The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #30: Yesterday by The Beatles (RS)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #30: Yesterday by The Beatles.

“Yesterday” by The Beatles was written and released in 1964. It was written during the filming of The Beatles’ first movie, “Help!” and was included on the soundtrack/album of the same name. “Yesterday” was written by Paul McCartney and stands as an important song in the overall evolution of the band. What makes “Yesterday” so important has little to do with the song, itself but more, what the song represented in the “bigger picture” of what it meant to be a Beatle. We all know how the story of The Beatles ended up five years or so after “Help!” hit the theatre screens. But, have you ever wondered when the first step was taken that resulted in the band breaking up and not being on good terms? Well, many people point to “Yesterday” as being that initial fissure. So, let’s jump into the midst of this discussion and find out how true the rumours are. Here is the story of “Yesterday” by The Beatles.

“Yesterday” is a song about a young man who has done or said something wrong and is pining away to reverse course and return things to the way they once were. At the time of pre-production for the film, “Help!”, The Beatles were known as “The Fab Four”. Everything they did, they did together. The rush of stardom affected them all as one group. They dressed the same. They sang as one voice. And, of course, they all sported the same mop-top haircut. Paul McCartney and John Lennon had co-written all of their hit songs up until that point. The decision to branch off into movies, made after watching Elvis do the same in the US, was a decision that they had all agreed would be a good way to introduce the band and their music to a wider audience. Although unrelated, the boys in the band were all friends, almost like brothers, if you will.

At that time, Paul McCartney had a girlfriend named Jane Asher, who was an actress, among many other things. It was while staying at her family home, with her parents, that McCartney woke from a dream with the tune for “Yesterday” complete in his head. He rushed to get up and immediately sat at the piano that Asher’s family had and he began to play the tune. It was so fully formed that, at first, McCartney assumed it must already exist somewhere and he had inadvertently heard it and was simply reproducing it from his subconscious. So, even with the tune fully realized, McCartney sat on the song for several weeks. He played it for a few people and each time asked them if they had heard the tune before. None of them had. Eventually, he decided to play it for the band and begin the process of writing lyrics and making it a “Beatles” song. To a person, all members of the band disliked the song. Their reasoning was that it is a complete departure from anything the band had recorded and released up until that point. But, Paul McCartney pushed forward on his own, anyway. He spent every spare moment during the filming of “Help!” to rehearse and flesh out the lyrics. This infuriated the film’s director who accused McCartney of being self-interested and not caring enough to put his best effort into the film. The other members of the Beatles agreed. When Paul McCartney had finally finished the lyrics and played the song for George Martin, the rest of the band walked away from the song. They declared that it was a Paul McCartney solo song and not a Beatles song. Martin knew it was a different sound for The Beatles but, he relented and agreed with Paul, providing, of course, that Paul would add some orchestral flourishes that Martin had in mind. At first, Paul disagreed, thinking that it was more of a solo piano song but, in the end, in order to get Martin’s seal of approval, Paul McCartney relented. George Martin added the strings and other touches and the song, as we know it, came to be. That still didn’t please John, George or Ringo who made a stand and declared that they would not abide by “Yesterday” being released as a single under The Beatles name. So, in the UK, it was held off. If you look at the track listing for “Help!”, you will see that “Yesterday” is the second last song on Side #2….hardly a prime position for any song that had a chance of being a hit. That track listing was traditionally set aside for songs considered to be “filler”. But, in the US, the American distribution wing of The Beatles empire operated with a bit more latitude that did Abbey Road Studios so, “Yesterday” was released as single in America. It raced to the top of the charts and stayed there for several weeks. It was only when US success could no longer be ignored, that “Yesterday” was released in the UK, where it became a hit as well.

That “Yesterday” was the first instance of discord among the Fab Four, does not make it a bad song and it does also not make Paul McCartney the villain in starting the band down a road that would eventually lead them to an acrimonious breakup. But, what “Yesterday” did do was to introduce the idea of individuality in a group setting. It was the first case of one of the guys pursuing their own interest on “company time”, as it were. When Paul McCartney used breaks during the filming of “Help!” to work incessantly on “Yesterday”, he sent a signal that told the rest of the band that all-for-one-and-one-for-all was not necessarily the motto anymore. As time went on in the later half of the 60s, it is far easier to find instances where The Beatles members were pursuing their own objectives, as opposed to working toward cohesive, group-oriented goals. George Harrison going to India and John Lennon doing his bed-ins for peace with Yoko Ono are but, two, obvious examples. One of the things that struck me most when I watched the “Get Back” documentary on Disney + awhile back was the degree to which being a Beatle had changed and had become a job that each member checked in and out of each day, like punching a time clock, as opposed to the adventure that it had been for all of them in the beginning. Sometimes, people who have been together simply grow apart in time. That appears to be what happened with The Beatles. And, if there was a moment when their gaze transitioned from inward to outward, it was when Paul McCartney woke from a dream one night and decided he had to write this song and bring it to fruition, regardless of all else that was going on with the band that he was an important part of.

“Yesterday” has gone on to be one of the most loved songs in the entire Beatles catalogue. In fact, it holds a place in the Guinness Book of Records for being the most covered song of all-time; wth over two thousand cover versions out there in the world for us to enjoy, should we care to look. “Yesterday” also holds the distinction of being the first Beatles song written and performed by only one member, without any contribution from the other members of the band. It was also the first Beatles song to incorporate an element of Classical music in it when George Martin added on all of the violins. It was a song like “Yesterday”, with its mixture of Pop and Classical, that would be held up as inspiration a few years later when songs like “Nights in White Satin” by The Moody Blues, became a big hit. All in all, “Yesterday” is a lovely song and can happily stand on its own as being an excellent, well-crafted song. But, it will be forever regarded, by those who loved The Beatles and bemoaned what became of them, as being the first signs of a schism in a relationship that, until that time, seemed more like family.

The link to the video for the song, “Yesterday” by The Beatles, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Beatles, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for supporting all manner of bands and artists. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

6 thoughts on “The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #30: Yesterday by The Beatles (RS)”

  1. Once again I find myself learning the backstory of much of the music that was so much a part of my teens.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: