100 Greatest Beatles Songs

From 'Helter Skelter' to 'Sgt. Pepper's,' ranking of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison's output

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4. 'Yesterday'

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: June 14 and 17, 1965
Released: September 13, 1965
11 weeks; no. 1

The tune that would go on to become the most covered song in history began as something called "Scrambled Eggs." It also began in a dream.

"It fell out of bed," Paul McCartney once said about the origins of "Yesterday." "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."

In fact, it was so fully formed that he was sure he must have unconsciously plagiarized a melody he'd heard somewhere else. So for months he allowed the unpolished song to sit on the shelf, occasionally strumming a few bars for George Martin or Ringo Starr and asking, "Is this like something?"

Martin recalled McCartney playing him the song as far back as January 1964, before the Beatles even landed in America. McCartney's own recollection has him writing the tune later, but regardless, John Lennon confirmed that the song "was around for months and months before we finally completed it."

For a long time, McCartney couldn't get past the placeholder words "Scrambled eggs/Oh, my baby, how I love your legs." He finished the actual lyrics on a holiday with his girlfriend, actress Jane Asher, creating a frank poem of regret that he has called "the most complete song I have ever written."

Recording the track was more challenging. As Martin explained, "It wasn't a three-guitars-and-drums kind of song. I said, 'Put down guitar and voice just to begin with, Paul, and then we'll see what we can do with it.'" After trying several different approaches, including one with Lennon on the organ, Martin made an unorthodox suggestion. "I said, 'What about having a string accompaniment, you know, fairly tastefully done?' Paul said, 'Yuk! I don't want any of that Mantovani rubbish. I don't want any of that syrupy stuff.' Then I thought back to my classical days, and I said, 'Well, what about a string quartet, then?'"

McCartney still wasn't convinced. "I said, 'Are you kidding?'" he recalled. "'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."

The recording captures the Beatles' inventive spirit, opening the door to a willingness to experiment with new sounds. "Yesterday" signaled to the world that the Beatles — and rock & roll — had made a sudden leap from brash adolescence to literate maturity.

After the session, Martin took manager Brian Epstein aside and quietly suggested that since none of the other Beatles contributed to the track, perhaps the song should be issued as a Paul McCartney solo record. Epstein's response, according to Martin, was, "This is the Beatles — we don't differentiate." Meanwhile, the group was still unsure about "Yesterday" and didn't release it as a single in the U.K. "We were a little embarrassed by it," McCartney said. "We were a rock & roll band."

"Yesterday" quickly went to Number One in the U.S. (It was one of a half-dozen tracks Capitol left off the American version of the Help! soundtrack and was released as a single instead.) It is the most popular song in the Beatles' catalog, recorded more than 2,500 times — by everyone from Ray Charles and Elvis Presley to Frank Sinatra and Daffy Duck — a fact that did not necessarily sit well with Lennon, who had nothing to do with it. Lennon once joked, "I go to restaurants and the groups always play 'Yesterday.' I even signed a guy's violin in Spain after he played us 'Yesterday.' He couldn't understand that I didn't write the song. But I guess he couldn't have gone from table to table playing 'I Am the Walrus.'"

Appears On: Help!

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