How the Beatles Launched a String-Playing Revolution
It was 40 years ago today . . . or was it 'Yesterday'?
It all began with a dream. Beatles bassist Paul McCartney—then a harried singer and songwriter trying to keep one step ahead of adoring fans while living in the attic of actress/girlfriend Jane Asher’s parents’ house on Wimpole Street in London—awoke one morning with an especially catchy melody stuck in his head. McCartney rolled out of bed and moved to a piano that he kept in the tiny room. “I thought, ‘Hey, I don’t know this tune—or do I?’ It was like a jazz melody,” he recalled in 2000’s The Beatles: Anthology. “My dad used to know a lot of old jazz tunes, I thought maybe I’d just remembered it from the past. . . . I hawked it round to all my friends, asking what it was: ‘Do you know this? It’s a good little tune, but I couldn’t have written it because I dreamt it.’”
At first that “good little tune” had the placeholder title “Scrambled Eggs,” but soon McCartney settled on the more suitably nostalgic “Yesterday.”
“I remember thinking that people like sad tunes,” he noted. “They like to wallow a bit when they’re alone, to put a record on and go, ‘Ahh.’”
The now famous recording, which Beatles chronicler Mark Lewisohn has dubbed “the supreme melodic ballad,” features McCartney on acoustic guitar and vocals backed by a string quartet. It has proved to be a milestone in many ways. Forty years after McCartney laid down the tracks for “Yesterday”—between June 14 and 17, 1965 at EMI Studios in London—the composition is the most played pop song of all time. The recording marked the first time a Beatle was heard solo and the first time the band used strings. It ushered in the common use of stringed instruments in pop music and helped bridge the then-wide rift between classical and pop music.
“Its impact has been huge,” says cellist and arranger John Reed of the Hampton String Quartet, whose members have built a career arranging and recording pop music for string quartets and orchestras. “‘Yesterday’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’ said in one fell swoop, strings can be cool. Certainly strings had been used as padding in arrangements for a long time before that, but it heralded them into the culture of rock and pop.
“Since then, string players have made lots of money being hired to sweeten thousands of rock tracks.”
It’s fitting that McCartney should be an important figure in the history of string music. In 1958, his longtime idol Texas rocker Buddy Holly had become the first pop artist to use string players, on the single “True Love Ways” and “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.” The Beatles went on to record several of Holly’s songs and McCartney later purchased the publishing rights to Holly’s catalog.
But Beatles producer George Martin deserves much of the credit for “Yesterday”’s innovative string treatment. Martin, who coincidentally had once been an oboe student of Jane Asher’s mother, first suggested the use of strings. At first, McCartney objected, saying he didn’t want a saccharine sound like Montavani. (However, the Beatles later would enlist some of Montavani’s musicians from the London Symphony Orchestra for their studio sessions.)
Soon Martin, a graduate of Guildhall School of Music and a failed classical pianist, and the self-taught McCartney were collaborating on the song’s string arrangement; Martin worked out the solemn voicings and McCartney contributed the “blue” seventh played by the cello halfway through the second bridge. Martin then enlisted an ad hoc string quartet (Tony Gilbert, first violin; Sidney Sax, second violin; Kenneth Essex, viola; and Francisco Gabarro, cello) for the trend-setting session.
“McCartney vetoed the excessive vibrato of the string players,” reports The Rough Guide to the Beatles, “and the result was a recording that exuded class and originality.”
Over the years, the Beatles refined their use of strings, employing 40 classical musicians to create the swirling 24-bar sonic vortex heard two years later on “A Day in the Life,” hiring a string section to accompany the band on the landmark June 25, 1967 worldwide satellite broadcast of “All You Need is Love,” and allowing producer Phil Spector to add an orchestral backing to McCartney’s piano ballad “The Long and Winding Road,” which appeared on the band’s 1970 swan song Let It Be.
Ironically, McCartney has traveled full circle over the use of strings. Spector’s orchestral flourishes on Let It Be irked the ex-Beatle for three decades. In 2003, he settled the score, supervising the release of Let It Be . . . Naked, which features remixed versions of “The Long and Winding Road” and two other tracks stripped of Spector’s strings and brass.
“Poor Phil Spector,” the Washington Times quipped in a review of the CD, “first the murder charge, now this.”