A STRING QUARTET
'My God, we have a winner'!
On 13 April 1965 Paul McCartney bought a London house, a three-storey nineteenth-century detached Victorian property in St John's Wood. The night Paul purchased the property, which he bought for £40,000, the Beatles recorded Help! as the soundtrack for their new movie. Although it would be another year before he would finally settle into his new home, Paul frequently visited it to oversee the structural alterations he wanted. Visitors would eventually remark on the sedate ambience and good taste of the house and its furnishings; it was neither a rock 'n' roller's garish fun palace nor the house of someone from the nouveau riche. Benjamin Britten's work for the 1953 Coronation of Elizabeth II, Gloriana, played regularly in the drawing-room to typify Paul's interests beyond the Beatles.
A city dweller all his life, Paul told me several times in those years how much he loved 'the look of London'. He drove around the city in a black Mini Cooper, singing the praises of its skyline, its bustle, its cosmopolitan mix. The other three Beatles moved to suburbia but he was resolute that he wanted a city base during these exciting years.
Paul's new home was well positioned for its proximity to the EMI Studios, a mere five minutes walk away in Abbey Road. This was the domain of the Beatles and their producer, George Martin, who since their first single, 'Love Me Do', in 1962, had brilliantly steered their recording career, interpreting the often radical requests of Paul and John. At that time, in 1965, as Paul was establishing his new home, with George Martin an occasional visitor, the producer was to infuse Paul's unexpected song 'Yesterday' with a dramatic suggestion.
The good fortune of the Beatles in finding Martin, and vice versa, cannot be exaggerated, although when they met they certainly needed him more than he was looking for a beat group from Liverpool. At the precise time when four ambitious young men were bursting out of their chrysalis, they enjoyed an instant rapport with their producer.
Classically trained in composition, conducting, harmony and counterpoint at the Guildhall School of Music, thirty-six-year-old Martin had also, coincidentally, been taught the oboe by Margaret Asher. His broad taste would help Paul both practically and inventively to realize the best, and the most innovative, twists of sound and effects, on 'Yesterday' and many other songs.
Martin was prized by the Beatles because he was associated with the Goons, whom they loved. He produced the individual recordings of Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Michael Bentine. Paul was equally impressed with Martin's activities across a wide range of artists. He produced Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, Rolf Harris with 'Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport', jazz stars Cleo Laine and John Dankworth, Stan Getz and Humphrey Lyttelton, comedian Bernard 'Right Said Fred' Cribbins, the Beyond the Fringe team, and masterminded the fast-moving careers of most of Brian Epstein's Liverpool stable of acts, including Cilia Black, Billy J. Kramer and Gerry and the Pacemakers.
Paul attributes the mild-mannered Martin's former vocation in the Fleet Air Arm to his brilliant contribution to the Beatles' success. 'He was an observer in planes,' McCartney says. 'He didn't navigate or fly the things. So he had the job of a producer even in the Fleet Air Arm! In the studio, he didn't engineer, he didn't write the songs, or play an instrument. As a producer, as in the Fleet Air Arm, he sat and observed. He pulled it all together, you're ultimately responsible, you're the captain. I think that's where George got his excellent bedside manner. He'd dealt with navigators and pilots ... so that he could deal with us when we got out of line.' Such powers of persuasion, as well as considerable expertise, were to be important in sealing the success of 'Yesterday'.
A man with such an orthodox background in music might have found the Beatles' primitive instincts abhorrent, for they challenged all traditional approaches to record-making from the start. But Martin's response was always patient, his benign style concealing a quicksilver mind. His willingness to adapt was valued by the Beatles. And as a man who tended to analyse a melody first, ahead of the lyrics, he had more affinity with Paul than with John, although he paid full tribute to Lennon's random brilliance.
'Yesterday' had been whirling in Paul's head sporadically over a twenty-month period before he finally entered number 2 studio, the Beatles' familiar and favourite place of work, within the EMI complex on Abbey Road, to record the song. In the afternoon, the Beatles recorded two McCartney compositions, the folksy 'I've Just Seen a Face' and the rocker 'I'm Down'. This belting Little-Richard-style song might almost be expected to have damaged his vocal cords, since seven 'takes' were needed before the Beatles were satisfied with the finish. After such a marathon session the singer would have been justified in adjourning for the evening.
Talking of that day as typical of the intensity with which the Beatles recorded, Paul says: 'We'd show up at 10.30 and in the first session we were expected to get a couple of songs. Everyone did. Wally Ridley [another EMI producer] did a whole album in that time. We felt if he could do a whole album, we at least had got to come up with two songs. It would be just slovenly if we didn't. So we'd sit down, run through a song for fifteen, twenty minutes. How long can you run through a song without beating it to death? You always had the song. There was no making it up on the spot until much later . . . this was lads looking for work, trying to prove themselves with their first contract. So we'd go in and they'd say: what do you want to start with? Oh, "I'm Down", or whatever it was. Maybe I didn't want to get into the ballad early. It was probably a case of "let's kick off and get rid of any nerves."'
A mere ninety minutes after the completion of those two vocally demanding songs, one of the Beatles was back in the same room ... to record 'Yesterday'. Singing to his own acoustic guitar accompaniment, Paul recorded two 'takes alone' on that night of 14 June, in a three-and-a-half hour session that began at 7pm. When he had finished, the four-track tape was put into storage, with the second 'take' being marked 'best' to await Paul's planned return to the studio a few days later.
'We didn't use headphones,' George Martin recalls of the session. 'And so there was a leakage from the speaker into his microphone. That gave the impression of double tracking of the voices that you can now hear on the record.'
The balance engineer for the session was Norman Smith (later known as successful singer Hurricane Smith), and Phil McDonald (later a successful engineer in his own right) was the tape machine operator. Paul's softly sung vocal, coming after a long day's session of rock 'n' roll, was remarkably controlled. Yes, he agrees now, it was 'wild' to ponder that he sang it after punishing his voice with the heavy demands of the song 'I'm Down' earlier that day. 'But,' he smiles, 'I was only twenty-two. That's what you do at that age . . . When we'd done, I thought: Oh, that sounds pretty nice. I hope nobody minds that it's just me.' As the first Beatle to step outside the group with a solo piece of music, he felt slightly apprehensive, but was comforted by the fact that the other three had said they could add nothing to it. Unity was of paramount importance to the Beatles in 1965.
At that point, his acoustic performance in the can, George Martin suggested something radical. Pleased with the session, the Beatles' producer adjourned with McCartney to look over his new home round the corner in Cavendish Avenue. 'Why don't we get some strings, a violin, a cello . . . perhaps we could go for a very different sound. It sounds very nice, but perhaps it needs something.'
Paul was appalled at the thought. 'Are you kidding) The Beatles is a rock 'n' roll group! We can't end up sounding like Mantovani!' Wide though his tastes always were, Paul was already feeling exposed by the song's solo treatment, and he now felt defensive of the Beatles' reputation as the hippest band on the planet. He recoiled from the worry that something too syrupy might happen if strings were added.
Always the diplomat, George Martin tried another route. 'Let's try it, with, say, a string quartet. Just try it. If you hate it, we can wipe it and you can go back to playing it on your own.' He underlined his belief that it would not suit a full Beatles performance, but it sounded as if it needed some extra instrumentation.
Paul remembers: 'I said: "That sounds like a good deal." So I went round to George Martin's house and that's where we started to develop the process which was to be carried on to greater lengths as we got more and more into musical development later. He would sit at the piano and say: "OK, now what are the chords?' And then he'd say: "Normal string quartet voicing would be like this ..." and I would ask for something different. My big inclusion was the cello bit at the seventh, in the middle. George said: "Mozart wouldn't have done that!"' McCartney retorted that if that was so, it should definitely be used! 'This became a joke among us. The Beatles would not take any rules; we were all about breaking rules.'
By that time, Paul had played 'Yesterday' on the grand piano at Wimpole Street. Peter Asher remembers telling him how much he admired the song. 'He said it would be the first song they'd ever done with strings,' Asher recalls. 'I thought he meant a traditional orchestra and said that would be great. He said no, a string quartet. I thought it sounded unusual, but it was right. So much hipper!'
The studio was booked for a two-hour session from 2pm on 17 June to complete 'Yesterday'. Paul recorded a new vocal over-dub, but it was not used on the final record. He then met the musicians who would comprise the string quartet, though they were not named as such. Because he lacked a formal education, Paul felt slightly intimidated at the prospect of talking about serious music with such players. 'I'd like to talk more with classical players,' he said at the time, 'but they ask you how you'll want it - legato, fortissimo, or what. All I can say to them is: you just feel it.'
As they walked into the studio to play their scored parts for 'Yesterday', Paul remembers that he was still wary of what effect they might have on a song which he felt needed simplicity above all else. The quartet had been a routine booking by George Martin and his secretary (and later wife), Judy Lockhart-Smith. Tony Gilbert was first violinist, and nominal leader; the second violinist was Sidney Sax; Spanish-born Francisco Gabarro played cello; and Kenneth Essex viola. All were session musicians prominent in British popular music in the 1960s, notably as regular members of the orchestra featured on BBC television's Thursday night chart programme Top of the Pops. Freelancers, in demand, they were hired regularly for string-laden albums supervised by George Martin and other record producers.
When Paul first heard the violins strike up, he frowned and quickly expressed his concern.
'George, what's going on? What's that shaking sound?'
'It's vibrato, Paul.'
'Do they have to play it like that?'
'Well,' said George, 'not all string players do.'
Paul's instant dislike of vibrato playing, whereby the fingers 'wobble' the note to add a certain richness, depth and resonance, was traceable to his dislike of 'anything schmaltzy', as he says now. 'I'd never worked with string players before this. I later found out that it was a trick fiddle players use, to cover up if they might go a little out of tune. They go both sides of the note. It sounded a little too gypsy-like for me; I said: excuse me, what's going on here? Have they got palsy or something? I asked George if they could play without vibrato. George said they could, but they'd have to play the notes more accurately.'
Martin, recalling the episode and Paul's 'definite bee in his bonnet' about vibrato violin sounds, asked Paul what he had against the technique. McCartney answered that it reminded him of Mantovani's lush strings, of the Victor Sylvester Orchestra which he'd heard on the radio as a child and which used that effect from the violin. Wide though his interests were in music, there was a line, never to be crossed, between rich, fine music and over-the-top cornball. Vibrato represented that to him.
Martin asked Tony Gilbert, the first violinist and spokesman for the quartet, if the players could drop the vibrato effect. 'So then they played it straight, note for note, without vibrato. It sounded, to my ears and to everyone's but Paul's, really harsh, staid. Paul said he liked it better. So his wish was met. But of course the musicians found it very hard to drop their usual style of playing, so a little vibrato, but not much, crept back.'
Paul sums up his view: 'When they dropped the vibrato, it sounded stronger. Before, it had sounded quite classical enough. Now it was no longer like the old gypsy violinist playing round a camp fire! It was ... on the money!' Francisco Gabarro, whose 'blue' cello sound helped to stamp the atmospheric instrumental accompaniment, remembered meeting Paul in the EMI canteen after the string quartet session. 'Paul said: "Well, my God, we have a winner there!" I said: "Well, congratulations to you.'"
George Martin had written out the score, Paul adding considerably to it with some original ideas. For a twenty-two-year-old international pop idol to be immersing himself in violin and cello sounds in mid-1965 was unheard of, but 'He got very enthusiastic about the whole thing,' Martin remembers. 'It was Paul's idea, for example, to feature that cello line at the end of the second middle-eight, where there is a "blue" cello note. It's a minor against a major. Paul thought of that, and I wished it had been me. John Lennon fell in love with that particular sound when he first heard it.' McCartney also advanced the idea of the first violin holding the high note in the final section.
'We were writing the score as we went along,' says Paul. 'He said sevenths wouldn't fit in with a baroque sound. I said: "Put it in!" That was a good thing about working with George. He would say: "You can't double a third [note]." I would say: "You wanna bet?" George was very good at breaking the rules of music. He couldn't have produced the Beatles if he hadn't been willing to do those things.'
Kenneth Essex remembers the actual time spent by him and the other three string players on dubbing their strings as short. 'We were actually booked for two hours, but were there for less than that. As far as we were concerned, we were just turning up for a normal session and the fact that it was Paul McCartney was not something that would have made a big difference to us in those years. We played for everybody. George Martin put the parts in front of us and we played them. We didn't realize it was going to be a smash hit.'
They were paid by the Musicians' Union scale: Tony Gilbert, as leader, received £6.15s., while Essex, Gabarro and Sax were paid five guineas (£5.5s.). Laurie Gold was paid £1.10s. for copying the parts and there was a £2 secretarial fee.
The string session for 'Yesterday' therefore cost EMI a grand total of £26. George Martin was paid the fixed fee of £15 for all rights to his arrangement, and the Beatles, as a matter of course in all their recording work, received £7 each from EMI for performing on each session; since it was considered a Beatles session, Lennon, Harrison and Starr would have qualified for this payment, which was always paid in addition to their royalty.
'The string players didn't recall anything about the song to me,' George Martin says. 'It was just another job for them. In those days, people thought the Beatles were going to be a nine-day wonder. Even then, in 1965, people were saying: "It's bound to peter out soon."' After the session, Paul autographed his producer's musical annotation with the words: 'yesterday', written by Paul McCartney, Mozart and George Martin.'
The tonality of Paul's voice delivery was remarkable. Though the lyrics were somewhat sentimental, he stopped short of sounding lachrymose. There was a commanding authority about his singing, laced with a frailty that was destined to touch many millions of hearts. He had displayed no diffidence whatsoever. 'It was goose pimple time,' Paul admits today. 'When I heard the strings working on it, I thought: oh, gosh, this is going to work. I'd not heard strings on my kind of pop record before. "Save the Last Dance for Me" [the Drifters hit] was the first strings I'd heard on a pop record. That was great, innovative. But this was not strings on "Yesterday". It was a little baroque string quartet. I then realized George had been spot-on with his decision. When we'd finished, one of the blokes in the studio came up to me and said: "Very nice song." He didn't have to do that. It swelled the ego.'
That night, quietly euphoric, Paul adjourned to a favourite Beatles hang-out, the Ad Lib Club in Leicester Place. 'I saw Terry Doran, a mate of ours, and I said: "I just recorded this great song. It's so good!" Later Terry told me he thought I was such an arrogant bastard, saying that.'
Next day, Paul telephoned Dick James, the Beatles' music publisher. Excitedly, Paul told him: 'I've just recorded a new song ... and I want you to make it song of the year.' Paul went on to describe it as very different from anything Dick would have heard from the Beatles. James immediately rang George Martin to arrange to hear 'Yesterday'. He remembered it as 'Scrambled Eggs', but now, with potent lyrics, it was something special. To the ears of James, whose own music was rooted in the era of crooning ballads, it was a revelation. The Beatles had, for two years, triumphed mostly as a young, lively beat group. But here was a fully matured sound.
James rang Paul back. 'That's wonderful,' he said, confirming that it would be 'easy' to promote such a sound into a hit. Paul McCartney and a string quartet! The sound was stupendous, the novelty value amazing.
Brian Epstein's wildest dreams had come true. By 1965 the Beatles, whom he had vowed would be 'bigger than Elvis', were a worldwide phenomenon. He had helped to turn four leather-clad teenagers from the Liverpool Cavern into adored Establishment figures. Royalty's nod of approval with the MBE was augmented by sixteen-year-old Prince Charles's enthusiasm for the new sound of British pop. He shaped his hair Beatle-style, but when the press said he was aligning himself with Paul, John, George and Ringo, he said defensively that he had looked that way since he was two years old. At Windsor Castle, he played Beatles and Rolling Stones records at his teenage parties.
Epstein's master plan was complete. On 15 August, at New York's Shea Stadium, the crowning moment in their touring days came when 55,600 fans, the record for any pop concert at that time, saw the Beatles perform. The glamour of touring, however, had long passed for the Beatles. It had become a gruelling charade in which they could not hear their own music above the screams, and the exhaustion caused by life on the road had lost its appeal. Epstein sensed during that USA trek that their days on the road were numbered; and when that happened, his role as a manager would inevitably diminish.
The Beatles were now serious studio musicians whose 1965 albums, Help! and Rubber Soul, magnified their reputation. As Epstein watched their growth with palpable pride, he also saw himself as the unifier who would paper over any cracks when the Beatles were threatened with internal friction. In awe of the song-writing axis of John and Paul, he considered them 'very fine, extraordinary young men ... I don't believe anything like them will happen again and I believe that happen is the word, since no one could have created anything in show business with such appeal and magnetism.'
'Yesterday', however, posed a problem for Epstein. A classical music enthusiast, he considered it 'exquisite'.* But as the first
* - Brian Epstein had wide tastes in music, originally preferring the classics. Broadcasting on BBC's Desert Island Discs on 18 November 1964, he named two Paul McCartney compositions among his eight records to be taken on his imaginary desert island: 'She's a Woman', performed by the Beatles, and 'All My Loving', performed by the George Martin Orchestra. Classical music, including his favourites, Sibelius and Bach, dominated his other choices.
record made by a solo Beatle, it was political dynamite. George Martin knew it could be a hit but felt it should probably be released as a McCartney single.
'I actually went to Brian and said: "What are you going to call this? Is it Paul McCartney?" And he looked at me very sternly and said: "No. It is the Beatles." He did not want to divide his holy quartet. Though it wasn't the Beatles at all, it had to remain so, as part of their recordings. I don't think it irritated Paul at the time, because he considered himself to be a Beatle above all other things.'
Epstein might have resisted Martin's lobbying for a solo credit because, as Beatles manager, he was wary of McCartney, an odd fact since Paul had a far more ambitious and pragmatic outlook than John in defining the Beatles' goal of world success. And Paul's musical tastes paralleled Epstein's.
Writing in his autobiography, A Cellarful of Noise, published in 1964, Brian summarized the caution with which he approached Paul:
Paul can be temperamental and moody and difficult to deal with but I know him very well and he me. This means that we compromise on our clash of personalities. He is a great one for not wishing to hear about things and if he doesn't want to know he switches himself off, settles down in a chair, puts one booted foot across his knee and pretends to read a newspaper, having consciously made his face an impassive mask.
But he has enormous talent and inside he has a great tenderness and great feeling which are sometimes concealed by an angry exterior. I believe that he is the most obviously charming Beatle with strangers, autograph hunters, fans and other artists. He has a magnificent smile and an eagerness both of which he uses, not for effect, but because he knows they are assets which will bring happiness to those around him.
Paul is very much a world star, very musical with a voice more melodic than John's, and therefore more commercially acceptable. Also, and this is vital to me, he has great loyalty to the other Beatles and to the organization around him. Therefore, I ignore his moods and hold him in high esteem. I would not care to lose him as a friend.
Not only did Epstein veto any suggestion that Paul should be named as a soloist on the record; he decreed that since it was not typical of the Beatles' sound, it should not even be released as a single. George Martin, carrying a torch for the song, knew better than to press for what he believed would have been democratic: a single released under Paul's name. But McCartney had no illusions. Considering himself part of a unit, he did not even bother to mention 'Yesterday' as a potential single. It was, he says now, too different from the Beatles' image in 1965 to be viewed as a bestselling British release.
It would have caused far too many ripples, and, in Paul's view, it was regarded by many 'insiders' to be too radical a departure from the Beatles' image to be considered. The Beatles were not yet ready to step outside their gilded musical cage; coming a year before their pathfinding album Revolver and two years before Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, 'Yesterday' was far too McCartney, far too much of a break with their tradition, and perhaps even too close to traditional popular music to be a blockbuster Beatles single for the masses. A more muscular sound was expected. And so, in Britain, 'Yesterday' was scheduled to join, illogically, the thirteen songs that formed the soundtrack album from the Beatles' film Help! Released in August 1965, this featured such future winning songs as 'You're Going to Lose That Girl' and 'You've Got to Hide Your Love Away'.
'We had a stupid policy, which seemed to make sense at the time,' says George Martin, 'that any track we put on an album was not to be issued as a single. And vice versa; a single made for that purpose did not go on an album.'
Because Beatles lyrics were scarcely scrutinized in the 1960s, the pathos of the song bypassed the critics. It was considered merely nostalgic, or even 'mawkish', Paul running amok with the treacle. Its deeper possibilities as a piece of writing from within Paul's psyche were lost, as they were on the Lennon film title track 'Help!'. Analysing that song later, after the Beatles years, John admitted that it was a cry from within himself during the wild experiences of Beatlemania. This marked a contrasting response by the two men to their success and how to deal with it. Paul says 'Yesterday' was not a commentary on his life in the Beatles, while John said 'Help!' was just that. Midway through the euphoria of the Beatles years, marching forward creatively, the two architects of the world's greatest pop group were exploring their inner selves in two of their most significant pieces of work. 'Yesterday' and 'Help!' were signposts, invisible at the time, that the Fab Four moptops were slowly emerging as individuals.
'Paul's song showed that there was life within the Beatles as well as the group identity,' George Martin says. 'What kept the Beatles head and shoulders above everyone else is that they were prepared to change, do different things. No one record was a carbon copy of another. We never fell into the Star Wars Two syndrome, remaking something under a new title.'
With 'Yesterday' lying virtually dormant on the Help! album, neither McCartney nor Martin had any vision of the golden future life of this maverick of a song. 'Paul had absolutely no idea of its potential and neither had I,' George Martin admits. 'I knew it was a good song and that making a record of it would be worthwhile, but I never could have predicted that it would eventually become such a classic.'
Flanked by its neighbouring tracks on the album, 'I've Just Seen a Face' and 'Dizzy Miss Lizzy', 'Yesterday' did not even attract much radio airplay in Britain. In a vintage year for pop records, it was considered by some to be a pleasing novelty sound, and some called it Paul's soppy indulgence. In later years, Beatles fans would carp at the running order on the Help! album which caused 'Yesterday' to precede the raucous 'Dizzy Miss Lizzy'. 'But we did that kind of thing for a reason,' Paul says, adding that sequencing was a co-operative decision which also involved George Martin. 'It was as if to say: "Ah, that was a nice soft ballad. But this is what we're like as well: rock 'n' roll"'
'Yesterday' generated more querulousness than serious analysis by the critics. A few gossips and national newspaper columnists, always hungry for a Beatles scandal, pointed out that McCartney had been in the studio alone and that this was the result: shock, horror, a solo Beatles performance with strings instead of Lennon, Harrison and Starr!
Were they splitting up? So soon? Was this the first chink of trouble in the ranks? The Beatles story had now been running successfully for two-and-a-half years, and that was reckoned to be quite enough for a pop act. The Beatles were special, but new heroes were needed: from America came the urgent sounds of Bob Dylan, praised to the hilt by McCartney and Lennon, and a profound influence on articulate writers like them.
The innovation of using a string quartet received very few merit points, either. 'Yesterday' was glossed over as an oddball, a gimmicky, tangential 'make-weight' for the soundtrack album of a film that attracted considerable attention.
A slice of deadpan humour marked the world live premiere of 'Yesterday' in Britain. John Lennon would later describe 1965 as his 'fat Elvis' period, in which he lived smugly in the stockbroker belt, twenty miles from London, 'like standing at a bus stop, waiting for something to happen'. Paul, gripped more by the northern ethic of aspiration and perspiration, worked harder than John. And they were still treading the boards of traditional British show business.
In retrospect, the idea of an act the size of the Beatles, who bestrode the world of show business like a colossus, playing a seaside theatre in England three years after their breakthrough seems incredible. But Epstein clung to his basic policy of covering all fronts, exploiting every record to the limit. And so the first of August 1965 found the Beatles at the ABC Theatre, Blackpool, for a live performance of an ITV all-round entertainment show called Blackpool Night Out. Joining them on the bill were such bastions of show-business orthodoxy as husband-and-wife singers Teddy Johnson and Pearl Carr, the Lionel Blair Dancers and comperes/comedians Mike and Bernie Winters. The bill was perfect evidence of Paul's contention that the Beatles were not a hardcore rock 'n' roll unit but were 'on the cusp' of show business and pop. No giant rock act of the 1970s and later would want to be seen on such a bill.
'Thank you,' said George Harrison's flat-vowelled voice on that TV show as the group finished 'Ticket to Ride' to loud applause. 'We'd like to do something now that we've never, ever done before. And it's a track off our new LP. And this song's called "Yesterday" . . . and so, for Paul McCartney of Liverpool, opportunity knocks? (George's words were a satirical dig at a well-established TV show of that title which was televised weekly in those years; its compere, Hughie Green, used seven such words to introduce the contestants.)
With backing tapes of strings, Paul, dressed neatly in the dark Beatles suit with black tie, performed his debut with considerable aplomb. The screams that followed caused John, as often, to murmur 'Shurrup' to the audience before wryly introducing their next number. In what could be seen as a gentle jibe at Paul's acoustic success, Lennon introduced 'Help!' as ' ... our latest record, or our latest electronic noise, depending on whose side you're on'.
It was extremely hip to be English in 1965, the year Swinging London was born. Ablaze in a kaleidoscope of multicoloured fresh fashions, Maty Quant's new creation the miniskirt and boutiques with names like Granny Takes a Trip and Hung on You, London was powered by a new optimism.
The year in which 'Yesterday' arrived in the recording studio was also the most fertile in popular music. The notion that 1967, the Summer of Love, with its headline-hitting flower power, kaftans and 'Hey, man' affability was as creative as 1965 is misplaced. A milestone though it was, the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967, together with the hippy dream of Haight-Ashbuty, San Francisco, and George Harrison's persuasive forays into Indian music, did not compare with the eventfulness of the year of 1965. That year yielded an intensity, a synergy and a body of pop music classics unequalled.
Restlessness and creativity were all round us in 1965. It was not all good news, but the backdrop of events for the year formed the most perfect snapshot to define a remarkable decade. Sir Winston Churchill died, aged ninety-one. President Lyndon Johnson sent US warplanes to North Vietnam in January. Six months later, at precisely the time Paul was in the studio recording 'Yesterday', America's first ground troops went to fight Vietcong bases.
In London, a very hip photographer named David Bailey astonished the media by wearing not a suit but a crewneck sweater at his marriage to actress Catherine Deneuve. Today such a casual look sounds like a non-event. In 1965 it was a significant news item, reflecting the New Liberation. Liverpool won the FA Cup for the first time. Edward Heath succeeded Sir Alec Douglas-I Home as leader of the Conservative Party, while the Labour Government of Beatle-admiring Premier Harold Wilson announced an 'experimental' 70mph speed limit.
Three months before McCartney was in the studio recording 'Yesterday', 'Mods' and 'Rockers' had been rampaging along the seafront at Brighton, chucking deckchairs at each other. Lunch for two at one of Paul's favoured restaurants, the tile-floored Trattoria Terrazza in Romilly Street, Soho ('The chic-est, despite Swinging London's fickleness,' said Queen magazine), cost under £4 for two, including wine. At the Savoy Grill, also with a glass or two, lunch was £6.
The Savoy Hotel was where Bob Dylan held court that year. With his songs 'Blowin' in the Wind' and 'The Times They Are a-Changin" already established as anthems, he renounced his role as exclusively a folk singer, adopting rock 'n' roll in 1965 with the electric ignition of a sensational new single, 'Subterranean Homesick Blues', and the landmark album Bringing It All Back Home.
Sounds as vital as that, as evolutionary as 'Yesterday', were all over the airwaves in 1965 and made Friday night viewing of Ready Steady Go! (the ITV programme hosted by Cathy McGowan and Keith Fordyce) mandatory. Here were the Righteous Brothers with the majestic beauty of the orchestral sound produced by Phil Spector on 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin". McCartney's early favourites the Everly Brothers, returning with the beauty of 'Love Is Strange'. Sonny and Cher gave us the catchy T Got You Babe', and the magic of Tamla Motown was never more forceful, with the Supremes offering 'Stop! In the Name of Love' and 'Back in My Arms Again', plus Junior Walker's 'Shotgun', the Temptations 'My Girl', and the Miracles singing the Smokey Robinson jewel, 'Tracks of My Tears'.
The Walker Brothers made their impact with Scott Walker's resonant vocal on 'Make It Easy on Yourself' and 'My Ship Is Coming In'. There was the Lovin' Spoonful with 'Do You Believe in Magic?', the Byrds' 'Turn, Turn, Turn', Dusty Springfield's 'Some of Your Lovin" and Stevie Wonder's 'Uptight (Even-thing's Alright)'.
Georgie Fame's splendidly upbeat 'Yeh Yeh' contrasted with the Rolling Stones' earliest compositions by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, their anthems 'The Last Time' and '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction'. The Yardbirds began a string of hits with 'For Your Love' — their guitarist, Eric Clapton, thought it was too brazenly commercial, so he quit in order to join an authentic blues band. From America came more masterpieces such as Martha and the Vandellas' 'Nowhere to Run' and the Drifters' 'At the Club'.
The year of 1965 had begun with the Who, whom Paul McCartney nominated at that time his favourite group, launching their stuttering, barrier-breaking sound on 'I Can't Explain', followed by 'Anyway Anyhow Anywhere' and, by the year's end, the sound of 'My Generation', with Pete Townshend's visionary line, 'Hope I die before I get old.' In America, three British acts reached the top with unlikely songs: Herman's Hermits with 'I'm Henry VIII I Am'; the Dave Clark Five with 'Over and Over'; and Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders with 'Game of Love'.
Thirty years later, such acts would reunite for concerts with names like the Solid Gold Sixties Tour, attracting packed concert halls around Britain. It was that kind of year. If the Beatles had begun pop's revolution in 1963, they were still at its cutting edge two years on, for they completed 1965 with Rubber Soul. Featured here were such inventive perennials as 'Michelle', 'In My Life', 'Girl', 'I'm Looking Through You', 'Norwegian Wood.' and 'Run for Your Life'. The birth certificate of 'Yesterday' was set amid pop's halcyon days.
In middle-of-the-road music, which the battalions of Beatles and Rolling Stones fans were alarmed to see had not been ejected by the revolution, well-crafted songs abounded. And a huge audience proved that straight popular music had an endless shelf life. Tom Jones made his first big impact with 'It's Not Unusual'. The Seekers scored with 'The Carnival Is Over', Val Doonican with 'Walk Tall'. And the surprise biggest-selling British single of 1965 was a ballad, 'Tears', sung by Liverpool-born comedian Ken Dodd. Originally recorded by Rudy Vallee in 1929, Dodd's version sold a million, stayed at the top of the chart for six weeks, and polarized adults and teenagers.
And it was another British male singer, Matt Monro, who was first to make 'Yesterday' a hit single. This highly respected ballad-singer, who had enjoyed a substantial hit with 'Portrait of My Love' to begin his illustrious career, was managed by Don Black, who would later join the executive staff of Brian Epstein's organization. Monro, a big admirer of the Beatles and especially of Paul's melodic strengths, was also produced on the Parlophone label by George Martin.
Sitting at his home in Wembley, north London, watching the Beatles on Blackpool Night Out, Monro was captivated by 'Yesterday' and by Paul's singing. Next day he phoned George Martin to ask when the song was to be released as a single. Puzzled at being told there were no plans to do so, Monro jumped in: 'Can I do it, then?' He did not, however, intend it to be his new single.
Going into the studio, Monro asked Martin if he would write the score. That was most difficult,' Martin recalls, 'because I had already scored it for Paul and I didn't want to do it any other way. I did re-score it for Matt, and produced his record with a string orchestra. We had French horn and I changed the harmonies. All the things Paul would hate were there, but it worked for Matt Monro'.
The singer's widow, Mickie, remembers that he planned its inclusion on his next album. She attended his session and clearly recalls his elation when he had sung the song for the first time. 'Immediately he realized how beautiful it was and he thought it would make a very good single.' There was no opposition from Paul or anyone in the Beatles camp; a strong ballad had been 'covered' appropriately by the country's foremost male solo singer.
'Yesterday' achieved its first British chart entry with the mellow-voiced Matt Monro. Entering the Top 50 of the Record Retailer, then Britain's music trade weekly, on 21 October 1965, his single peaked at number eight, staying in the chart for twelve weeks.
The whole feeling of the ballad, robust yet sensitive, was perfectly tailored for the pure baritone voice of Monro, who loved to enunciate every vowel and consonant with a precision he had learned from studying Frank Sinatra albums. Paul McCartney does not have a favourite version of the song but he certainly greatly admires this, a remarkable testimony to Monro given the huge diversity of styles that were to follow in the interpretation of the song.
'There were certain songs Matt would never leave out of his stage show and from that moment, "Yesterday" was sung whenever he gave a performance,' Mickie Monro says. He went on to record four other McCartney compositions, 'Michelle', 'All My Loving', 'Here, There and Everywhere' and 'The Long and Winding Road', 'but "Yesterday" remained very special to him.'
Monro adopted the song as part of a short theatrical routine in his concerts. He carried a special stool with him, and over the piano introduction to 'Yesterday' he pulled the stool towards him, looking apprehensively towards it. The stool was too high for his short frame. He tipped it towards him to hit the height of his bottom and then slid up to it. Then he would start 'Yesterday' on an artificially high note: 'all my troubles seemed so far away . . . ' and then, looking down to the floor, 'Now it looks as though they're here to stay.'
While Matt Monro's single was being prepared for release, the second cover version, the first by a female, was recorded. At nineteen, Marianne Faithfull had achieved a meteoric rise in pop music. Discovered by Rolling Stones co-manager Andrew Old-ham, she enjoyed a British and American hit with 'As Tears Go By', a ballad which, like 'Yesterday', was hardly typical of the work of its composers, Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It featured a full orchestral sound to accompany Faithfull's wavering, little-girl vocal.
With her husband, art gallery owner John Dunbar, Marianne Faithful was part of Paul McCartney's coterie and at her invitation he attended her recording session on 11 October 1965.* Featuring a 100-voice choir and sweeping strings, Marianne Faithfull gave the song a hymnal quality and, like many female singers to follow her, rephrased the lyric to indicate her belief that it was purely a love song: 'Why he had to go, I don't know, he didn't say . . .'
But while Marianne Faithfull was recording, Matt Monro's version was already climbing the British chart. Her version was rash-released and entered the Top 50 on 4 November 1965, peaking at thirty-six and remaining in the chart for four weeks.
Still the Beatles' version remained consigned to the Help! album. But America saw it differently, more commercially. Its route to a very different status in the US came about through a situation which the Beatles, George Martin and Brian Epstein abhorred -
* - Marianne Faithfull's recording session took place at Decca Records' studios in West Hampstead, London, where on New Year's Day 1962 the Beatles had failed an audition for the label. It was at Marianne's session that Paul met the producer-arranger Mike Leander, whom Paul invited eighteen months later to score his new song 'She's Leaving Home' when George Martin was busy at a Cilla Black recording session.
the assumed autonomy of the Capitol record label, which released their music in the US and Canada.
Since their earliest successes, the Beatles had proudly and astutely charted their own destiny, particularly in deciding what went on to their albums, what singles would be released and at what time; and what cover art would grace their work. They liked to set their own pace, tone, and timing of what came from the studio. In America, Capitol, which had initially been reluctant to accept the Beatles, had adopted a far more aggressive policy of marketing, and, as George Martin recalls: 'Having refused to take the Beatles three times in their early days, once they did sign them they assumed power of life and death over their work. They acted as though they alone had produced and created them. They rearranged all the songs on the albums I did with the Beatles, took titles off and put together extra albums.' Such unilateralism infuriated the Beatles and everyone around them but they were powerless to stop it; the contract gave Capitol complete freedom.
For 'Yesterday', however, that assertive American policy was about to work with a fine strategy. The Beatles had triumphed in the US a year later than in their homeland, so by 1965, enormously popular though they were, Americans still regarded them as a teen-appeal rock 'n' roll group. The USA certainly did not expect a quiet ballad like 'Yesterday' to come from the Beatles.
But Capitol decided to issue it as a single. As its partnered B-side, they chose the Ringo Starr vocal on 'Act Naturally', which was a stage favourite. Recorded on the same day as the 'Yesterday' string and vocal overdub, and featuring Paul harmonizing and George Harrison playing guitar, this had been a number one country and western hit for singer Buck Owens. A lively song about show-business success, it was a buoyant contrast with the introspection of 'Yesterday'.
There was a precedent for the American decision. A record called 'A Lover's Concerto', sung by a female trio called the Toys, was getting a lot of radio play. Based on Bach's Minuet in G, the song was one of the first mergers of pop with the classics. It would eventually become a million-seller and reach number two in the American charts, causing eyebrows to be raised by classical music buffs.
'Yesterday' was released in the US on 31 September 1965, two weeks after the Beatles' twenty-five-city tour of the USA and Canada. Billboard, the leading US music trade magazine, reviewed the single on 11 September 1965 in its 'Top Twenty Spotlights' section, which featured records expected to reach the top division of the publication's Hot Hundred best-sellers. 'Paul goes it alone,' Billboard said, 'on a Dylan-styled piece of material. Backed by strings, he displays a rich, warm ballad style. Good sound.' Paul's ground-breaker was reviewed alongside future hits by Herman's Hermits ('Just a Little Bit Better') and Dino, Desi and Billy ('Not the Lovin' Kind').
Not surprisingly, 'Yesterday' found no place in the twelve songs chosen by the Beatles to perform during their American concerts. No one would have known the song. Indeed, it would not be performed by the Beatles in conceit anywhere in 1965. But Paul, particularly, was pleased when Capitol told him it was going to be released as a single. Would he, they asked politely, consider singing it on The Ed Sullivan Show} The power of that television programme was huge, as the Beatles knew from the previous year, when 73 million had watched their US debut and Beatlemania had begun in the US as a direct result.
Recorded on 14 August and televized to the US by CBS-TV on the night of 12 September, by which time the Beatles had returned to Britain, Paul's first performance of the song on US soil was received rapturously. After the familiar 'Ticket to Ride', George Harrison stepped up to the microphone and, in the dull choice of words that marked all their comments to their audiences, he intoned: 'Thank you very much . .. we'd like to carry on now with a song from our new album in England and it will be out in America shortly. And it's a song featuring just Paul, and it's called "Yesterday".'
When the screaming from the studio audience subsided, Paul's voice sounded light and confident against his acoustic guitar and a taped background of strings. When John Lennon stepped up to the microphone after Paul's performance he sounded a mite envious, or determined to prick Paul's pride. 'Thank you, Paul,' Lennon said. 'That was just like him.'
The timing of that television screening was perfect. 'Yesterday' as a single was released across America the very next day. For millions of Americans watching, it was an extraordinary moment in the escalating Beatles story. Here was an adult piece of popular music from those cute moptops who had seized the hearts of the young. 'Hey,' said parents of Beatles people and other observers. 'Maybe those noisy Beatles can actually play real music!'
When I look at the footage,' Paul says now, 'I wonder how I ever got the nerve to step out front and sing that on The Ed Sullivan Show.'' It must have been the swagger of youth, he believes, that carried him through. Reviewing that Sullivan show appearance, the New York Times noted that the song 'had the haunting quality of a folk lament that left the girls in the studio a little uncertain as to how they were supposed to react'.
It was, also, the most significant solo moment for any Beatle, since hitherto they had all been careful not to instigate anything that might cause rivalry. 'It was slightly strange for me. It might have looked as if I was trying to be Cliff Richard. In the band, nobody had ever been the front man. We used to kind-of fight about it in Hamburg, in those late-night bars. "Who's gonna be the leader? We've got to have a leader for the group."'
They would all demur, Paul remembers. 'Some people, like Bert Kaempfert in Hamburg, would want to pull me out. And Allan Williams - I remember one drunken evening saying to him: "No way, man. Get outta here! It's a band. You take us all or nothing." They thought: he could be the front guy, the Cliff Richard. He's cute. He could have the girls screaming at him. I was inside that shell, living a completely different life, but one or two people said can we make it Paul and the Beatles? I said: "No, way, it was a verboten thing. No no no no no. No question of that." Then people asked if John could be called the leader. Larry Parnes had wanted to pull John out. It was Long John and the Silver Beatles. No, we said, it's all or nothing. We were a foursome.*
Recording 'Yesterday' as a single track for an album - 'I think we all regarded it as a filler on the Help! album,' says Paul - 'was one thing. But stepping out front with it on television in the USA was different.' It wasn't even the Beatles featuring Paul McCartney, though the record label said, absurdly: The Beatles. Unmistakably, this was McCartney alone.
* - The popular German bandleader Bert Kaempfert, who wrote Frank Sinatra's world hit 'Strangers in the Night', signed the Beatles to their first record contract, with Deutsche Grammophon, during their Hamburg years. Allan Williams was the Beatles' first manager, in Liverpool. Larry Parnes promoted their first tour anywhere (of Scotland).
The old bugbear had come back,' Paul says. I felt: I hope they don't think I'm stepping out, because there was always that danger in taking a solo. There was an unwritten law that you didn't do it.'
Fuelled by the massive boost of the coast-to-coast Ed Sullivan Shaw performance, 'Yesterday' was an instant, colossal hit. Soaring into the Billboard magazine Hot Hundred, the record entered at number forty-five on 25 September 1965. The next week it had leapt to number three, sandwiched between Barry McGuire's antiwar song 'Eve of Destruction' (at number two) and Britain's Dave Clark Five with the vapid 'Catch Us if You Can' (at number four).
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The next week, 9 October, 'Yesterday' sat proudly atop the American singles chart, having ousted the tramping beat song 'Hang On Sloopy' by the McCoys. After occupying the top position for four weeks, 'Yesterday' was displaced by the Rolling Stones' 'Get off of My Cloud'. 'Yesterday' dropped back to number three, then eleven, twelve, thirteen and twenty-six, ending up where it had entered, at number forty-five, before disappearing from the chart after a creditable run of eleven weeks. In its first ten days of American release it had sold a million copies and its final sales totalled more than double that figure in the US alone.
Such was the spectacular impact of the Beatles by 1965 that Paul says he does not recall being especially surprised when 'Yesterday' hit the top in the US. 'We'd had so much practice at being good and succeeding. I call it a staircase. We started off in Liverpool, where it went wild at the Cavern. We went to Hamburg, nothing happened to start with, then we were IT. We went to Peterborough and places like that. From nothing at those places, we were IT. In dance-halls, suddenly we were the act. On television and radio shows, suddenly we were the act they were asking back. So I think surprise isn't quite the right word.
'People always say to me: do you think you and John were great? I say: "We were fantastic"; and people used to think we were conceited. You have to have a certain amount of conceit if you've done that well. It would be kind of stupid, goofy, to say we're no good. It was embarrassing, though, because we were supposed to say [adopts proper English accent]: "Oh yes, I was very surprised."
'But I don't think we were. I don't think I was. We had a hell of a lot of confidence in ourselves. And it was difficult not to have confidence if you look at that staircase, the track record. Everywhere we'd gone had gone on fire. So we got used to being The Ones. The group out of Liverpool, the group out of England, the group in America, the group in every country in the whole world. Once you've conquered the whole world, nothing surprises you. Even your solo zooming to the top.'
'Yesterday"s life on albums, however, continued to be bizarre. While the British album Help! sold a quarter of a million very quickly, a future even stranger than its British destiny awaited the song on an American album. Capitol, having excised it from the US soundtrack album for the Help! movie, waited until June 1966 to schedule its release within the most controversially packaged album in Beatles history.
The title was accurate enough: using the hit single as a promotional thrust, Capitol called it Yesterday . . . And Today. The packaging of the LP was radical, confronting the Beatles' safe image in the rapidly changing psychedelic era. The album cover, which was to pass into Beatles folklore, was both weird and shocking, and became known as the 'butcher cover'.
In a photographic studio at 1 The Vale, Chelsea on 25 March 1966, one of their regular photographers, Robert Whitaker, decided to experiment by dressing the Beatles in butcher's smocks and draping them with lumps of bloody meat. Plastic dolls, torn limb from limb and smeared with blood from the oozing flesh, completed the props for the smiling Beatles. Though he had not thought of the idea, John Lennon was the happiest of the four about the plan, believing it would help debunk their cuddly mop-top image. His sick sense of humour delighted in the unfolding drama.
The gory pictures that Whitaker took were a clumsy attempt to redefine the Beatles, conceptualizing their appearance. John Lennon told me he considered the hideous picture 'as relevant as Vietnam', and Paul, in a remark which would probably embarrass him today, commented: 'Very tasty meat'.
George Harrison described the picture session as 'sick', but John added that the Beatles did not mind doing anything that was interesting. A colour picture from the session, front-paged by Disc and Music Echo, drew a mixed response from British fans. Complaints that it was disgusting contrasted with a description of the picture as showing 'harmony, loyalty and a perfect understanding of each other'. Some readers wrote that they were becoming vegetarians immediately as a result, and that the Beatles should be ashamed of such 'hideous gimmickry'.
It was hardly high art, more a poke at the established Beatles imagery. But in America, when the albums went from Capitol Records' printers to disc jockeys, Beatles regional fan club presidents, and record reviewers in the media, phone calls expressing fury poured into the Los Angeles and New York offices of Capitol.
Quickly withdrawing the album, the record company spent a weekend extricating 750,000 records from their 'butcher covers', replacing the sleeves with a new, anodyne picture of the Beatles standing around a trunk in the office of Brian Epstein, who was livid at the furore. But before all the offending covers could be dumped, some got through the net with the new picture simply stuck over the controversial shot. Some of the butcher covers therefore arrived in the shops in disguise and fans who bought these acquired what became a prized collectors' item among Beatles students. It continues to be so.
In Hollywood, Capitol Records boss Alan Livingston made a statement: 'The original cover, created in England, was intended as pop art satire. A sampling of public opinion in the United States indicates that the design is open to misinterpretation.' Photographer Whitaker explained that in instigating the photo session he had 'wanted to do a real experiment . . . the use of a camera as a means of creating situations'.
Although Yesterday . . . And Today was at the top of the US charts for most of the summer of 1966, featuring Paul's anthemic title, it was the first and only Beatles album to lose money for Capitol. The cover-art operation had cost an estimated $250,000 in labour pay for the factory workers, together with printing and transport costs.
At the time, Paul described critics of the butcher cover as 'soft'. It was the fate of his special song to be caught up in that album controversy, alongside its arrival on the music landscape as a watershed in Beatles music. Its impact on the psyche of America in 1965, and on the rest of the world beyond that year, was to be overwhelming.