[I promised one of my handful of regular readers a new song of the day by day’s end, so it was necessary to pull something from the list that I could write about off the top of my head, no extra thought necessary. I’ll get back to the less obvious tracks in due course. Meanwhile, Laurie, hope this does the trick.]
In a recent post in praise of Hey Jude, I noted that it was one of those songs that had grown so familiar over the years that it was possible to lose sight of how great it really was. Well, that goes double for today’s selection, reputed to be the most covered song ever written, which boasts a melody so perfect, so graceful – I’ve read musicological analyses in which it’s suggested that it might be the greatest melody in the history of popular song, and maybe music in general – that it’s sad, really, the extent to which we’ve grown used to it. It’s practically woven into our collective DNA, as if we’re all born already able to sing it, and I’m convinced that people will indeed be singing it centuries from now, perhaps without remembering any longer who wrote it. It’ll just be part of our cultural inheritance, like Happy Birthday or Three Blind Mice, albeit infinitely more sublime.
Like a lot of the Beatles’ compositions, it comes packaged with a backstory that sounds apocryphal, but is actually true. I suppose most everybody knows it, the tale of how McCartney composed this most formally elegant of songs while he was sleeping. That really happened. He literally dreamed it. In the morning he rolled out of bed, and was able to play it from memory, as if he’d always known it. There were no lyrics, yet; Paul gave it the interim title “Scrambled Eggs”, which fit the meter and would do until he could come up with something better, unless, as he was fully prepared to accept, the tune already had lyrics because he hadn’t really written it at all. Not that the boy lacked ego, but c’mon – in his sleep? He composed a song like this one while he was unconscious? Probably not, right? Probably, Paul reckoned, he’d heard it somewhere, forgotten, and was now simply disgorging another composer’s work from his subconscious. Worrying about that, he hesitated to make a recording, and asked everybody he knew if they’d already heard his purportedly new song somewhere else. This went on for some months, until George Martin, who knew his pop music history, and also had access to EMI’s enormous record library, assured McCartney that it wasn’t so. It was definitely original. Unlikely as it seemed, Paul really had written it while stacking Zs.
Martin likely knew this from the moment Paul played it for him. First, the song’s structure was deceptively but entirely unconventional, based on verses of seven bars – about as common, as author Jonathan Gould once remarked, as a 17 hole golf course – and who but McCartney, unconstrained by the strictures of formal musical training, could have come up with that? Second, there was no way a melody that gorgeous could have remained obscure. If somebody else had written it long ago, it would certainly already be famous. No, it was Paul’s all right.
Finally, then, it seemed safe to go ahead and commit it to master tape, claiming authorship. Against McCartney’s instincts, Martin wanted to score the basic track for an overdub of string quartet, which he was sure would enhance the song’s natural pathos while adding a certain gravitas. This didn’t go over well at first. What did he say? Strings? Ugh. Paul was more than dubious. The Beatles were a rock ‘n roll combo, for the love of God, not a chamber ensemble. He didn’t want, indeed could barely imagine, any of that “Montovani nonsense” polluting the next album. But the trusted producer prevailed, and upon hearing the score Paul agreed; it was perfect. The final recording would, then, feature only Paul and his acoustic, backed by the string quartet. No drums, no bass, no electric guitars. There was some anxiety in recording it that way, since it would be the first Beatles track in which only one of the Beatles was playing, practically a solo effort. Would the others be OK with that? Would it go over well with the fans?
As it happened, yes and yes.
As with all great Beatles songs, it’s impossible to recapture the feeling of listening to it for the first time, and almost as hard to grasp how revolutionary it sounded to those who first heard it in 1965. At that point Beatlemania was still in full swing, with the narrative still focussed on the haircuts, the screaming, and the unprecedented mass popularity, none of which seemed to have much to do with the presumably disposable songs they were playing. While there were a number of serious composers, both popular and classical, who already understood that something special was happening with the Fab Four – among them, of course, other members of the new generation like Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson and Pete Townshend, but also established maestros like Richard Rodgers, Leonard Bernstein, and Aaron Copland – any suggestion that the Beatles were not just record company product, not just a fad, not merely the latest ephemeral boy band, but the vanguard of a musical revolution in which Lennon and McCartney would soon establish themselves as perhaps the greatest songwriters of the modern era, would have been greeted by most with unaffected scorn. Yeah, sure they would. Pull the other one. It was a crazy idea!
Until it wasn’t.
Because then came the epiphany. Suddenly, with the release of Yesterday, it was as obvious to the entertainment press as it was to the guy sitting next to you on the cross-town bus, even though for many it seemed only a little more likely than the Yankees starting an ostrich in centre field: the cherubic mop-top with the funny Liverpool accent and teeny-bopper fan club was, manifestly, a goddamned genius.
So this marks the point where everything changed, and the popular perception of the Beatles shifted away from the haircuts, Beatle Boots, Pierre Cardin suits, and general mass hysteria, and everybody started listening to the songs, really listening, with increasing joy and mounting wonder. Watch this performance, and try to cast your mind back to a time when this was utterly new, revelatory, and startling in its unexpected beauty. “For Paul McCartney of Liverpool, opportunity knocks!” says George in his introduction, alluding to a popular TV talent show that was the American Idol of its day. Then, all alone on stage, Paul transcends the moment and gives them one for the ages, all of 23 years old and already building an immortal legacy.