The one universally appreciable quality in art Is the quality of being well made. Sculptor Bill Reid Sir Paul McCartney, the most successful songwriter in the universe, is feeling shirty over the shared credit for Yesterday, the most recorded song in history. He claims he wrote it alone, that the other Beatles weren't even present at the session. It just isn't fair.
I believe him, and I agree. Lennon should not share responsibility for Yesterday -- because it's an awful song. As a musical artifact, the work vies with Michelle as the worst ballad the Beatles ever released.
Awful songs are not the same as bad songs: A bad song disappears from memory quickly, with minimal damage, whereas an awful song stays with you to the grave. That's what makes Yesterday such a blight on the aural landscape.
The melody is the sort of unoriginal noodling Lightfoot could write in a coma. (Indeed, it was made for the Lightfoot style -- vibrato-free, straight from the glottal stop and out the flared nostrils like a singing horse.) With a range of one octave it has the scale-based simplicity of a Christmas carol -- user-friendly as The First Noël, slightly more difficult than Deck the Halls.
Why have so many mediocre singers covered the song? Because they can.
According to Beatles lore, the tune rattled around McCartney's head for weeks in la-la mode, with Scrambled Eggs substituting for the opening line. (It should have stayed Scrambled Eggs. It should have been a nursery song for toddlers in their cribs.) Eventually, however, our man came up with the following:
Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away,
Now it looks as though they're here to stay,
Oh, I believe in yesterday.
Fine. A man wishes he could go back in time: A traditional ballad theme, utterly universal, for there lives no person (or dog, or cat) who has not felt the same way. As well, both the theme and the title hook identify the song as a Regret Ballad, the most popular genre on Earth. (Never let it be said that McCartney did anything to limit potential revenue.)
Now for Verse 2, which presents the writer with three formal requirements, in a form as exacting as a sonnet: (1) develop the central theme; (2) burn the tune into the listener's brain; and (3) establish the hook as the only repeated phrase. Here is what he came up with:
Suddenly, I'm not half the man
I used to be,
There's a shadow hanging over me,
Oh, yesterday came suddenly.
Oh cripes, where to begin?
Clouds and curtains and the sword of Damocles may hang over one, but certainly not shadows; and how does a shadow make one half a man? Sure, he's depressed -- but he already said that in Verse 1. And if he believes in yesterday as claimed previously, what's the problem with it coming suddenly? Is he for yesterday, or against it?
This kind of bedlam often occurs when a lyricist has painted himself into a corner and flails desperately for a difficult rhyme -- only, in this case he's working with a long "e," the most common word ending in English!
Why she had to go, I don't know,
she wouldn't say.
I said something wrong,
now I long for yesterday.
Contradictions multiply: He doesn't know why she left, yet he knows it was something he said. Does he not remember what he said? Is he an amnesia victim? If so, perhaps that would explain his inability to retain a stock metaphor from one line to the next.
Yesterday, love was such an easy game to play.
Now I need a place to hide away.
Oh, I believe in yesterday.
Mm mm mm mm mm mm mm.
Thus he leaves us, humming to himself, having tossed another garbled cliché into the stew. (Hiding away from the game of love? Again, toddlers come to mind.)
Now, don't get me wrong. When I say Yesterday is an awful song, I don't mean McCartney is an awful songwriter. ( Here, There and Everywhere is as skilful as anything by Cole Porter.) But if craft and care matter, Yesterday is a stinker.
The toughest challenge that accompanies commercial success (how should I know?) is to distinguish between the work your audience praises and the work you know to be the best you can do. The two are seldom the same. There are just too many reasons for people to love a song -- none of which has to do with whether it is well made.
Indeed, the fact that he feels so precious about Yesterday may provide a clue as to why Sir Paul isn't half the songwriter he used to be; why the shadow of banality hangs over everything he writes; why he has been yesterday's songwriter for 20 years.
Why then, you ask, did Yesterday become so popular? Two words: George Martin. Nothing like the pretentious sawing of a string quartet to lend class to a mediocre ballad, thereby to hoodwink the tin ears of this world.
Please don't get me going about Eleanor Rigby.