146) The Beatles – “Yesterday”

The Beatles have been ubiquitous for so long that it’s easy to take their best-known songs for granted. “Yesterday” in particular has reached saturation point, regularly topping “best song” polls and logging among the most recorded cover versions of any song. Its gentle acoustic style and backwards-looking lyrics place it among the handful of Beatles songs that even non-rock fans can like (Grandma included), fairly or not tinging it by association with the musty air of MOR boringness. It conforms to neither the band’s early rock and roll image nor their later reputation as musical innovators. Unlike the similarly overplayed “She Loves You” or “A Hard Day’s Night,” it’s not even danceable. The record wasn’t even released as a single in the UK, partly because Paul McCartney was the only Beatle to actually play on the record, but also because you suspect the rest of the band were embarrassed by how soft it sounded. It even has violins on it, for goodness sake. What is this – Mantovani?

But to listen to “Yesterday” with fresh ears — to hear it just as a song, without the associated baggage  — is to be surprised by its grace and ease. It’s almost certainly less saccharine and stodgy than you remember. The melody, despite its overfamiliarity, is still quite pretty, and George Martin’s production is smartly subdued. For all that’s been written about Bob Dylan’s influence on John Lennon during this period, at the time it was “Yesterday” that Billboard referred to as “a Dylan-styled piece of material.” And while Dylan himself had yet to release anything this pop-friendly, it does bear a loose similarity to his minimalist take on folk: vibrato-less vocals accompanied by a simple, repetitive pick-strum pattern on acoustic guitar. The strings are there, of course, but just a quartet, not a full strings section, and they are judiciously used – a few legato sighs, not unlike the harmony vocals that John and George would be singing, if the presence of other voices wouldn’t detract from the atmosphere of loneliness.

“Yesterday” isn’t too far from Lennon’s “Help!” either, which also idealizes a past free from the present’s troubles. But where “Help!” reflects Lennon’s tendency toward forthrightness and aggressive neediness, “Yesterday” is circumspect and insular. Instead of explicitly stating that he’s “not so self assured,” McCartney never gets more direct than “there’s a shadow hanging over me”; rather than pleading for help, he chooses to retreat (“I need a place to hide away”). Lennon complained that “Yesterday” was vague and lacked resolution, but its open-ended lyrics complement the music’s restraint. McCartney’s sorrow is all the sadder for not being spelled out, for hinting at hidden depths of melancholy without crossing into self-pity.

The gloom is also tempered by the interplay between major and minor keys. Each verse begins and ends in F major on the word “yesterday” or “suddenly,” situating McCartney in happier times, while the present is reframed in the relative key of D minor. In addition to detailing the narrator’s emotional rise and fall, the key-switching also gives “Yesterday” the lightness that keeps it from growing too dirgelike.

As The Beatles’ previous singles had helped reinvigorate rock and roll, “Yesterday” expands the band into pre-rock pop without going schmaltzy. In its own way, it’s just as experimental as the group’s later material by breaking away from what rock was supposed to be. It’s unfortunate, then, if unsurprising, that the “Yesterday” of today is simultaneously vaulted to warhorse status and dismissed with a yawn. “Yesterday” exists in a strange dimension where it’s both overplayed and underheard. It deserves a second (or ten-thousandth) listen to discover its gentle, melancholy beauty. 8

Hit #1 on October 9, 1965; total of 4 weeks at #1
146 of 1014 #1’s reviewed; 14.40% through the Hot 100

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11 Comments

Filed under 08, 1965

11 responses to “146) The Beatles – “Yesterday”

  1. Allison

    “Aggressive neediness” made me chuckle, but it’s true. That was definitely John Lennon in that strange midsection of the Beatles and maybe, some would argue, until he found Yoko (though probably others would argue he was always like that his whole life, which is probably true). It’s interesting that John Lennon himself always had a kind of vendetta against this song and can be heard on bootlegs parodying it and making fun of it. I think this song is really what started the great divide of the Beatles’ sound; later, it would be Paul with the poppier, more happy and lovely songs and ballads and John with the minor key introspective, more serious tunes. There was never a more bipolar single than “Strawberry Fields Forever” b/w “Penny Lane a double-A side. But I digress.

    Okay, you made me want to give it another chance.

  2. col1234

    well said, and i agree w/ Allison that this marks the start of the Lennon/Macca split, which is soon worsened by Lennon’s binge on LSD in ’66, which left him more interested in trying to capture on record what was in his head (“Tomorrow Never Knows,” even “Strawberry Fields”) while tacitly outsourcing the singles and running the band, essentially, to McCartney. I think the absolute bipolar Beatles single is “Hello Goodbye”/ “I am the Walrus.”

    When Yoko shows up, Lennon finally comes back to earth, but ironically that’s one reason that the band the band soon splits up (a more aggressive, back-to-basics Lennon, not Yoko herself).

  3. I believe “Tomorrow Never Knows” is a George song.

    It’s hard to believe that anything this good came about in Paul McCartney’s dream. If anything that cool happened in mine, I’d be hard-pressed to remember it.

  4. “Tomorrow Never Knows” does have the sort of raga rock sound that George used a lot ’66-’68, but it is a John Lennon song (as is “Norwegian Wood,” for that matter).

    I’m saving my “bipolar Beatles single” argument for “The Long and Winding Road”/”For You Blue.” That should get me plenty of time to come up with something.

  5. I just wrote (at Music Sounds Better With Two) about “Let It Be” and forgot to write about the divinely silly b-side, “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)” – they were forever contrasting this and that, leaving most other bands looking pretty monotonous, or perhaps more together.

    Great writing as always! I only wish I could write as well about how songs actually work.

  6. robertjlamb

    Also known amongst the cognoscenti for having a 7 bar refrain… count ’em!

  7. LeeAnn

    John Lennon really could be so unpleasant and needlessly nasty. He went around bashing this song but he was obsessed with it. In interviews, he brought it up all the time. He resented the song’s success, being relentlessly covered and praised at the time by songwriters. After all, that’s what a songwriter wants to do: write a song that everyone wants to wing.

    But the other evidence that John was obsessed with this song comes in a recent interview with a 70s journalist I read, where the journalist says he interviewed John, who played him the melody for Imagine. And John asked the journalist repeatedly, “It’s as good a melody as Yesterday, isn’t it?”

    We only hurt the ones we love, I suppose.

  8. LeeAnn

    Oops no Wings pun intended! I meant “write a song that everyone wants to Sing. 🙂

  9. GeorgeL

    To add something to this… In an interview, Lennon said he signed a guy’s violin who played “Yesterday” for him at a cafe in Spain. Lennon said he didn’t have the heart to tell the guy he didn’t write the song. Lennon also added that he guessed the violin guy couldn’t have gone around playing “I Am the Walrus”!

  10. GeorgeL

    A couple of great remakes of yesterday are by :

    MARVIN GAYE

    RAY CHARLES

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