John Lennon’s issue with Paul McCartney song ‘Yesterday’

Everyone’s a critic, and musicians can be the harshest of all. One of the greatest strengths of The Beatles was that the group featured three fantastically talented musicians, each of whom had developed their own unique approach to songwriting. And while this allowed The Beatles to craft some of the most important albums of the 20th century, it also led to disagreements from time to time. Take the Paul McCartney song ‘Yesterday’ from the 1965 album Help!, for example.

‘Yesterday’ is still one of The Beatles’ most beloved songs and holds the world record for the most-covered tracks of all time. As McCartney recalled in Anthology, the song’s melody came to him in a dream while he was staying at the home of his then-girlfriend Jane Asher: “I was living in a little flat at the top of a house and I had a piano by my bed,” he said. “I woke up one morning with a tune in my head and I thought, ‘Hey, I don’t know this tune – or do I?’ It was like a jazz melody. My dad used to know a lot of old jazz tunes; I thought maybe I’d just remembered it from the past. I went to the piano and found the chords to it, made sure I remembered it and then hawked it round to all my friends, asking what it was: ‘Do you know this? It’s a good little tune, but I couldn’t have written it because I dreamt it.’”

As is so often the case with melodically-led songs, the lyrics to ‘Yesterday’ weren’t forthcoming. As Paul recalled in 1968: “I couldn’t think of any words to it, so originally it was just, ‘Scrambled Egg.’ It was called ‘Scrambled Egg’ for a couple of months, until I thought of ‘Yesterday.’ And that’s it. True story”. But even with a complete set of lyrics, Paul’s songwriting partner, John Lennon, couldn’t get over a sense that ‘Yesterday’ was missing something.

Recognising that the strengths of ‘Yesterday’ outweighed its weakness, Lennon let kept his mouth shut. But, in 1980, he revealed the fundamental flaw in what is arguably Paul’s greatest contribution to The Beatles catalogue: “Paul wrote the lyrics to ‘Yesterday’,” Lennon began. “Although the lyrics don’t resolve into any sense, they’re good lines. They certainly work, you know what I mean? They’re good, but if you read the whole song, it doesn’t say anything; you don’t know what happened. She left and he wishes it were yesterday – that much you get – but it doesn’t really resolve. So, mine didn’t used to either. I have had so much accolade for ‘Yesterday.’ That’s Paul’s song, and Paul’s baby. Well done. Beautiful—and I never wished I’d written it”.

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