Why The Beatles Were ‘Embarrassed’ to Release ‘Yesterday’ as a Single

Few songs are as well known as “Yesterday,” the Paul McCartney classic that went out on The Beatles’ Help! album in 1965. In fact, when BMI rounded up the most-played songs of the 20th century, it landed at No. 3 with more than 7 million radio airplays. (That count came 19 years ago.)

For a band that had rocked to No. 1 in America with tracks like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You,” fans definitely got a different look with “Yesterday.” For starters, none of Paul’s bandmates appeared on the record.

There was no harmonizing from John Lennon, no guitar work by George Harrison, and not even a lick by Ringo. In their place, you hear a string quartet accompanying Paul on acoustic guitar.

For that reason, the band that grew up on Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry never got excited about releasing the tune as a UK single. Though it became a smash hit in the U.S., The Beatles made sure that didn’t happen in England.

Paul said The Beatles were ‘a little embarrassed’ about ‘Yesterday.’

Rock and roll band “The Beatles” pose for a portrait in circa 1967. | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

While Paul McCartney’s solo work definitely showcased his softest side years later, that wasn’t the case in ’65. The Beatles still considered themselves the band that shouted out “Twist and Shout” and clanged through rockers like “Ticket to Ride.”

According to Paul, the idea of the group being represented by him alone with a string quartet didn’t quite fit their image. “We didn’t release ‘Yesterday’ as a single in England at all,” Paul said in Anthology. “We were a little embarrassed about it — we were a rock ‘n’ roll band.”

However, most Beatles fans didn’t make this distinction at the time. The Fab Four wasn’t shy about releasing and marketing it as a single in America, and that decision paid off handsomely: “Yesterday” hit No. 1 in October and didn’t let go for four weeks.

In the following years, you couldn’t turn on the radio in the U.S. without hearing it, and that tradition has pretty much kept for the following half-century. It happens to be the most-covered song of all time.

Even Paul’s toughest critic acknowledged the genius of ‘Yesterday.’

John Lennon and Paul McCartney backstage during filming for a television show. Circa 1965. | Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

If you wonder why Paul and the band would have been embarrassed about a tune like “Yesterday,” it’s probably wise to look to one of his biggest critics — his bandmate and longtime songwriting partner John.

Lennon was always the biggest rock and roller in the band (not to mention one to get Paul’s goat). Yet John gave Paul credit where it was due. Looking back on their work shortly before his murder, John described ‘Yesterday” as “well done” and “beautiful” while adding he never wished he’d written it.

That was about as high a compliment as John ever gave Paul in public (or in private). In fact, when John released his takedown track of Paul (“How Do You Sleep?”) on Imagine, he sang, “The only thing you done was ‘Yesterday.'” Even John had to pause to pay his respects.

When your longtime partner has to acknowledge the genius of a song in the midst of trashing you, you’ve done one hell of a job. To this day, it remains a highlight of Paul McCartney concerts.

Also see: The No. 1 Beatles Song John and Paul Recorded Without George or Ringo