Is The Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’ Really the Most-Covered Song of All Time?
On June 28, the Danny Boyle film Yesterday hit theaters worldwide. In the movie, a supernatural event occurs that wipes every Beatles song out of existence — save for one man. Armed with the classic Lennon-McCartney catalog, a young singer-songwriter (Himesh Patel) sets the world afire.
In practice, it means at least a dozen new Beatles covers are coming our way (like it or not). That’ll add onto the countless cover versions of tunes like “In My Life,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Hello Goodbye,” “Hey Jude,” and so on. (Who can forget the Joe Pesci rendition of “Fool on the Hill”?)
But the title of the film is no accident. Alongside “Hey Jude,” the band’s biggest hit single, you might call “Yesterday” the most popular Beatles song of all time. After all, American DJs played it over 7 million times before the turn of the century.
Meanwhile, the number of times artists covered the song has also reached record levels. Once you do the math, you can see why many consider it the most-covered song in history.
By some counts, the number of ‘Yesterday’ covers exceeds 3,000.
Around the turn of the century, the BBC declared “Yesterday” the most-covered song of all time with 2,200 versions on record. After its 1965 release on Help!, the Paul McCartney-penned tune started racking up cover versions right away.
Elvis himself was doing a version in concerts by the late ’60s. In 1970, Marvin Gaye weighed in with a cover that mostly ignored the original melody and focused on import of the lyrics.
The versions kept on coming. Frank Sinatra, Liberace, Marianne Faithful, and Joan Baez recorded it not long after The Beatles released it. After the turn of the century, the Guinness Book of World Records updated the number of “Yesterday” covers in existence.
At last count, the number topped 3,000 versions. With that figure on the books, it stands alone as the track with the most love from other artists — and thus among the most profitable for a music publisher.
Paul labored an unusually long time to finish ‘Yesterday.’
Paul and John Lennon could be incredibly fast workers. In some cases, friends remembered them banging out the main work on a song in just a few hours. But while composing “Yesterday,” Paul labored much longer than usual.
It started out innocently enough — Paul says the song (i.e., the music) came to him in his sleep. The hard part came with the lyrics.
Since he didn’t have an idea about the words, he put in placeholders. Instead of “Yesterday,” he sang “scrambled eggs” and rhymed it with “baby, how I love your legs.”
When the group was working on the A Hard Day’s Night film, director Richard Lester recalled being driven nuts by Paul practicing the song and singing about scrambled eggs. “If you play that bloody song any longer I’ll have the piano taken off stage,” Lester told him. “Either finish it or give up!”
It took a while longer, but Paul did finish what he considered his best song. However, it also became a source of supreme annoyance for John. Since it had the Lennon-McCartney tag, everyone thought he was a co-writer.
No matter where he went — from a Mexican restaurant in New York to a paella place in Spain — musicians would sidle up to his dinner table and perform their versions to him in tribute.
We’re guessing the same has happened to Paul, though his reaction was probably more appreciative.
See also: The Paul McCartney Songs John Lennon Described as ‘Granny Music’