Here’s a question for you. Which classic song began as Scrambled Eggs, was a song that the songwriter couldn’t convince any other singer to record, and yet went on to become the most-covered song every written?
The answer is ‘Yesterday’, now one of the most popular and best-known Beatles songs. But this song, whose meaning is worth exploring further, had a fascinating genesis, and the story of ‘Yesterday’ is well worth telling.
‘Yesterday’: song meaning
First, the meaning of the song. It’s essentially a song about lost love. The singer’s lover has left him, because (he assumes) he said the wrong thing and drove her away. However, he doesn’t actually know this for sure: he cannot actually say with any certainty why she walked out on him.
But she did, and now he yearns for the recent past and the happiness he felt when she was with him.
This is what makes the song tantalising in its meaning (and this tantalising quality can variously be interpreted as frustratingly vague or richly ambiguous, depending on whether you like the song and its ‘message’): the singer blames himself for driving his lover – and, with her, his happiness – away, but he may just be beating himself up about the situation and looking for some sort of explanation for her sudden departure.
Perhaps, after all, it wasn’t anything he said. Perhaps she found someone else. All we know is that she didn’t tell him why she was walking out.
The song is also about how love gives us the illusion that all our troubles have disappeared from our lives. When we fall in love and meet someone new, all of our various woes and stresses can melt away – or appear to. But as the song’s lyrics say, they only seem to be far away from us. They’re still there, and as soon as that temporary euphoria has lifted, they will return.
The singer’s determination to continue to ‘believe’ in yesterday and the memory of the past shows an unhealthy avoidance of his present situation, as he retreats into nostalgia as an escape from his current woe.
Indeed, as he later admits, he needs to hide away from reality now that the ‘game’ of love is over. (And does his description of love as a ‘game’ imply one possible reason for his lover’s departure? He wasn’t taking it seriously? Perhaps.)
The singer’s declaration that yesterday ‘came suddenly’ means that, until recently, he was on cloud nine and living happily with his lover in his life. But this present happiness became a past memory very quickly and suddenly: ‘today’ morphed into ‘yesterday’ so rapidly that it took him by surprise.
As Michael Heatley and Spencer Leigh observe in their fascinating Behind the Song, ‘Yesterday’ had a curious genesis. The song, although credited to the usual Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership, was actually solely the work of Paul McCartney, who fell out of bed one morning with the tune for the song in his head. He later said he was convinced he must have dreamed it!
He began playing it on his piano, putting the rather unpromising working title ‘Scrambled Eggs’ to the song’s promising melody. Yes: the lyrics of ‘Yesterday’ originally ran, ‘Scrambled eggs, / Oh, how I loved your legs.’
Given that McCartney was initially convinced he hadn’t actually written the tune but had merely unconsciously remembered it from somewhere else, it’s somewhat fitting that the 2019 Danny Boyle film about an aspiring singer who finds himself in a world where The Beatles never existed, and can thus claim he wrote the songs himself, was given the title Yesterday.
Indeed, Heatley and Leigh observe that the tune had such a familiarity to its originator that McCartney spent several weeks asking people if they could identify it, since he was sure he must have heard it somewhere else. When nobody recognised it as an existing tune, McCartney was satisfied it was just a moment of inspiration that had given him the melody, and ‘Yesterday’ was allowed to come into being.
Despite the song’s reputation now as a quintessential Beatles track, it never charted as a hit in the UK while the Fab Four were together. McCartney told the Rock Express in 1986 that he didn’t want to release ‘Yesterday’, so that’s why the Beatles version didn’t chart in the UK until some years later (it was, however, a number one hit in the US in 1965).
Indeed, by the time the Beatles’ version of ‘Yesterday’ was released as a single in their home country in February 1976, two other artists, Marianne Faithfull and Matt Monro, had already had hits with it.
And the song would go on to be recorded by many more artists, of course. Indeed, ‘Yesterday’ is still the most-covered song ever, with the Guinness Book of Records counting over 3,000 versions. But this wasn’t originally the case. Ironically, McCartney initially intended to give the song to another artist, but nobody else wanted it.
Heatley and Leigh note that Chris Farlowe and Billy J. Kramer both turned the song down. McCartney’s fellow Beatle, John Lennon, praised it as ‘beautiful’, although he didn’t think much to its overall meaning (despite remarking that the individual lines of the song’s lyrics were good). McCartney himself disagreed, later calling ‘Yesterday’ the ‘most complete’ song he had ever written.