Fab: The Life of Paul McCartney

[7 November 2010]

By Howard Sounes

Excerpted from Chapter 7: “Yesterday” from Fab: The Life of Paul McCartney by Howard Sounes. Excerpted by arrangement with Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2010. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

The Smash of the Century
It was a fine time to be in London, which started to ‘swing’ at least a year before Time identified the phenomenon with its famous April 1966 cover story, ‘London: The Swinging City’. The death of Sir Winston Churchill in January 1965 can be seen as a watershed, marking the end of the drab post-war period, after which the nation seemed to embrace colour and change. Most British people were much the same, of course, but a creative and cultural renaissance was taking place in the heart of the capital, one that caught the attention of the world, and Paul was at the centre of it.

The Beatles may have been the premier British pop band of the day, but they were not the only ones making exciting new music. As other Mersey Sound acts fell by the wayside, new, mostly London-based bands, such as the Stones, the Who and Pink Floyd came to the fore, remaking rock ’n’ roll into a more elaborate form of popular music. Rock, as it was becoming known, would be one of Britain’s great exports, something the country could do as well as America, with the success of the Beatles in the USA paving the way for these new British bands. It was also partly thanks to the success of the Beatles that talented, young, working-class people from diverse walks of life were accepted as celebrities, the likes of photographer David Bailey, actor Michael Caine and Bradford-born painter David Hockney, who along with his friend Peter Blake became a leading light in modern art. Writers grouped together as the Angry Young Men had also paved the way for this cultural change with their plays and novels. A working-class accent, which had hitherto been a disadvantage in British life, was now very much in vogue. The snobby Chelsea Set wanted to mix with such people. ‘Anybody who had any sort of character or creativity or charisma was welcome,’ notes Lord St Germans, one of the dandies involved in Beatles merchandising, adding that ‘it helped to be good-looking’. The young started to dress differently, women wearing bright make-up and short skirts, pioneered by the designer Mary Quant; while men grew their hair and affected an eclectic mixture of modish, foppish and antique clothing. The trend-setters shopped in boutiques in the King’s Road and on Carnaby Street in Soho. They met up at night in such fashionable clubs as the Ad Lib, a penthouse above Leicester Square from which one could observe the futuristic Post Office Tower – an icon of the new, white-hot Britain – being erected in Fitzrovia.

How wonderful it was to be young, good-looking and successful in London at this time, moreover to be loved and admired by people all over the world, the money absolutely pouring in. Paul was in this happy position. Despite the niggardly royalty deal the Beatles had with EMI, and the unfavourable terms of the publishing agreement with Dick James, the star was informed by his accountant in 1965 that he was a millionaire. He was earning so much he kept fat envelopes of spare cash in his sock drawer at Wimpole Street. He’d done the right thing by his nearest and dearest, buying Dad a house on the Wirral, and giving his kid brother an allowance; he’d treated himself to some boys’ toys, notably his Aston Martin and Radford Mini de Ville (a souped-up Mini with a luxurious interior); and he’d given Jane some nice gifts, too, bits of jewellery and other fripperies. Now he proved how serious he was about their relationship by taking Jane shopping for a house.

Paul chose a property in Cavendish Avenue, a quiet residential street in St John’s Wood, within walking distance of Lord’s Cricket Ground, Regent’s Park and, most importantly, the EMI studios on Abbey Road. ‘He wanted to be right above the shop,’ notes Tony Barrow. ‘He wanted to do that for the purposes of self-achievement, further climbing up the ladder. You can’t do that if you are stuck out in the country.’ Paul could also get into the West End easily from St John’s Wood, while his chosen neighbourhood retained a village-like atmosphere, community life focused around the shops on Circus Road, where Paul became a patron of the pub, Post Office, greengrocer, café and grocery store. To this day he pops into Panzer’s for his bagels and enjoys a drink at the Star on nearby Charlbert Street.

As Tony Barrow correctly indicates, buying a house in this neighbourhood represented a further step up for Paul. Step one had been from Speke to a better class of council house on Forthlin Road; step two was lodging in Wimpole Street with the Ashers; step three saw him ensconcing himself among rich and distinguished neighbours living in grand mid-nineteenth-century houses built for the gentry. The Honourable David Astor, Editor of the Observer and son of Lord and Lady Astor – whose stately home, Clivedon House, had been used for the ‘Buckingham Palace’ scenes in Help! – was one such neighbour, as were the journalist Woodrow Wyatt, Labour MP Leo Abse and the actor Harry H. Corbett, star of Steptoe and Son. On the west side of the avenue, behind high brick walls and double gates, stood a series of large, detached mansions with raised ground-floor drawing rooms, kitchens below and servants’ quarters in the attics, very Upstairs Downstairs. There were stables in the back from the days when residents kept carriages. Most had since been converted into garages, and one or two neighbours ran a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. It was one of these properties, 7 Cavendish Avenue, that Paul bought for £40,000 ($61,200) in April 1965, then spent a small fortune having done up over the course of the next year. Paul referred to his new house simply as Cavendish. It is still his London home.

As renovations were made to his new home, Paul remained in his garret in Wimpole Street, where was born the most successful song he or virtually any songwriter of his generation wrote, a song that would be covered by more than 3,000 artists and played millions of times on the radio, what Paul refers to as ‘possibly the smash of the century’. One morning in 1963 Paul awoke in his garret with a melody in his head that he assumed was a jazz standard, one of the songs his father used to play that had insinuated itself into his unconscious. Paul went straight to the piano. ‘I just fell out of bed, found out what key I had dreamed it in, and it seemed near G, and I played it,’ he told journalist Ray Coleman.

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

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/133224-fab-the-life-of-paul-mccartney/