Lives of The Great Songs: It has never topped the charts, and to three of the Beatles it was a bit of a joke. But it has been recorded more times than any other song. Giles Smith continues our series

YESTERDAY

EVERYBODY knows about the man who turned down the Beatles. Dick Rowe, the record-company rep from Decca, who heard some of the Fab Four's early recordings and decided that he just couldn't see a future in them, has become a legendary figure of fun. But what about the man who turned down the Beatles' biggest song? Doesn't he deserve a pillorying too? Step up, Billy J Kramer.

It was Kramer who approached Paul McCartney in 1965 and asked him if he had written anything new that he could have for a single. McCartney played him a little ballad he had written on the guitar, complete with a lyric on a conventional blues theme - the man whose lover has walked out on him, without quite saying why. The first verse went: 'Yesterday / All my troubles seemed so far away / Now it looks as though they're here to stay / Oh, I believe in yesterday.' Kramer thought about it for a minute and decided he didn't rate the song.

Seven years later, what was not good enough for Billy J had proved acceptable to an astonishing 1,186 artists around the world, all of whom had seen fit to make recorded versions of 'Yesterday', a song which McCartney had rapidly come to believe was 'the most complete thing I've ever written'.

For 'written', read 'dreamt'. The tune for 'Yesterday' came to McCartney in his sleep. 'I woke up one morning in London in Wimpole Street in an attic flat. Just woke up and I had that tune of 'Yesterday' in my head, with no idea where it came from. They gave me an award for it because it's been (broadcast in public) five million times - and the next song down is three million so it's way out ahead. And I dreamt it, so if that's not magic, what is? Dead jammy.'

The lyrics, though, had to be worked for. At first, McCartney simply attached a couple of prototype lines of daft verse to the tune - a common practice for him while he was weighing up a melody and wondering which way to push the song's mood. But in this case, the lines he hit on could have sunk the song for good. Before 'Yesterday' was 'Yesterday', the words ran 'Scrambled eggs / Oh my darling, you've got lovely legs'. When a writer reaches the send-up stage this early in a composition, ordinarily he or she is on the verge of throwing the whole thing away and moving on. But something in the tune's solemn roundedness seems to have called McCartney back from the edge and forced him to take the job seriously.

It was still called 'Scrambled Eggs' in January 1964, when he showed it, rather sheepishly, to the Beatles' producer, George Martin. Consider McCartney's predicament: he was 22, at the front of the world's greatest pop group, the writer of mould-breaking snappy teen anthems and heart-melting ballads - and yet out of nowhere and into his lap had dropped a composition which was stately, formal, oddly classical in the way phrase answered to phrase, and altogether about as hip and youthful as a pot of tea. He told Martin that he was looking for a one-word title for the song, that the word 'Yesterday' had come to mind, but that he was worried that it was too corny. Martin encouraged him to persist.

The song was not recorded until Monday 14 June 1965. Mark Lewisohn's scholarly guide, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, informs us that the track was completed in three hours in the evening. McCartney played acoustic guitar and sang, while a classical string quartet accompanied him, filling the track out and plotting its rhythmic direction without need for the heavier certainty of drums. 'Yesterday' marks the Beatles' first use of orchestral instruments, and by no means their last. The strings were Martin's idea. As Andy Partridge, the songwriter from XTC, once said: 'George Martin is often described as the Fifth Beatle; he may well have been the First.'

Whatever, none of the other three contributes to 'Yesterday' (though George Harrison was evidently in the studio during the session). This was widely interpreted at the time as rock-solid evidence that the Beatles were on the verge of splitting - but then, in 1965, very few things weren't interpreted that way. And though 'Yesterday' appeared on the Help] soundtrack album (if not in the movie itself) and was the title track of an EP, it is certainly true that the rest of the band distanced themselves from the song and ribbed McCartney mercilessly for its fuddy-duddiness. McCartney said, 'I remember George saying, 'Blimey, he's always talking about 'Yesterday', you'd think he was Beethoven or somebody.' '

In fact, there is nothing fancy or ornate about the song's construction. McCartney's opening guitar part sets the tone - one repeated chord, played with downward strokes of the thumb, which is the most basic kind of strumming. The unique thing, when the song moves into the verse, is its cycle of chords. 'Yesterday' is built on a set of perfectly common cadences, but as you travel through them, you pass across neat little bridging chords so that the movement of the strings beneath the voice appears subtly interleaved.

George Martin has revealed how McCartney was determined that the string players should keep their vibrato to a minimum, so as not to give the song any cumbersome emotionality. The same principle informs his singing, which maintains an understated warmth, even when it climbs high into the middle section. ('Why she had to go / I don't know / She wouldn't say / I said something wrong / Now I long for yesterday.') The recording is primitive and partly botched: occasionally you hear the voice double up. Not a deliberate effect, this is simply the trace of an earlier take, spilling out of the headphones in the studio. But the key thing about the basic instrumentation is that there is nothing here to betray the song's age, no particular noise pinning it to its era. This has had a double benefit: it made the song sound like a standard, even when it was freshly minted; and it has since rendered it immune to the passing years.

Hence that extraordinary slew of cover versions. No one has taken the song to No 1 - but then, nor did the Beatles. (Released as a single retrospectively, in 1976, 'Yesterday' only went as far as No 8.) Most shots at the piece fall into one of two camps. On one hand, there are those who have realised McCartney's worst fears about the song. Many of these use the presence of strings on the original as an excuse to ladle giant, sticky violin sections all over the arrangement, somehow forgetting that there was only a quartet there to begin with and that it played with rasp and edge. If McCartney had somehow been able to hear Richard Clayderman's dizzyingly sugary instrumental version in advance, can we really believe he would have bothered to complete the song?

On the other hand, there are recordings by Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye whose versions amply support McCartney's hunch that, when he wrote 'Yesterday', he was creating more than just a bauble to hang on Perry Como's Take it Easy album. Charles's 1967 version replaces the guitar with a piano and inserts a moment of silence before each verse. 'Suddenly,' he snaps, 'I'm not half the man I used to be.' It's as if those little gaps are the spaces in which the singer is trying to gather what is left of his strength. On Gaye's version (That's the Way Love Is, 1970), a prominent bass drum and cymbal lend the song the slink of a Motown ballad, with Gaye calling out, 'People, now I need a place to hide away'. For all the song's ostensible English poppiness, you barely have to rub at the surface to reveal something of gospel and soul there.

As a rule of thumb, don't trust anyone who slows the song down. It is easy to underestimate the medium pace at which McCartney's version ticks along. 'Yesterday' owes its becoming blitheness, its refusal to wallow, precisely to this. Generally, when people put the brakes on, they are hoping to milk the song for something it cannot give them. This is why the version by the four-woman singing group En Vogue on the recent Funky Divas album makes a fresh break. They move the tempo up a notch and stuff the track with close-packed harmonies set to a thumping drum machine. In the process they become probably the first act to give the song a defiant swagger.

Better this, certainly, than the decelerated Tom Jones version (on Best], 1991), which is crammed to breaking point with bogus suffering. Jones gives it the big voice treatment, but, as 'Yesterday' is apt to make clear, size isn't everything. Shocking to say, even Elvis Presley, live in Las Vegas (On Stage, 1970) exercises more decorum, though a nicely modest vocal delivery is spoilt by the intrusion of backing vocalists, who rather disrupt the song's solitary, confessional thrust. ('Yesterday,' sings Elvis: 'Yesterday]' coo the singers, in case you misheard the first time.)

And so it goes on: Dionne Warwick gives the song heart, Diana Ross empties it of content; Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson together lift it effortlessly, Ray Conniff sits on it, heavily. With 'Yesterday' it can go either way. McCartney seems to have known this even as he wrote it. But at least he left us, in the shape of his own version, the instruction manual. -

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable