Monday, April 27, 2009


The recent outbreak of swine flu, while tragic, helped put "Piggies" in my head this morning. But it turns out I've already covered it, and it would probably just be a temptation to indulge in too much irreverence anyway. So what the hell. Instead, today I'll listen to "Yesterday" for the 3,852,063rd time.

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.


  1. You touch on something really fascinating to me with this post. Touch on it a few times, in fact. Wait, lemme start over.

    I am not the biggest Yesterday fan in the world. I don't listen to it much, only to expose my kid to it. I listened to it a lot before, when I really liked it. But I listened to a lot of other songs a million times, and I still listen to some of them.

    (Not-tangential tangent: Stop judging me! You're like what, not even 30? I'm 30-freaking-8! Wait until you're old like me. Although you seem to pretty genuinely love this song. Actually, you'll probably always love it. OK, scratch that. Back to the comment.)

    You wrote: "The song seemed so soft and wussy and old-timey ..." And "It sounds a little bit like something your parents would listen to, but that's PAUL singing it ..." And "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."

    Here's the payoff pitch: Did you ever stop to wonder how much you love this song because it's the Beatles, or it's Paul when Paul was in the Beatles? Did you ever listen to track 8 on some disc by a band you really like, for the 15th time, and realize that if this track were by some band you'd never heard of, you wouldn't go out and buy the album, but because it's by this band you're crazy about, you LOVE it?

    Well, isn't it possible that we feel this way about some Beatle songs? Is it possible that we're wrong about how awesome For Sale is, and the people who think I Don't Want to Spoil the Party is mediocre are closer to the truth? If there are 3,000 cover versions, 3,000 different approaches to performing the song, and they all suck, isn't it possible that the song isn't all that great, and we just like hearing Paul sing it?

    Just saying.

  2. Also, if you're still in a rough mood, this ...

    ... should cheer you up. Unless it makes you even angrier.

  3. Meg, I'd be curious as to which very, very, etc. exceptions to the "Don't bother with covers of Beatles songs" rule of thumb exist?

    Troy, I call "fake" on some of those reviews. But I love the line "Who would buy this when you have Pink?" Says it all, I think.

  4. My favorite was "Rich guys puttering! Who needs it?" I cracked up. Doesn't that describe every album ever, practically?

    I work in book publishing and end up on Amazon a lot (it's where publishers go to spy on the rest of the industry) and I love the one-star reviews. My favorites are the people who kvetch about my company's books not having pictures. It says, frankly, volumes.

    Anyway, re: "Yesterday," maybe you have a point. But "Yesterday" is so much a part of mass culture that I can't even figure out an answer to your question. (It made writing this post really hard too. It's like I can't get out of the world of this song and be objective, no matter how much I try.) I will say that in calling the album lame and stuff, I was trying to take the point of view of others-- like, the other Beatles (who did think it was kind of weird) and of your average teenage girl in 1965. But maybe you're right-- like, OK, the Beatles used their gigantic fame and influence to introduce avant-garde sounds to the masses in Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, etc etc. That's an old story. Maybe the undertold story is that the Beatles also used their fame and influence to introduce slightly fay fare like this to teenagers and cast it as something cool. I would buy that on a more universal level. For me, I'm having a harder time grappling with it.

    And as for which Beatles' covers I can tolerate, the only one immediately coming to mind is Alison Kraus's "I Will." That one is TOLERABLE. But mainly I think covering Beatles songs is the height of preposterous arrogance. What-- you're gonna do it BETTER than the BEATLES?? Pshaw.

  5. Wait, I thought of something else to say re: this. I don't like the song BECAUSE it's the Beatles. I like the song because I think ONLY the Beatles could have handled a melody like this in a sophisticated, understated way that really makes it a masterpiece. The bad covers only prove that no one else understands how to do that. The melody is really just one part of the story-- the genius is in the handling.

    Also, we're not wrong about how awesome For Sale is. No way. In hell.