We have already witnessed what Paul McCartney can do with only his eyes. Now watch as he makes sweet love to you with the power of only his eyebrows.
Did I even need to throw in a video? Or were you already singing along in your heads before you even got that far? Or maybe you were singing one of the over 3,000 cover versions that have been recorded (for this is the most frequently covered song ever, according to the Guinness Book of World Records). If you were thinking of a cover, do yourself a favor and play the video again to cleanse your brain out, because you need to be reminded that no one-- NO ONE-- does this better than Paul. (This is actually a good rule of thumb for Beatles covers, period, with very very very very few exceptions.)
Because, see, despite any sarcasm or whatever, I really love "Yesterday." How could I not love "Yesterday?" I'd have to turn in my Beatles fan card if I didn't. It's just that it's so darned DAUNTING to attempt to say anything about this song. That's true of the rest of the Beatles catalog, too, but "Yesterday" is kind of different. It's like it's a miracle that it even exists. And for me, it summons up a weird mixture of reverence and that not-quite-contemptuous contempt that familiarity can breed. (In that way it's sort of like Roman Catholicism for me-- the religion that I was brought up with, but don't have much to do with anymore. Sorry, I can't think of a less clunky analogy.)
In a gigantic nutshell, the story of how pop music's crowning achievement got written is that Paul woke up one morning in the summer of 1964 with it playing in his head. It must be nice to be a genius, right? Although I do kind of understand this. I have obviously never written anything even a little bit on par with "Yesterday" (else I'd be writing this post from my estate in Mallorca) but I do write poems here and there. (I went to grad school for it. Clearly, that degree is being put to good use here in blogland.) And I know from experience that if you're in a period when you're working hard on your writing and just taking the time and making the effort to be super creative, art can sometimes come to you like this, with no apparent effort at all. But it's actually the culmination of all the work you've already done. Your subconscious just had to release the spigot so it could get out there, and that can happen any time, usually when least expected. Sometimes it happens while you're sleeping. Which is why it's smart to keep a notebook by one's bed, or, if you're Paul, a piano. If you do anything creative yourself, you probably already know this.
So anyway, once Paul had recorded the melody that was to become "Yesterday," he made sure as best he could that he hadn't accidentally stolen it from someone else, because even in its infancy the melody sounded like a well-honed classic. When it was clear that it was all his, he dithered with it further, putting off writing real lyrics to it (which is why it was called "Scrambled Eggs" for a long while) and flummoxing the other Beatles when the lyrics were finally written as to how to record the thing. The song seemed so soft and wussy and old-timey that the band just couldn't figure out what to do with it and how to put it into their own idiom, though at least they recognized a killer song when they heard it and decided against scrapping it. (Paul at one point offered the song to some other English pop singer of the time, and the guy turned it down because it was too soft. I don't remember that guy's name. Hey, you know what would have helped me remember his name? If he had been the first freaking artist to record "Yesterday." What an idiot.)
Even if someone had beaten the Beatles to the punch, though, I doubt what's-his-name or anyone at all could ever beat the version that they did finally come up with. "Yesterday" is the first Beatles song that features just one Beatle (there would be more), Paul on his acoustic guitar and an unharmonized vocal. It's also the first strings arrangement on a Beatles song, featuring a string quartet scored by producer George Martin. Every element of the song is a model of a perfect understatement, which is why it all works so goshdarned well. Paul's voice is simple and plaintive. The guitar is a mere whisper. The strings capture malaise with eloquent economy: there's not one note in the arrangement that feels unnecessary, not one painfully yanked heartstring. (Contrast this with "She's Leaving Home" and you immediately hear George Martin's importance to the clean Beatley aesthetic, not to mention his sheer genius.)
Still and all, the other three Beatles vetoed releasing "Yesterday" as a single. (It got a release in the U.S. just because Capitol didn't give a damn about the Beatles' wishes.) The song ended up as the penultimate track on the B side of Help! I know this is pretty much impossible, but try to imagine never having heard this song before. You've been to see Help! with your girlfriends and have been nursing dreams ever since of snuggling with your favorite Beatle in that comfortable looking pit that John sleeps in. And now you're playing your hot-off-the-presses soundtrack album. Right after "I've Just Seen a Face" (which made you swoon to the point of needing to sit down), another acoustic number comes on, much slower... I mean, does your jaw drop? It sounds a little bit like something your parents would listen to, but that's PAUL singing it, and, um, wow. What does it sound like? Does it sound like history in the making? I don't know. But it's interesting to think about.
And, you know, when I really listen to "Yesterday"-- when I'm not just tolerating some crappy version of it playing in a department store-- I can really hear what an achievement it is. It's easy to take for granted, but nevertheless... well, wow.
"Yesterday," released in the U.K. side B track 6 of Help!, August 6, 1965; in the U.S. side A track 6 of the abomination known as Yesterday and Today, June 20, 1966.