership 'Lennon-McCartney'. As a Beatles single, it sold mpre than 3 million copies internationally. As a feature on records by other artists, its total sales figure is beyond calculation.
As a song, it utterly bisects the entire phenomenon of the Beatles as well as presenting a microcosm of Paul McCartney the man, the songwriter, the performer. It also points to the bedrock of his musical background, and thus provides an insight into the chemistry of the Beatles. This book is therefore part documentary, part celebration of 'Yesterday' and, by extension, a portrait of its creator drawn largely by himself.
Paul McCartney, while justly proud of the song, its impact and its achievements, was not the only person to appear slightly bemused by the idea of a book dedicated to the story of his song 'Yesterday'. Others, bewildered, suggested that there were better songs, more interesting and unusual compositions. And could the theme of one song really stand up to such scrutiny?
Any such argument subsides against the sheer weight of 'Yesterday' influence, as a song and as an event - creatively, statistically and individually in relation to its composer. From what vantage point did he write a song that was to attract 2,500 other versions? How, where and why did he write it? Since it sounds partly autobiographical, why did he appear so introspective at a time of excitement, with the Beatles story at a peak? Did this first Beatle solo bring any resentment within the group? How on earth did a guitar-toting pop star get involved with a string quartet, unheard of for an erstwhile rock 'n' roller at that time? Vital to this exploration of the song, what kind of pedigree in music did Paul take into the recording studio when he went in to commit it to vinyl?
And, in the unbelievable-but-true category, how did the ownership of 'Yesterday' pass in 1985 into the hands of Michael Jackson, where it remains, to the annoyance of Paul McCartney, and to the indignation of Beatles lovers around the world?
This book is called Yesterday and Today because that is precisely what Paul's song, allied to the Beatles story, is and will always be: a synthesis of nostalgia and current impact on a world that will continually recognize their legacy as the best group in popular music. Other fine groups came and went, making their impact; but the Beatles were something else. It is thirty-two years since they came blazing out of Liverpool to set an individualistic benchmark for music and provide an eight-year-long soundtrack for the 1960s. In the 1990s they continue to be relevant, frozen in their time and yet timeless; vigorous, endlessly creative, prolific and absolutely unrepeatable.
'Yesterday' is very much what the Beatles were all about. It broke barriers, both for them and for popular music generally, and it played a large part in stretching the Beatles' appeal beyond the young.
Yesterday and Today, besides being the title of the American album on which the song appeared in 1966, was also the cover story title of an article which I wrote for Radio Times in 1992 to mark Paul McCartney's fiftieth birthday. That profile aimed to capture McCartney the person, beyond Paul the Beatle, and part of it might have gone some way to explaining why he could have written a song like 'Yesterday' some twenty-seven years earlier:
McCartney was always outside the general scrum of rock 'n' roll. He had a vision of his music beyond its function as a totem of youth . . . with the Beatles, McCartney always had more sense of destiny than the others. While some 1960s figures saw rock 'n' roll itself as their stepping stone to fame and fortune, the ambitious McCartney was more scientific. His musical palette had a broader range.
He remains a man of extraordinary paradoxes and elusive spirit. Gregarious, amusing and charming in company, he tends to distrust people outside his family, perhaps understandable after his battles inside and outside the Beatles. He likes control, although there is still something of the old hippy in his fundamental outlook. He cherishes his position in the hierarchy of entertainment but prefers to present himself as one of the lads. He wants to be viewed as equally acceptable to high society and to a shop assistant. He can be alternately bombastic and insecure, thoughtful and mercurial; compassionate and unforgiving; open and impenetrable.
His public image as a cheery, thumbs-up, lightweight man-of-the people pop star has irritated him as much as his critics, I wrote, and they taunted him for his alleged superficiality. Friends who have known him since his earliest Liverpool and Beatles years observed a new sophistication and self-assuredness about him as he approached fifty. A sharp-eyed, youthful enthusiasm remains, now joined by the personality of an elder statesman, a diplomat who knows his responsibilities.
George Martin, Paul's friend and producer of the Beatles and of McCartney as a soloist, considers him 'a genius of twentieth-century music'. Unequivocally, I believe that Paul's genius and creative muse stretches beyond the categories of music and art.
Linda, his wife, a Libran who believes she balances his Gemini spirit, is insightful on the man and his complexities: 'He's an artist, and artists are moody . .. sometimes he's very huggy and sometimes not. But how many songs has this guy written? Do you know what I mean? How much pressure has he had and how many lives has he lived? So he might come on like he's normal, but there's a lot of turmoil in there.'
To all these facts and observations of Paul McCartney, it must be added that he is a master of communication. During our conversations for this book, one of his most telling remarks concerned his admiration for the work of other artists. He always wanted to hear their most popular work, he said. If he went to a concert by, say, Simon and Garfunkel, or Bob Dylan, or the Rolling Stones, he would be waiting to hear their biggest hits. He had less time or patience for the esoteric indulgences which some artists often inflict on an audience. He has never subscribed to the indifferent attitude of some artists towards record sales. 'I think that's what does matter,' he says. 'The people out there with their pennies, going to spend them. That's a big move, to spend your money on someone.'
That ingredient in Paul's make-up, a desire to reach people with his art, sounds simplistic. But achieving it is difficult, as any songwriter will testify. Paul's wish to be a populist is the key to understanding one aspect of his genius, and of how he could write the most recorded song in history. I thank him for his spirited co-operation in interviews for this book, and also thank Linda McCartney for her helpful observations and for the use of her outstanding photographs.
My gratitude is due to many friends who helped this project with encouragement, research and advice.
In New York, Sue Weiner grasped the scope and spirit of this subject before anyone, and her support has been an inspirational tower of strength as well as a great practical help from the book's inception. Jim O'Donnell's assistance has been invaluable, and my thanks also to Marisa Sabounghi for her unflagging research in Manhattan.
In Britain, my appreciation goes to George Martin for his interview, and to his assistant, Shirley Burns. My valued friend Mark Lewisohn, the world's foremost Beatles historian, helped enormously by sharing his unrivalled knowledge, particularly in the maze that led to the sale of the Beatles compositions to Michael Jackson.
Thank you to Shelagh Jones and Alan Crowder at MPL in London for facilitating this book during my researches.
For interviews and interest in the subject, I wish to thank Peter Asher, Elizabeth Robbins, Richard Carpenter, Paul Cooper, Lori Citero, Richard Clayderman, Nathan East, Dennis Elsas, Kenneth Essex, Keith Emerson, Louisa Fuller, Roger Greenaway, Laura Gross, Nigel Hunter, Shelagh Johnston, Denis Knowles, Phyllis Lattner, Zoe Metcalf, Mickie Monro, Steve Phillips, Olivier Tous-saint, Bruce Welch and Dr Glenn Wilson.
My thanks also to Michael Alcock and Vicky Monk at the publishers, Boxtree, in London, to Annie Lee, my exceptional manuscript editor, Dave Read of EMI Music, London, and Phil Graham at Broadcast Music Incorporated; and to Andy Linehan at the National Sound Archive, London, and Mark Rigby at the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society.
Above all, of course, thanks to Paul McCartney for checking my manuscript so meticulously and for writing that rarity - an extraordinary song that richly deserved a book.
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