Robert Bunter: Think again: a nice Paul ballad with some sweet strings. Done. Will I receive a check or is that just direct deposit?
Richard Furnstein: An unnecessarily hasty assessment, to be sure. "Yesterday" is the emotional turning point in The Beatles' career. I'll argue that it's Paul's first truly great moment (on album FIVE!) because it so drastically upped the standard for Paul's next year of revelatory songwriting (think "I'm Looking Through You" and "Eleanor Rigby"), as well as allowed John to think past his "moon/June" explorations of pain. And the world is yours once you get that man thinking in stark terms about his emotional damage. Exhibit A: Plastic Ono Band. "I'm not half the man I used to be." John could bleat all over "Cold Turkey" and shave off his hair and curl into the fetal position, but Paul nails the terrifying loss of stability and happiness in that one casual line of single syllable words. His life has dramatically changed in one day; a loss so unthinkable that he questions his position in life and the universe. And all this is delivered in an absolutely perfect melody.
Robert Bunter: There are a lot of people (James Paul McCartney, as I call him, is one) who will tell you that "Yesterday" is the best song the Beatles ever recorded, and they're correct. You're right, it's a stunning exploration of the pain of loss. Superficially it's about a failed romance, but you can tell he's really talking about the loss of his mother. Paul often told the story of how the melody came to him in a dream, fully-formed (no lyrics, though). He went around for a month or two playing the tune to everyone who would listen, asking if they recognized it, since certainly he couldn't have written it in his sleep. But you know he was just being coy; I think he knew all along that it was his. Supposedly, everyone was annoyed at having to hear the thing over and over again. Do you know how much I would have enjoyed the chance to listen to Paul sing this song to me, one-on-one, in a personal situation? The answer is, I would have enjoyed it a great deal. Anybody who got to hang out with the Beatles on a personal level back then and got annoyed with them about anything was a goddamn fool. I'll take the chance! Of course, Paul did sing this song to us, that time when we went to the concert together. I want you to know that that was a special night which I will never forget. Anyway: so the song came to Paul in a dream. You know what other song came to Paul in a dream? I'll tell you: "Let It Be." Or at least it was a dream that inspired it. A dream about his mother. We should all thank goodness that we have been blessed with these supreme products of beautiful McCartney's dream life. I'd just as soon not be subjected to Lennon's hideous nightmares, George's clumsy sex fantasies or Ringo's pedestrian dreams about common subjects like riding the bus or a plate of Heinz beans.
Richard Furnstein: That was a special night, indeed. I remember getting a big tray of nachos (hold the salsa, extra 'peños, por favor) and chowing down during the opener (a tape of Paul McCartney remixes including a mind expanding version of "Temporary Secretary"). Then Paul and Da Boyz came out and leveled the place. "All My Loving," third song. Tears. There were crucial moments sneaking around every corner, and then Paul came out with his reverse strung Martin acoustic and we knew we were in for a treat. "Blackbird"? Yes, of course. "I'm Looking Through You"? Hoho, why not? But, it was "Yesterday," yes, "Yesterday," that leveled me. Where Paul McCartney, that little speck of genius three football fields away, crawled into my brain and gave me a case of the shivers. I've heard this song, what, thirty thousand times in my years? Yet, it absolutely leveled me. Paul knows that there is a shadow hanging over all of us. It's a song that simultaneously makes you want to leave this mortal coil behind at the same time that it makes you want to celebrate the beautify of life, genius, and melody.
Robert Bunter: Woah! Back off, man. No, just kidding. What a show! It was like, even the nacho salesman seemed to sense that it was a special night for all of us. I think "Yesterday" stuck in John's craw a little bit. He used it as a needle to sting McCartney in "How Do You Sleep?", and if I remember right, he had some dismissive remarks about it in the infamous 1970 Rolling Stone interview. I think he just reacted that way because he knew that Paul had been given a gift from the gods of song and he wished he'd gotten it, instead. Is there a comparable Lennon song in the Beatles catalog? A career-defining, undisputed beloved masterpiece? I'd argue that there isn't. What are you thinking, "Strawberry," "Day In The Life"? I don't know. They were important, but not as universal; they had more to do with John Lennon than the human race. I'm drawing a blank here - what do you think?
"We don't want any of that Montovani rubbish."
Richard Furnstein: Well, to be fair, Allen Klein suggested the "only thing you've done was 'Yesterday'" dig. And you know what? Fine. What was John going to say, "the only thing you've done is play the best bass guitar in world history and write piles of amazing songs and helped make my amazing songs better"? No way, because if he said that there would have been a reunion album in 1972 and Paul would have been berating George to come up with better riffs for "Wild Life" or "Mary Had A Little Lamb." That didn't happen, luckily. John knew that "Yesterday" was Paul's ace in the hole; his non-snarky, slogan-free anthem for the world. All John wanted was to connect to the human race. He got there in his quieter moments ("Oh My Love" and "Because") but tended to miss when he went for the big anthems and gimmicks. "Yesterday" is a beautiful song with a perfect arrangement (keep in mind it is the prototype for sensi-dribble like Green Day's "Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)") that still stops grown men in their tracks.
Robert Bunter: We're really pushing deeply into this song and coming up with some fascinating insights. This blog is amazing, I just wish that I was someone else so I could read it and nod my head emphatically. You're totally right about Lennon's attempts to connect with the human race. What else should we say about this one? We need to give some love to Sir George Martin. His decision to use a string quartet was brilliant. Supposedly the boys resisted at first ("We don't want any of that Montovani rubbish"), but it just perfectly captures the lyric's mood of nostalgia. Close attention to Paul's solo guitar demos shows that the unbelievably tense, brittle chord which first shows up at the 25-second mark (after "Suddenly" and before "I'm not half the man I used to be") was not in the original harmony as Paul wrote it. We're told that Paul assisted with the string arrangement, but who knows if that one particularly inspired chord was him or Martin? I think it might have been Martin. "Paul, why don't we just have the strings do this [plays heartrending chord on piano]?" "Yes, George, that'll do. That'll do fine," says Paul, with tears pouring down his face. Then you look over at the control room and Ringo and George and John are crying. Then the camera pans to the ceiling, and there is a lap dissolve into the future, where two groan men with nacho crumbs on their face are weeping and singing along in the upper deck seats of a crowded sports arena, while a much older McCartney sings the same immortal melody. Then, in a faded-in superimposed image, you see the ghosts of John Lennon and George Harrison and Harry Nilsson sort of benignly smiling down from slightly above, nodding in otherworldly approval. The camera pans and you notice that a heavily-disguised Ringo was seated behind us the whole time (checking out his old buddy's current set), watching with a sort of grandfatherly contentment and thinking to himself, "Yes, that'll do, Paulie. That'll do just fine."