Shortly before his death in 1980, John Lennon noted that the lyrics are “…good, but if you read the whole song, it doesn’t say anything. You don’t know what happened. She left and he wishes it were yesterday, that much you get, but it doesn’t really resolve… I don’t believe in yesterday. Life begins at 40, so they promise, and I believe it. What’s going to come?”
Officially credited to “Lennon/McCartney” the song with “Scrambled Eggs” as its working title, was written solely by Paul McCartney, whose initial concern was that he had subconsciously plagiarized someone else’s work. When nobody claimed it he began to tinker with it and write lyrics to suit while the Beatles were working on “Help,” which apparently annoyed director Richard Lester, who told McCartney to finish with it or he would have the piano that had been placed on the film’s sound stages removed.
“Blimey,” said George Harrison, “he’s always talking about that song. You’d think he was Beethoven or somebody.”
Accompanied by a string quartet, the succinctly titled “Yesterday” was finally recorded at Abbey Road Studios, four days before his 23rd birthday in 1965. As McCartney was the only Beatle to appear on the track it was essentially a solo performance. As a result, the other band members refused to permit its release as a single in the UK.
Their veto didn’t hold sway in the US, however and not only did the resulting single top the Billboard Charts for a full month, it went on to become the most played song on America’s airwaves for a consecutive eight years. By the time “Yesterday” finally hit the British charts a full ten months after the premier of “Help,” English crooner, Matt Monro had already had a top ten UK hit with his, the first of many, cover versions. In fact, “Yesterday” remains one of the most covered and recorded songs in history; voted as the Best Song of the 20th Century by a BBC Radio 2 expert listener poll, and the Number One Pop Song Ever by both MTV and Rolling Stone.
Not that it hasn’t received it’ share of criticism. The freewheelin’ but sometimes inscrutable Bob Dylan claimed not to like it. “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.” Dylan is said to have recorded his own version but it was never released.
Recorded by ABC TV (and distributed by ITV) as a promotion for “Help” on the 1 August 1965 broadcast of “Blackpool Night Out,” this was McCartney and the lads’ first performance of “Yesterday” on British television.
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 to 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