What is the greatest Paul McCartney song from his time in The Beatles? There are many to choose from, but one consensus pick has been “Yesterday.” Chuck Berry admired it, more than 3,000 musicians have covered it, and Paul himself said it was probably his best work.
When the band released it in 1965, it quickly became the most listened-to song of the year — and the year after, and so on until well into the ’70s. By the end of the 20th century, it had become the third most-played song on American radio. That’s well beyond what we’d call a smash hit.
It was a landmark song for The Beatles as well. For the first time, Paul played and sang on the record without his bandmates. Behind him, fans heard a string quartet arranged by Paul and producer George Martin.
For many years after the Beatles breakup, John Lennon acknowledged “Yesterday” as one of Paul’s great classics, but the song became a source of annoyance for him as well. Because of the “Lennon-McCartney” tag on the credits, people thought he wrote it.
Everywhere John went, people played ‘Yesterday’ and thanked him.
Most casual Beatles fans probably saw Lennon-McCartney on their albums and figured Paul and John wrote the tunes together. In the early days, that was true with tracks like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You.” But by the mid-’60s, most songs were either by John or Paul.
Apparently, that wasn’t widespread knowledge, as John spoke of how he couldn’t eat dinner without someone coming up to him to play him “Yesterday” as a tribute to his great songwriting abilities. After years of this, it began to drive him up a wall.
“I go to restaurants and the groups always play ‘Yesterday,’” he explained in his 1980 interviews in Playboy. “Yoko and I even signed a guy’s violin in Spain after he played us ‘Yesterday.’ He couldn’t understand that I didn’t write the song.”
As usual, John had a great one-liner to sum up his annoyance with the situation. “I guess [the musicians] couldn’t have gone from table to table playing ‘I Am The Walrus,’” he said. He could have said the same about “Come Together” and numerous other classics he wrote.
It became a running joke for him and Yoko.
John’s story of he and Yoko signing someone’s violin after listening to another version “Yesterday” was not out of the ordinary. Howard Smith, a rock journalist and friend of the couple’s in the early ’70s, told a story of it happening once while he was hanging out with John and Yoko.
“John spotted this strolling guitar player, which used to be standard in Mexican restaurants,” Smith recalled in a 2013 Mojo item. “He turned to me and said, ‘Howard, in five minutes that guitar player is gonna come in, stand next to me and play “Yesterday.”‘ Sure enough, it wasn’t even three minutes.”
That night, John and his company were treated to what Smith described as “a ridiculous, over-the-top version” of Paul’s song. Surely, it gave John no comfort to be able to predict the future in this way. It was the price he paid for being one half of the greatest songwriting duo in rock history.
Also see: The No. 1 Beatles Song John and Paul Recorded Without George or Ringo
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