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Yesterday and Today

Yesterday and Today

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Published by: david.barnes382748 on Feb 01, 2010
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Ray Coleman. "McCartney. Yesterday and today"AUTOR'S NOTE'Yesterday' is much more than a song. A mere two minutesof plaintive, romantic sentimentality and mournfulness, it is one ofthe most exceptional and triumphant moments in the history ofpopular music. It is either beautiful or mawkish, depending on yourview. What is beyond debate is its power to touch the spirit, aswith the greatest songs. 'Yesterday's deceptively simple words andmusic are the perfect example of music's strengths ... as art, astherapy, as entertainment.The song has defined and divided the life and work ofits composer, Paul McCartney. Since he is a writer who aims to reachpeople with memorable songs rather than deal in the obscure,'Yesterday' must be considered his greatest songwriting achievement.He considers it his 'most complete song' and, in view of his outputduring four decades, that is a remarkable statement.Its statistics are unparalleled. Nearly 2,500 artistshave recorded it. It has been played on American radio six and ahalf million times; if broadcast continuously that would take nearlythirty years. As the most recorded song in history, 'Yesterday' hasversions by artists with styles as diverse as Ray Charles, FrankSinatra, Placido Domingo, Liberace, Benny Goodman, Dr John, HowardKeel, Jose Feliciano, Erroll Garner, Elvis Presley, Tito Rodriguezand Billie Jo Spears, plus many internationally celebratedorchestras. Only a really special piece of music could reach such awide span of performers, and be interpreted so in-novatively.Music, like other art forms, brings highly subjectiveresponses, and to touch a nerve with artists and audiences to thedegree that 'Yesterday' has done requires some rare ingredients.Where did it come from? What motivated its writer, who sang itfirst? What was his frame of reference, his muse, for creating boththe lyric and the melody?Paul McCartney was twenty-one years old when he beganwriting the song. It was the first time a Beatle had ventured intosolo recording and, in the context of their story in the mid-1960s,it was considered a pretty ballad. In Britain it was not released asa single until 1976 - eleven years after it was recorded and sixyears after the Beatles had split. In America, where it was releasedas a single in 1965, the year it was recorded, it went to the top ofthe chart and stayed there for four weeks.Though it featured McCartney singing alone and playingacoustic guitar with a string quartet, the recording was credited'The Beatles', and the song bore the songwriting partnership'Lennon-McCartney'. As a Beatles single, it sold mpre than 3 millioncopies internationally. As a feature on records by other artists,its total sales figure is beyond calculation.As a song, it utterly bisects the entire phenomenon ofthe Beatles as well as presenting a microcosm of Paul McCartney theman, the songwriter, the performer. It also points to the bedrock ofhis musical background, and thus provides an insight into thechemistry of the Beatles. This book is therefore part documentary,part celebration of 'Yesterday' and, by extension, a portrait of itscreator drawn largely by himself.Paul McCartney, while justly proud of the song, itsimpact and its achievements, was not the only person to appear
slightly bemused by the idea of a book dedicated to the story of hissong 'Yesterday'. Others, bewildered, suggested that there werebetter songs, more interesting and unusual compositions. And couldthe theme of one song really stand up to such scrutiny?Any such argument subsides against the sheer weight of'Yesterday' influence, as a song and as an event - creatively,statistically and individually in relation to its composer. Fromwhat vantage point did he write a song that was to attract 2,500other versions? How, where and why did he write it? Since it soundspartly autobiographical, why did he appear so introspective at atime of excitement, with the Beatles story at a peak? Did this firstBeatle solo bring any resentment within the group? How on earth dida guitar-toting pop star get involved with a string quartet, unheardof for an erstwhile rock 'n' roller at that time? Vital to thisexploration of the song, what kind of pedigree in music did Paultake into the recording studio when he went in to commit it tovinyl?And, in the unbelievable-but-true category, how did theownership of 'Yesterday' pass in 1985 into the hands of MichaelJackson, where it remains, to the annoyance of Paul McCartney, andto the indignation of Beatles lovers around the world?This book is called Yesterday and Today because that isprecisely what Paul's song, allied to the Beatles story, is and willalways be: a synthesis of nostalgia and current impact on a worldthat will continually recognize their legacy as the best group inpopular music. Other fine groups came and went, making their impact;but the Beatles were something else. It is thirty-two years sincethey came blazing out of Liverpool to set an individualisticbenchmark for music and provide an eight-year-long soundtrack forthe 1960s. In the 1990s they continue to be relevant, frozen intheir time and yet timeless; vigorous, endlessly creative, prolificand absolutely unrepeatable.'Yesterday' is very much what the Beatles were allabout. It broke barriers, both for them and for popular musicgenerally, and it played a large part in stretching the Beatles'appeal beyond the young.Yesterday and Today, besides being the title of theAmerican album on which the song appeared in 1966, was also thecover story title of an article which I wrote for Radio Times in1992 to mark Paul McCartney's fiftieth birthday. That profile aimedto capture McCartney the person, beyond Paul the Beatle, and part ofit might have gone some way to explaining why he could have writtena song like 'Yesterday' some twenty-seven years earlier:McCartney was always outside the general scrum of rock'n' roll. He had a vision of his music beyond its function as atotem of youth . . . with the Beatles, McCartney always had moresense of destiny than the others. While some 1960s figures saw rock'n' roll itself as their stepping stone to fame and fortune, theambitious McCartney was more scientific. His musical palette had abroader range.He remains a man of extraordinary paradoxes and elusivespirit. Gregarious, amusing and charming in company, he tends todistrust people outside his family, perhaps understandable after hisbattles inside and outside the Beatles. He likes control, althoughthere is still something of the old hippy in his fundamentaloutlook. He cherishes his position in the hierarchy of entertainmentbut prefers to present himself as one of the lads. He wants to beviewed as equally acceptable to high society and to a shop
assistant. He can be alternately bombastic and insecure, thoughtfuland mercurial; compassionate and unforgiving; open and impenetrable.His public image as a cheery, thumbs-up, lightweightman-of-the people pop star has irritated him as much as his critics,I wrote, and they taunted him for his alleged superficiality.Friends who have known him since his earliest Liverpool and Beatlesyears observed a new sophistication and self-assuredness about himas he approached fifty. A sharp-eyed, youthful enthusiasm remains,now joined by the personality of an elder statesman, a diplomat whoknows his responsibilities.George Martin, Paul's friend and producer of the Beatlesand of McCartney as a soloist, considers him 'a genius oftwentieth-century music'. Unequivocally, I believe that Paul'sgenius and creative muse stretches beyond the categories of musicand art.Linda, his wife, a Libran who believes she balances hisGemini spirit, is insightful on the man and his complexities: 'He'san artist, and artists are moody . .. sometimes he's very huggy andsometimes not. But how many songs has this guy written? Do you knowwhat I mean? How much pressure has he had and how many lives has helived? So he might come on like he's normal, but there's a lot ofturmoil in there.'To all these facts and observations of Paul McCartney,it must be added that he is a master of communication. During ourconversations for this book, one of his most telling remarksconcerned his admiration for the work of other artists. He alwayswanted to hear their most popular work, he said. If he went to aconcert by, say, Simon and Garfunkel, or Bob Dylan, or the RollingStones, he would be waiting to hear their biggest hits. He had lesstime or patience for the esoteric indulgences which some artistsoften inflict on an audience. He has never subscribed to theindifferent attitude of some artists towards record sales. 'I thinkthat's what does matter,' he says. 'The people out there with theirpennies, going to spend them. That's a big move, to spend your moneyon someone.'That ingredient in Paul's make-up, a desire to reachpeople with his art, sounds simplistic. But achieving it isdifficult, as any songwriter will testify. Paul's wish to be apopulist is the key to understanding one aspect of his genius, andof how he could write the most recorded song in history. I thank himfor his spirited co-operation in interviews for this book, and alsothank Linda McCartney for her helpful observations and for the useof her outstanding photographs.My gratitude is due to many friends who helped thisproject with encouragement, research and advice.In New York, Sue Weiner grasped the scope and spirit ofthis subject before anyone, and her support has been aninspirational tower of strength as well as a great practical helpfrom the book's inception. Jim O'Donnell's assistance has beeninvaluable, and my thanks also to Marisa Sabounghi for herunflagging research in Manhattan.In Britain, my appreciation goes to George Martin forhis interview, and to his assistant, Shirley Burns. My valued friendMark Lewisohn, the world's foremost Beatles historian, helpedenormously by sharing his unrivalled knowledge, particularly in themaze that led to the sale of the Beatles compositions to MichaelJackson.

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