The Life of Paul McCartney

by Howard Sounes

7 November 2010


A Song from a Dream

I said to myself: I wonder what it is, you know. I just couldn’t figure it [all out], because I’d just woken up. And I got a couple of chords to it. I got the G, then I got the nice F sharp minor seventh, that was the big waaaahhhh. That led very naturally to the B which led very naturally to the E minor. It just kept sort of tumbling out with those chords. I thought: well this is very nice, but it’s a nick … [By which he meant that the melody was so perfect he couldn’t believe it had come to him in a dream.] There was no logic to it at all. And I’d never had that. And I’ve never had it since. This was the crazy thing about this song. It was fairly mystical when I think about it, because of the circumstances. It was the only song I ever dreamed!

Paul played the tune for friends wherever he went, at the Georges V in Paris, backstage at concerts, to the extent that it became a joke within the band, George Harrison grumbling that anybody would think Paul was Ludwig van-bloody-Beethoven the way he went on about that tune. Paul was canvassing as many people as possible to see if it really was an original composition, and played the tune one evening at the home of the singer Alma Cogan. At this point there were no words. Alma’s mother came in and asked if anybody would like a snack of scrambled eggs. Paul began to play the tune over with new dummy lyrics, ‘Scrambled eggs/Oh my baby how I love your legs/oh scrambled eggs’, and this became the working title of the song: ‘Scrambled Eggs’.

Paul’s innately musical mind had somehow conjured a classic – a mark of genius – to which he’d finally put words.

In May 1965 Paul and Jane took up a standing invitation from Bruce Welch of the Shadows to visit him at his holiday home in Portugal. The couple flew first to Lisbon, and were then chauffeur-driven the 160 miles south to the Algarve. Paul occupied himself during the long drive by fitting words to his new tune. The moment they got to the villa, Paul dashed for a guitar like somebody in need of the toilet. ‘He said straight away, “Have you got a guitar?” I could see he had been writing the lyrics on the way down; he had the paper in his hand as he arrived,’ recollects Welch. Although Paul had written reflective love songs before, notably ‘Things We Said Today’, the lyric to this new song was surprisingly mature for a man approaching his 23rd birthday, reflecting on a broken love affair.

Why she had to go, I don’t know, she wouldn’t say.

I said something wrong, now I long for yesterday.

It was a song of confusion, defeat and regret, emotions one wouldn’t imagine Paul had much experience of, from what we know of his young life, and radically different to the upbeat songs that had made the Beatles popular. Here was a lachrymose ballad more suited to artists like Frank Sinatra or Ray Charles (both would cover it). Paul’s innately musical mind had somehow conjured a classic – a mark of genius – to which he’d finally put words. The words are not brilliant, but the lyric does resonate. Paul has suggested that the song related to the death of his mother, showing how deep that loss ran.

When he got back to London, Paul performed ‘Yesterday’ for the band and George Martin at EMI where they were finishing the Help! soundtrack.

Ringo said, ‘I can’t really put any drums on – it wouldn’t make sense.’ And John and George said, ‘There’s no point in having another guitar.’ So George Martin suggested, ‘Why don’t you just try it yourself and see how it works?’ I looked at the others: ‘Oops. You mean a solo record?’ They said, ‘Yeah, it doesn’t matter, there’s nothing we can add to it – do it.’

Played solo on acoustic guitar, ‘Yesterday’ sounded a little like a Dylan song. What made ‘Yesterday’ distinctively Beatlesque was George Martin’s decision to orchestrate it with strings, not in the schmaltzy style of Mantovani, but using a string quartet to lend the song a classical elegance. Unable to read or write music, Paul’s contribution to creating the string accompaniment was limited to listening to what George did and making comments, though his comments didn’t lack perspicacity. Paul made it clear, for example, that he didn’t like the way the session musicians hired for the job – two violins, cello and viola – added vibrato. Paul insisted they play the notes precisely. A little vibrato crept in, but not enough to make the recording like Muzak (though ‘Yesterday’ would be used as that). Arranging this record was a turning point for George Martin in his relationship with the band, after which he made an increasingly significant, creative contribution. ‘It was on “Yesterday”’’, he said, ‘that I started to score their music.’ Partly as a result, Beatles’ records began to become more interesting. Paul knew they had done something special.

Photo (partial) by XX Jerry Bauer

Photo (partial) by © Jerry Bauer

Howard Sounes is the author of Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan and Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life.  He lives in London.

© Howard Sounds

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