The Guinness Book of Records has Sir Paul McCartney as the most successful songwriter ever, based on the commercial success of his recordings. There is too the comment made on the BBC when he became Sir – “This has to be the most popular knighthood of all time: no other person has brought such pleasure for so long to so many millions of people”.
A long, multifaceted career
James Paul McCartney was born in Liverpool on June 18th, 1942, which makes him 68 this year. When the Beatles recorded their first single in 1962, he was just 20. The most successful rock group ever broke up in 1970, and in 1971 McCartney formed a band he called Wings – the three members who stayed with it always were McCartney, his wife Linda, and guitarist and singer Denny Laine. The group was disbanded in 1981 (one year after John Lennon was killed), and for the rest of the 80s McCartney continued to write and record, with wife Linda and writers such as Elvis Costello. In the 1990s McCartney concentrated on composing classical works of music, but also released a pop album. He was knighted for services to music in 1997, but the years 96 and 97 were devoted to helping his wife Linda struggle against breast cancer – to which she succumbed in April 1998. McCartney slowly returned to the recording studio and in 2002 went back to touring. A relationship with Heather Mills started in 2000 and ended in a disputed divorce in 2007. He continues to work in the realms of popular and classical music, touring the world, and performing at a large number of concerts and events, while honours and acclaim shower on him. His group for the last ten years has been McCartney himself (guitar, bass, piano, vocals), guitarists Rusty Anderson and Brian Ray, keyboards Paul Wickens and drummer Abe Loriel Jr. Their 200th concert performing together was on 13th July 2010 in Salt Lake City.
Yesterday – the context
Much popular song is written in 24-bars, in an AABA pattern: the original melody and different words make up the A parts, while the “middle eight” (B section) is a departure in melody and words from the first. This simple pattern, plus the 12-bar blues sequence, accounts for a huge amount of North American popular song. The spread of this music – making it “popular” – was strongly influenced by the technological changes of the 20th Century – first the widespread use of radio, then the recording industry (vinyl records stamped from an original) and the film industry. Artists would become rich and famous based on songs of 3 or 4 minutes duration, sold at an easily affordable price to thousands or millions.
After WWII, the work of artists already famed in America began to reach Britain, where it was greeted by the youth as something new, different and modern. Liverpool, being the chief port of entry for US merchandise, was always well supplied with the latest hits, and there sprang up many local bands, imitating rock ‘n roll, skiffle groups, jazz bands, and lapping up the production of American stars like Bill Haley,Elvis Presley, and Bob Dylan.
The songwriting partnership of John Lennon and Paul McCartney started in 1957. In the early days they would often work sitting opposite one another, John playing the guitar as a normal right-hander, and Paul the mirror image, playing left-handed, both inventing phrases and words and building them up into a completed song. Rarely were more than the words written down, because once they had done the creative part (in a session of about 3 hours) they both knew it and could play it. At the beginning, their output was close to the American originals, and they had a vast knowledge of different artists and styles. Sometimes John would have most of a song invented, to bring it into a session with Paul and improve and complete it, and sometimes it was the other way round. As time went on, they invented songs which moved further and further away from their models – innovating in words, sentiments, chord sequences, settings, backing instruments, and artificial effects. One of the most striking things always was that they sang in harmony – usually two-part between John and Paul, but often with George as well – while they played their instruments at the same time. They were also unshakeably professional, turning in only perfectly coordinated and disciplined performances…. and the final touch was their laid-back humour, which refused to take themselves too seriously, joking and kidding around.
Yesterday – the song
It is perhaps ironic that the song of the Lennon-McCartney partnership which has been most “covered” (sung by other artists) has none of the normal caracteristics of the Beatles’ output: it was written by Paul, with no input from John, and when it was recorded in June 1965 the other Beatles felt they had nothing to contribute, so it was recorded as just Paul, voice and guitar. Later George Martin did an arrangement for a string quartet backing, which was modified a little by Paul, but kept in. The Beatles only released it in an album in the UK (part of Help!), but in the US it became a hit single.
In any case, it is a little gem of a piece of music, so original and cohesive in its chord sequence, and the melody and the words go perfectly together; the sentiment is quite simple – the breakup of a love affair – yesterday I was fine, today I’m alone and down. In a subtle way, it is really a dialog between the melody and the accompaniament which keeps moving away and creating a new background… the initial word Yes-ter-day sort of slides in to the chord of F, but then the backing goes Em7 and A7, which kicks the voice off onto a flight upwards all my troubles seemed so far away– but on way the backing goes down from Dm to Bb, which sets up the descending phrase now it looks as though they’re here to stay, coming back to F but a bit higher up. Then a very interesting sequence C/ Dm7/ G7/ Bb/ F rounds out Oh I believe in yesterday. The middle eight uses the same building blocks of chords, with the voice low on Why she, then going high –…… had to go, I don’t know – comes down on she wouldn’t say – repeats, and then resolves beautifully down to the original tune again. Two minutes and a classic of pop music.
Remarkably, Paul McCartney is still with us, still making music, having learned to live with fame, adulation, fortune, drugs, the breakup of the Beatles, the loss of his songwriting partner, the loss of his beloved wife, and an acrimonious divorce from another. He still comes across as a lad from Lancashire, with a self-deprecating wit, feet on the ground in spite of the success wherever he goes, and his enormous list of artistic achievements.
So, enjoy – and Good Listening!