‘Yesterday’ Movie — Which Just Premiered in Theaters — Begs a Tantalizing Question:
If the Beatles hadn’t existed, would someone else have written their songs?
Rock music is roughly seventy years old, if one counts the late 1940s as the time when the first rock and roll songs — such as rhythm and blues artist Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right (Mama)” (1946), Wynonie Harris’ “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (1948), and Jimmie Preston’s “Rock the Joint” (1949) — were released. So is it possible that all the great rock songs have been sung, and there’s little chance for a modern performer to create anything fresh?
If you’ve tried to write even one song that’s both melodious and original, you’ve probably realized how hard it is. Most of us find that our attempt either sounds like a song already in existence, or just isn’t very good (hence the lackluster “fake songs” used for fictitious rock bands in TV and movies). The Beatles, when they recorded “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in 1963, had the benefit of largely unchartered territory, but obviously that’s not what accounts for their success; Paul McCartney and John Lennon possessed a special kind
The film “Yesterday” hits U.S. theaters on Friday, June 28.
of genius, and the fact that they met each other, and did so as teens, is one of the biggest miracles in modern music. Before they broke up in 1970, the Fab Four had composed more than 30 top-10 hits (some of which charted later) and 20 number ones, all with staying power.
But let’s say none of the mop-tops had existed. Would other people have eventually written songs with similar melodies? Would those have touched upon similar themes of loneliness, hope, and peace (it was the 1960s after all)? Or is it possible that by 2019, no one would have come up with anything remotely like “Yesterday”, “Eleanor Rigby,” or “All You Need is Love”?
The new film “Yesterday” hits U.S. theaters on Friday, June 28. It presents a tantalizing question: if the four fabulous musicians hadn’t come up with their scores of hits, would other artists have eventually composed similar tunes? Or would we have forever been deprived of anything like them?
We live in an age of remaking and sampling other people’s songs. In the last ten years, some of the most successful singer-songwriters under 30 have been sued for sounding too close to what’s come before. Sam Smith faced legal action from Tom Petty because “Stay With Me” was too close to “I Won’t Back Down.” Ed Sheeran, who appears in “Yesterday” telling the main character to change the words of “Hey Jude” to “Hey, Dude,” has been seen as one of the most original young voices among British artists, but was sued because his precocious “Thinking Out Loud” (2014) sounded too much like Marvin Gaye’s 1973 “Let’s Get It On.” (Don’t worry — according to the suit, all he did was copy “the melody, rhythms, harmonies, drums, bass line, backing chorus, tempo, syncopation and looping”). Another recent suit from Marvin Gaye’s family, against Pharrell for the 2013 hit “Blurred Lines,” apparently started a trend: “The Blurred Lines case has led to many artists crediting minor resemblances in their songs in order to avoid potential lawsuits,” writes The Guardian. “In March 2017, two weeks after Sheeran released his third album, ÷, he added three new songwriting credits to his No 1 single Shape Of You, crediting the writing and production team behind TLC’s 1999 single No Scrubs. And Taylor Swift acknowledged Right Said Fred as co-writers on her 2017 comeback single Look What You Made Me Do….”
According to the suit, he copied “the melody, rhythms, harmonies, drums, bass line, backing chorus, tempo, syncopation and looping.”
(Speaking of Marvin Gaye: listen to the 2015 song “Marvin Gaye” by wunderkind singer-songwriter Charlie Puth, and it may bother you — as it did me — until you realize it’s actually “Every Breath You Take.” Some say it’s more like “Lean on Me,” and it does echo Leo Sayer’s “More Than I Can Say.”)
This is not to say that all of these artists knowingly stole; some may not have realized the similarities to prior ditties (“subconscious plagiarism,” said the judge in the case of The Chiffons’ ’“He’s So Fine” vs. George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” in 1971) or may not have heard songs from decades before they were born. If the latter is true, it shows that every sort of song will be composed sooner or later. It stands to reason there’s a limited number of combinations of chords, progressions, and beats in music — and while it would theoretically take light years for them all to be put together, it’s likely that a modern rock artist will find that one of his creations evokes one from all those years ago.
We might well have wound up with “Hey, Dude.”
If the Beatles hadn’t existed, it’s likely someone would have written songs that contained some similar chords or melodies. But considering their ability to create characters and storylines, and the pure inventiveness of their music, it’s unlikely another artist would ever have approached their level of creavity. We might well have wound up with “Hey, Dude.”
Occasionally we still hear from breatkthrough artists who conjure up an unsung song. There’s also nothing wrong with borrowing; it’s just nicer when an act acknowledges it. Musicians may revive a forgotten tune for a new generation or do something fresh an old hit (fans of Toto’s “Africa” were a bit annoyed when Weezer’s version last year sounded almost the same as its predecessor). Elvis was quite the borrower himself, from “That’s All Right” (Mama) to “It’s Now or Never,” the latter of which was a repurposed “’O Sole Mio” from 1898.
Meanwhile, it turns out that even the premise of “Yesterday” has been done before — it’s similar to a longrunning 1990s BBC TV comedy called “Goodnight Sweetheart” about a man who travels back in time to World War II-era London and plays the Beatles’ tunes as his own. That show will come back again too— it’s being turned into a musical to premiere next year.