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. -

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