It didn’t take long for ‘Yesterday’ to become one of The Beatles’ most iconic songs. First heard by British audiences on the 1965 LP Help!, the song was originally blocked from becoming a single in the UK, largely on the insistence of manager Brian Epstein wishing to preserve group unity in the face of what basically amounted to being a Paul McCartney solo song.
“[‘Yesterday’] wasn’t really a Beatles record and I discussed this with Brian Epstein: ‘You know this is Paul’s song … shall we call it Paul McCartney?'” George Martin recalled in Anthology. “He said ‘No, whatever we do we are not splitting up the Beatles.'”
Despite Epstein instructing EMI to keep ‘Yesterday’ an album track, he wasn’t able to do the same in America. Epstein’s influence only extended so far, and when Capitol Records heard ‘Yesterday’, they knew that it was a monster. ‘Yesterday’ was a number one hit in the US for four weeks in the fall of 1965, giving the band their fifth and final number one of that year, more than any other artist.
So, naturally, when it came time for The Beatles to once again hit the road, it only made sense to include ‘Yesterday’ in the setlists. Chart popularity wasn’t the only driving force behind the song’s inclusion – the band were beginning to grow restless with their traditional live performances and wanted to show their range. A softer song like ‘Yesterday’ added a new dimension to the hard-rocking high-energy sets that The Beatles usually played.
When audiences got to hear ‘Yesterday’ live, however, it might have sounded a bit different. That’s because The Beatles played the track in a completely new key and arrangement for their live performances. The original studio recording of ‘Yesterday’ features McCartney playing an acoustic guitar tuned a whole step down, landing the song in the key of F.
During some of the group’s final tours, ‘Yesterday’ was re-arranged to include the entire band backing McCartney up. Since the band usually played the same guitars throughout the entirety of their concerts, it didn’t make sense for McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison to have guitars tuned down at the ready. So the band simply played the song in G, with McCartney taking his melancholy vocal melody up into a more jaunty register.
Only a year after the ‘Yesterday’ single hit the top of the American charts, The Beatles decided to stop touring. That meant that the song only saw 53 live performances over the course of just twelve months of touring, including being played at the band’s final concert at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on August 29th, 1966. McCartney himself brought the song back for the ‘Wings Over the World’ tour of 1975 and has played the song live at least 600 times over the course of his solo career.
Check out one of the rare live full-band arrangements of ‘Yesterday’ down below.