A world without The Beatles would be a little less exciting, if not totally confusing, as the movie Yesterday shows. The Fab Four are the soundtrack to most people’s lives. The band that pretty much everyone will still love when they’re 64. And The Beatles’ “Yesterday” is one of those songs that if you put it on, everyone seems to know by heart. But how much do you know about this classic beyond the lyrics?
The spare ballad about losing the one you love to mistakes that time can’t seem to fix was composed entirely by Paul McCartney and has become one of the most recorded songs of all time. Funny, really, since McCartney wasn’t so sure about the track, which would become one of the most popular Beatles songs. So let’s forget about yesterday or even tomorrow (Sorry, Annie), and just focus on today, the day when you’ll finally learn the real meaning of The Beatles’ “Yesterday.”
No surprise, time plays a significant role in this song.
Specifically, the past. “Yesterday / All my troubles seemed so far away / Now it looks as though they’re here to stay / Oh, I believe in yesterday,” McCartney croons. The regretful tune continues with him longing to go back to what he believes was a better time, a time when he was better. “Suddenly / I’m not half the man I used to be,” he sings. “There’s a shadow hanging over me / Oh, yesterday came suddenly.”
“Yesterday” was all a dream, quite literally.
McCartney swears that while filming The Beatles’ movie Help! he woke up with a song in his head, which ended up being “Yesterday.” “It fell out of bed,” he once said. “I had a piano by my bedside, and I must have dreamed it because I tumbled out of bed and put my hands on the piano keys and I had a tune in my head. It was just all there, a complete thing. I couldn’t believe it. It came too easy.”
It was so fully formed that McCartney worried he had unconciously plagiarized it. “For about a month I went round to people in the music business and asked them whether they had ever heard it before,” McCartney said later. “Eventually it became like handing something into the police. I thought if no one claimed it after a few weeks then I could have it.”
Because of this, the song sat “around for months and months before we finally completed it,” John Lennon later confirmed per Rolling Stone. Now, McCartney calls it “the most complete song I have ever written.”
The original lyrics really were about a breakfast food.
Before it was “Yesterday,” McCartney was singing “Scrambled eggs / Oh my baby, how I love your legs” instead. While those words might not carry the same emotional depth as the lyrics we all know now, when McCartney (jokingly) performed “Scrambled Eggs” for the first time on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in 2013, it was still kind of a delicious bop. Honestly, who doesn’t love waffle fries?
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It’s a love song, but one that’s about Paul’s mother.
“Why she had to go / I don’t know, she wouldn’t say,” McCartney sings on the chorus of “Yesterday.” “I said something wrong / Now I long for yesterday.” While it’s always been believed this song was about an ex-girlfriend, fans have questioned whether the song was really about his late mother, Mary, who died in 1956 when he was just 14.
When McCartney wrote the song, which ended up on the band’s 1965 album, Help!, he was in a relationship with Jane Asher, who he would stay with until 1968. In fact, he was living with Asher and her family when he awoke from that now infamous dream. Some wonder whether McCartney’s living situation at the time had him subconsciously longing for a time when his mom was still around. “My mother’s death broke my dad up,” McCartney said. “That was the worst thing for me, hearing my dad cry. I’d never heard him cry before. It was a terrible blow to the family.”
In 2013, McCartney told Mojo that while he didn’t know it at the time, after years of singing the song he’s starting to think “Yesterday” was always about his mom. “I think without realizing it I was singing about my mum,” he told the magazine. “Because I think now, ‘Why she had to go, I don’t know, she wouldn’t say, I said something wrong…’ I think the psychiatrist would have a field day with that one.”
For purposes of this article, we’ll play psychiatrist and share that McCartney has talked about how when he first got word of his mom’s passing, he didn’t know what to say so he made a joke that he’s always regretted. “The first thing I said was, ‘What are we going to do without her money?” McCartney remembered. Perhaps, “Yesterday” was his mea culpa for not having the right words back then. With lines like, “Yesterday / Love was such an easy game to play / Now I need a place to hide away / Oh, I believe in yesterday,” he seems to have found the right things to say. Better late than never, right?
It’s not the first time McCartney’s mom helped him write a song, she was also the influence behind “Let It Be.” “I had a dream in the ‘60s that my mom, who had died, came to me… and was reassuring me,” he told James Corden in 2018. “Saying, ‘it’s gonna be OK. Just let it be.’” It was her positivity, he said, that helped him write that song.
He never thought it would become a hit.
“We didn’t put ‘Yesterday’ out in England, it was only here [in America] that it was a single,” McCartney said in a 1986 interview. “We didn’t think it was going to be a good idea… so it’s crazy how it goes.” Two years later, McCartney reiterated that no one thought it would make for a good single, which he still finds funny. “We didn’t think it fitted our image,” he said. “In fact, it was one of our most successful songs.”
Still, McCartney needed some convincing about the sound.
The Beatles was a band that wasn’t afraid to genre-hop, but McCartney was a little nervous about adding violins into their repertoire. For “Yesterday,” longtime Beatles producer George Martin decided that use guitar and bass wasn’t working on this track, it needed something classical and suggested a string quartet accompany him. “I said, ‘Are you kidding?'” McCartney remembered, per Rolling Stone. “‘This is a rock group!’ I hated the idea. [Martin] said, ‘Well, let’s just try it, and if you hate it, we can just wipe it and go back to you and the guitar.’ So I sat at the piano and worked out the arrangements with him, and we did it, and, of course, we liked it.”
It became one of the first pop songs to feature elements of classical music. It was also the first Beatles song that not all of the Beatles worked on. From the composing to the writing, this was a McCartney song through and through. In fact, Martin later told Rolling Stone that, at the time, he wondered if the song should be a McCartney solo record for that reason.
It might have played a role in the Beatles’ breakup.
Lennon famously spoofed the second verse of “Yesterday” and in 1980 low-key shaded the song, which was McCartney’s first pseudo-solo foray that showed maybe he didn’t need the other guys. “That’s Paul’s song and Paul’s baby,” Lennon said. “Well done. Beautiful — and I never wished I’d written it.” Despite saying that then, when McCartney later looked to have the songwriting credits on “Yesterday” switched from “Lennon/McCartney” to “McCartney/Lennon,” Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono said no.
Still, McCartney told Howard Stern in 2018 that Lennon, not his song, was the real reason for the Beatles break-up four years after “Yesterday” was released. And it definitely wasn’t Yoko who broke the band up. “There was a meeting where John came in and said, ‘Hey guys, I’m leaving the group,’” McCartney said. He holds no harsh feelings towards Lennon now, and told Stern the two reconciled before Lennon’s death.
So, luckily, McCartney doesn’t long for yesterday. In fact, he feels like Lennon is still with him today. “If I’m at a point where I go, ‘I’m not sure about this,’ I’ll throw it across the room to John,” McCartney told Rolling Stone in 2013 of looking to Lennon’s spirit for songwriting help. “He’ll say, ‘You can’t go there, man.’ And I’ll say, ‘You’re quite right. How about this?’ ‘Yeah, that’s better.’ We’ll have a conversation. I don’t want to lose that.”
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