The Beatles' "Yesterday"

A Song From Dreams About Guilt

The original US 45 sleeve for "Yesterday".

Although some believe The Beatles' "Yesterday" to be about to mother of vocalist and writer Paul McCartney's sudden death and his resultant guilt for reacting coldly to the news, the track actually came to McCartney in a dream and he dedicated it during a live performance to his girlfriend Iris Caldwell. Regardless of its origins, "Yesterday" went on to top the U.S. Billboard charts for four straight weeks in October 1965. 

Subconscious Songwriting

Although Paul McCartney and George Martin have claimed this was written during the Beatles' 1964 tour of France, which would have made it a year and a half old when it was recorded, Paul's later claim of the song coming to him in a dream at girlfriend Jane Asher's house, along with other anecdotal evidence, would seem to suggest that it was written sometime in January 1965, when Paul awoke with the full melody intact and played it on the piano in Asher's attic.

The odd (but not unheard of) nature of the song's "creation" caused Paul to take the melody around to industry vets for about a month, asking them if he'd unconsciously stolen someone else's song. In order to keep the melody in his mind, Paul wrote a comedic first verse that went, in part, "Scrambled eggs / Oh how I really really love your legs..." Having shown it to the band in the spring of 1965, the group began to refer to the uncompleted song as "Scrambled Eggs," perhaps ensuring that the finished version would start with its title. Paul kept working at the melody in off hours, leading the "Help!" album director Richard Lester to jokingly threaten to throw the piano off the soundstage if McCartney didn't stop playing it.

Recording a Hit

Finally, on May 27, 1965, Paul flew to Lisbon, Portugal, to vacation at the villa of Shadows member Bruce Welch. On the car ride in, Paul began to compose lyrics on the back of an envelope, based on a title (and theme) of "Yesterday." Although the other group members liked "Yesterday" well enough, they didn't consider it Beatles material — especially not after George Martin, the band's producer suggested scoring it with nothing but an acoustic guitar and a string section. Martin thought of releasing it as a solo Paul single, but even McCartney balked at that. His main concern was that the result would sound too much like easy-listening music.

Finally, compromises were reached: Martin used a classier string quartet for the arrangement and McCartney agreed not to release the song as a single in England. The song was done in two takes, Paul having reversed two lines accidentally in the first. The string quartet was laid down the next day, with McCartney's vocal fed into the studio as a guide. Martin's contribution to "Yesterday," other than the arrangement, was to convince Paul that a one-word title was not "corny." Paul, for his part, had but one instruction to the string quartet: no vibrato.

Capitol made the decisions on which songs were released as singles in the U.S., however, but "Yesterday" was not even considered for an A-side single release there. Instead, it was relegated only to the b-side of "Act Naturally," sung by Ringo, the group's most popular member in the States. However, fan reaction resulted in an a-side re-release. 

Lyric Origins

The vague lyrics have been rumored to deal with the very sudden death of McCartney's mother, and the resultant guilt he felt over his selfish and somewhat cold reaction to it. If this is true, it would appear to be subconscious on the singer's part. The performance of the song on the British TV show "Blackpool Night Out" in August 1965 was the first performance of this song on television. During it, Paul reportedly dedicates this song to ex-girlfriend Iris Caldwell. Other reports say he phoned Iris, who supposedly found him too unemotional, and played the song for her to prove he was otherwise.

John Lennon, who liked the song, was bothered by the lyrics' lack of resolution; he was also bothered for the rest of his life by fans who thought he'd co-written it (as the credits insist) and would sing it whenever they saw him. He was known to mock the song in the studio during his solo years by singing things like "I'm not half the man I used to be... now I'm an amputee."


Although some historians consider George and Ira Gershwin's "Summertime" (from  Porgy and Bess to be a serious contender to the throne, "Yesterday" is widely considered to be the most covered song of all time, with over three thousand versions recorded so far.

"Yesterday" was the most popular song ever played on American radio until 1973. With over eight million performances on radio and television, "Yesterday" has been surpassed only by The Association's "Never My Love" and the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Loving Feeling." Like episodes of "I Love Lucy," it is estimated that "Yesterday" is currently on the airwaves somewhere in the world at any given moment.