What would have happened if Paul McCartney had never come up with the words for “Yesterday”? One of the most covered songs in the history of music would have instead been left languishing as a beautiful but oddly comic paean to that most comforting of breakfast dishes, scrambled eggs.
In fact, “Scrambled Eggs” was the working title McCartney gave to the tune, which he said came to him almost fully formed in a dream one night in 1963. Twenty-one-year-old McCartney was living in an attic room facing the back of Wimpole Street, a handsome Georgian row parallel to Harley Street in the centre of London. The house was the family home of his girlfriend, Jane Asher, who McCartney had met when the 17-year-old actress interviewed the Beatles at a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in April that year.
It was food as much as love that had drawn the young Liverpudlian McCartney to take up residence in the five-story Asher household with Jane’s parents and two siblings. Tired of staying in shared hotel rooms on their increasingly frequent trips to London, the Beatles had moved in together, sharing a flat on Green Street just off Park Lane (and not far from the Ashers). Despite finally having his own room there, McCartney hated the austere surroundings of the sparsely furnished rented apartment. He missed the cosy comforts of his childhood home in Allerton where, after the death of his mother when he was 14, assorted aunts would come around to cook meals for Paul, his father and brother Michael.
Jane Asher’s mother Margaret, a professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama who gave oboe lessons in the Wimpole Street basement, cooked every day for the family. However Jane – who would herself go on to become a renowned cake-maker in the 1980s – would later remember that her mother was not a particularly adventurous cook. She told the Daily Telegraph in 2013, “When I grew up, our meals were based on meat and two overcooked veg, with the occasional kipper. Nothing as risky as garlic or chilli was allowed. The most exotic it got was my mother’s curried eggs: halved hard-boiled eggs covered in a curry-powder-flavoured white sauce.”
Nonetheless, it was the warmth of Margaret Asher’s simple cooking that led Paul McCartney to take up her offer of moving into the family’s spare attic room. As he recalled, “It was such a nice household instead of a cold flat – and Margaret Asher cooked!” Perhaps it was the musical atmosphere and his well-fed state that led McCartney to his fateful dream of the tune for “Yesterday”. He fell out of bed one morning and on the adjacent piano hammered out the haunting melody still in his head. Convinced it must be one of the old jazz tunes his father listened to, McCartney played the song to everyone he knew to see if they recognised it.
One evening he was playing the tune at the flat of an actress and singer called Alma Cogan. As he sat playing the still wordless tune to Cogan and her sister Sandra, their mother walked into the living room and asked if anyone would like some scrambled eggs. McCartney sang the words on top of the melody, improvising for the next line, “Oh baby how I love your legs.” It’s not clear which of the three Cogan women inspired this line, but the scrambled eggs – as they often do if not buttered or stirred enough – stuck. It wasn’t until a trip to Portugal more than a year and half later that the lyrics to “Yesterday” finally came to McCartney, and all traces of the eggs were finally removed.
Not that food was always excised from Beatles songs. In 2001 American band scholar Martin Lewis analysed 1,800 recordings, from the Beatles’ early material up to their solo careers, and discovered that the most mentioned foodstuff in their lyrics was honey. Meanwhile a sweet tooth became the basis for George Harrison’s 1968 song, “Savoy Truffle”. Harrison had observed his friend Eric Clapton’s fondness for chocolate, despite his increasingly decaying teeth, which had led to continuous pain and a warning from Clapton’s dentist that he needed to stop eating sugar. Harrison’s song concludes with the brutal warning: “But you'll have to have them all pulled out/ After the Savoy truffle.”
Harrison’s dietary beliefs were a big influence on the rest of the band. He was the first to go vegetarian in 1965, and was the most militant, banning all fish and meat from his home. One of his favourite recipes – collected in the 1980 Rock and Roll Cookbook by Peter Frampton’s ex-wife Mary – was called Dark Horse Lentil Soup (heavy on the cumin seeds). In the same book, Ringo Starr gave the instructions to Frampton for his favourite meal as, "Travel to your local fish and chip shop. Ask for cod and chips. Add salt and vinegar to taste. Eat with fingers for best results!". Starr, who suffered from peritonitis as a child, struggled with the spicy Indian food when the band travelled to the Rishikesh ashram in 1968, apparently surviving on the baked beans he had brought with him in his suitcase and, of course, plenty of eggs. Yoko Ono persuaded John Lennon to adopt a macrobiotic diet in the late Sixties, and the couple were frequent visitors to Seed restaurant, set up in 1968 in the basement of the Gloucester Hotel on Westbourne Terrace by Craig Sams, who would later go on to create Green & Black’s chocolate. Mingling with the likes of Terence Stamp and Marc Bolan, the couple would eat Seed’s rice and vegetable dishes while sat on cushions, at tables made out of electrical cable reels. (Despite the constraints of the diet, Lennon could never completely give up his beloved fried breakfasts and takeaway pizza.)
McCartney was to become the most famous vegetarian of the four, forswearing meat completely in the early Seventies after his marriage to Linda Eastman. His simple childhood tastes, however, never completely changed and Linda developed her trademark vegetarian sausages and pies in response to Paul’s desire to fill what he described as, “the hole in the middle of the plate”. And the memory of “Yesterday” still lingers too in the title McCartney gave to Wings’ final 1979 album Back to the Egg. Despite their famous song that said so, none of the Beatles was ever a walrus – but it seems McCartney, at least, spent some time as an egg man.