Why Paul McCartney couldn’t believe that he’d actually written “Yesterday”

Some think that ideas are out there, waiting for the right recipient. If one is bestowed upon you, either work on it or accept it may move on to someone else

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I recently went to see Richard Curtis’s Yesterday. Just in case I’m the only person in the world who knows about it, I should explain that it’s a movie about the only person in the world to know about the Beatles. In the film, a worldwide blackout deletes the Fab Four from the global memory bank. Only Jack, a failed songwriter, is unaffected, because at that precise moment he gets knocked unconscious in a freak accident (bus, lightning). By pretending that John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s songs are his own, Jack becomes a global rock star and is hailed as a genius.

Yesterday is not deep, but it did get me thinking about the nature of creative inspiration. The narrative is built around Jack’s dilemma: when, if ever, should he tell everyone his songs don’t come from him, but from four spirit guides called John, Paul, George and Ringo? It’s meant to feel like a high-stakes decision, but I couldn’t help thinking that if he did confess, Jack’s fans would just shrug and resume screaming. After all, songwriters say that kind of stuff all the time.

Generations of artists have described themselves as mere vessels for ideas that float their way. Some credit a muse, a daemon, or the ether. The composer Edward Elgar said, “My idea is that there is music in the air… you simply take as much as you require.” Actually, the premise that ideas come from within us is relatively new. “Genius” used to refer to a spirit attendant upon the artist, not the artist herself. “Inspiration” originally meant divine guidance – and breathing in air.

The writer Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, has described being visited by an idea for a novel. She’d learnt that in the 1960s, Brazil’s government embarked on the construction of a giant highway across the Amazon. Vast resources were expended on the project, but then the rains came; the jungle swallowed the entire site (a crude trans-Amazonian road was eventually opened in 1972). Gilbert’s idea was to use this as a backdrop for a story about an unmarried woman from Minnesota. Evelyn works for a construction firm and is silently in love with her married boss. The boss’s son, a shady type, takes money out to Brazil to bid on the jungle highway, then disappears. Evelyn is sent there to recover him. Deep in the Amazon, her quiet, orderly life is plunged into chaos.

Gilbert sold the idea to her publisher and set to work, but got sidetracked by a serious personal problem. Two years later, she returned to her notes and found herself uninspired. The idea was no longer speaking to her.

Around this time, she began a friendship with the American author Ann Patchett. One day, Patchett casually mentioned she had started work on a novel set in the Amazon. Intrigued, Gilbert told her about the project she had dropped. After hearing her synopsis, Patchett, a Southern lady of decorous manners, said, “You have got to be fucking kidding me.” Patchett’s novel, it turned out, was about a middle-aged unmarried woman from Minnesota who has been quietly in love with her boss for years. The boss gets involved with a hare-brained business scheme in the Amazon. A large sum of money and a person go missing out there and Ann Patchett’s heroine is sent to find out what’s going on. Her quiet, orderly life is plunged into chaos.

Gilbert tells this story in her 2015 book, Big Magic, which describes her theory of inspiration. Ideas are out there, she says, waiting for the right recipient. If one is bestowed upon you, either go to work on it or accept that it may move on to someone else. Though she and Patchett had never discussed her Amazon idea, she likes to think it passed between them. Creative people can get distraught when someone appears to have taken their idea, and cry foul. Gilbert believes the best way to think about ideas is as of common property – and that if you work hard enough, you’ll get your share.

Whether you buy this or not, it’s undeniable that many artists are baffled by the provenance of their ideas. “If I knew where the good songs come from,” said Leonard Cohen, “I’d go there more often.”

When artists do explain how their work originated, it can be unreliable. Paul McCartney used to say that he came up with the name Eleanor Rigby by taking the first name from the actress Eleanor Bron, and the second from a Bristol wine shop, Rigby & Evens. Then, in 1984, someone spotted a headstone in a graveyard close to McCartney’s childhood home in Liverpool – in the grounds of the same church where he met John Lennon, in fact – bearing the name Eleanor Rigby.

Believing that ideas have a life of their own makes it easier for creators to cope with the terror of having to make something out of nothing. The trick pulled by great artists is to make the impossible seem inevitable (hence my pitch for Yesterday II: a couple of teenagers meet in Liverpool in 1957 and realise that nobody in the world yet knows about the Beatles). Things go better for them if they believe in magic.

One morning in 1964, Paul McCartney awoke with a perfectly formed melody in his head and went straight to the piano. The Beatles were tied to an insane recording schedule and there was enormous pressure to produce new songs, but McCartney kept this one back for over a year.

Why? Because he couldn’t quite believe it was his. He played it to George Martin, to John Lennon, to anyone who would listen, asking them, have you heard this before? Only after everyone shook their head did McCartney finally accept that “Yesterday” had arrived from the place that the good songs come from. 

Next week: Jonathan Liew

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article appears in the 16 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The age of conspiracy