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