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This woman nearly gave 'Yesterday' an electronic backing!

We know very well the most-covered song of all time, with its lush string quartet backing. But it was nearly given the electronic treatment.


Q magazine must have some pretty bad reporters on its staff, because however many times they interview Paul McCartney, they never manage to get all of the information. There's always some new interesting nugget coming out. Or perhaps it's planned that way...

The interesting nugget of information for March 2013 (delayed only by 48 years) is that McCartney gave serious consideration to using an electronic backing on Yesterday, (recorded in 1965) instead of strings.

History has demonstrated that this would almost certainly have been a bad idea. Yesterday is apparently the most-covered song of all time, with more than 2200 cover versions according to Wikipedia. It would be hard to believe that a version with an electronic arrangement would have made the song more successful.

But the idea that the song could have had electronic backing is fascinating.

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This story has already been widely covered in the media, and almost all versions I have seen say that the backing would have been made using synthesizers. Well I don't think this is quite correct.

McCartney's plan was to work with electronic composer and arranger Delia Derbyshire, of the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop, and apparently he visited her to discuss the project.

The reason I don't think that synthesizers would have been contemplated is that the Radiophonic Workshop only acquired their first synthesizer in 1965. Perhaps it was already available for use at the time of the recording of Yesterday in 1965, but the historical reports I can find don't give sufficient level of precision to confirm this. I would contend however that unless the Radiophonic Workshop immediately went synth-crazy as soon as the synthesizer was delivered, most work would have been accomplished using their existing techniques. And Derbyshire wasn't the only composer at the Radiophonic Workshop - the other composers would surely have been fighting over the new toy.


Who is to say that the BBC would have allowed Derbyshire to use the Radiophonic Workshop for an external project? McCartney is quoted as saying that Derbyshire had a shed that was "full of tape machines and funny instruments", and that, in all probability, is what she would have used.

Music Concrète

What people tend to forget these days is that there is a whole world of electronic music that lies completely outside of the influence of synthesizers, at least synthesizers as we know them today.

The term Musique Concrète is often used, and it is as good an expression as any, meaning music made without using conventional musical instruments. Any sound source can be used and any method of manipulation. Conventional instruments can be used, but would have to be modified considerably by electronic means to fall within the definition.

Which brings me to possibly the most iconic piece of Music Concrète ever created - and created by none other than Delia Derbyshire...

This is the original theme music for Doctor Who. It may sound a bit tame now, but when it was first heard in 1963, for most people it was revolutionary - they just hadn't heard those kinds of sounds before.

And it wasn't made using synthesizers. The year is 1963 and the BBC didn't have any. It was made using the techniques of Music Concrète with oscillators, tape manipulation, and keys being scraped along the strings of an old piano.

The notes, by the way, were composed by Ron Grainer, who was presumably assigned all the royalties. But the extraordinary sound is all from the inventive mind of Delia Derbyshire.

Might have been...

So what could Yesterday have been with an electronic backing by Delia Derbyshire, instead of a string quartet? It might have just weirded people out back in the 1960s, or it could have taken popular music in a whole new direction. We will never know...

By David Mellor Sunday March 24, 2013