When was it recorded? Apr. 28-29 + Jun. 6, 1966
When was it first released, and on which album? Aug. 5, 1966 on “Revolver”
Who wrote it? McCartney (more or less)
Have I heard this song before? YEP
What my research dug up:
Alright alright alright, let’s get the ball rolling here again.
The “story” is typical of Paul with its two characters who seem to be unrelated to each other when introduced respectively in the first two verses, only to be brought into ironic proximity of each other in the final scene, as though this were some kind of novel by Dos Passos, or Paul’s not much later song, “Penny Lane.” On the other hand, I can’t help but sense the influence of John upon Paul’s particular choices of detailed imagery and idiosyncratic turns of phrase. – Alan Pollack, “Notes on ‘Eleanor Rigby’”
According to the Beatles Bible, “Paul McCartney came up with the initial idea in the music room in the basement of Jane Asher’s family home in Wimpole Street, London.” To make a long story short, he fucked around a lot with the words before being hitting on the “idea of someone picking up rice after a wedding” (McCartney, Anthology).
So Paul finished the first verse… then tapped out again. He then took it to John, who along with George, Ringo, and Pete Shotten – one of John’s friends from school – hashed out the rest of the lyrics. According to the Beatles’ Bible,
- Ringo was responsible for Father McKenzie “darning his socks in the night”
- George coined the refrain (“Ah, look at all the lonely people”)
- Pete suggested Eleanor and Father McKenzie’s stories overlapped in the final verse
- IDK what John was responsible for, which is especially baffling since he later claimed he wrote like 50-70% of it, but whatever
The two main characters of the song were originally named Miss Daisy Hawkins and Father McCartney because they were the right number of syllables Paul wanted. He decided on Eleanor Rigby due to
- Eleanor Bron, the lead actress from the Beatles’ film “Help!”
- Rigby & Evens Ltd, Wine & Spirit Shippers, a store he walked past in Bristol while visiting his then-girlfriend Jane Asher
If only it were that simple though.
“I thought, I swear, that I made up the name Eleanor Rigby like that. I remember quite distinctly having the name Eleanor, looking around for a believable surname and then wandering around the docklands in Bristol and seeing the shop there. But it seems that up in Woolton Cemetery, where I used to hang out a lot with John, there’s a gravestone to an Eleanor Rigby. Apparently, a few yards to the right there’s someone called McKenzie.” — Paul McCartney (Anthology)
The Woolton Cemetery and adjacent St. Peter’s Church & Church Hall in Liverpool is purportedly where Paul and John first met prior to a performance by The Quarrymen in 1957. The subconscious mind works in mysterious ways.
Quoth the Beatles Bible, “The real Eleanor Rigby was born in 1895 and lived in Liverpool, where she married a man named Thomas Woods. She died on 10 October 1939 at the age of 44 and was buried along with the bodies of her grandfather John Rigby, his wife Frances and their daughter Doris. The tombstone has since become a landmark for Beatles fans visiting Liverpool.”
As for the Father, Paul claims he grabbed the surname McKenzie out of a phone book he randomly flipped through.
“Eleanor Rigby” does not feature any of the Beatles on instruments. Paul, John, and George sing the vocals, but the backing is entirely a string octet of studio musicians.
According to John, “The violins backing was Paul’s idea. Jane Asher had turned him on to [Antonio] Vivaldi, and it was very good, the violins, straight out of Vivaldi. I can’t take any credit for that, a-tall.”
The lovely and talented George Martin scored the string section, inspired by legendary film composer and mastodon of divine conceit Bernard Herrmann. (Take a shot for every adjective I just used.) You know, the guy who scored “Psycho?” (The ‘stabby’ string part is at 4:30 if that’s what you’re here for.)
Compare “Eleanor Rigby” to Paul’s hit from the year prior, “Yesterday.” Both use string backing arrangements, but they’re more staccato, more urgent in “Eleanor” and smoother in “Yesterday.”
In his notes on “Eleanor Rigby,” Pollack posed three ‘discussion’ questions. The one I found most provoking – “How much of the compositional credit should George Martin get for this song? Granted, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ could survive an arrangement for other forces than string octet, but I’d dare say that Martin’s contribution goes far beyond mere orchestration, and is truly an integral part of the message of the original; no?”
The double single of “Eleanor Rigby” and “Yellow Submarine” was released the same day as the “Revolver” album. It peaked at #1 on the UK charts and stayed there for four weeks but only hit #11 in the US.
Quoth Wikipedia, “’Eleanor Rigby’ was nominated for three Grammy awards in 1966, and won the Best Contemporary Rock and Roll Vocal Performance, Male.”
To further quote Wikipedia, “Though ‘Eleanor Rigby’ was far from the first pop song to deal with death and loneliness, according to Ian MacDonald it ‘came as quite a shock to pop listeners in 1966.’ It took a bleak message of depression and desolation, written by a famous pop band, with a sombre, almost funeral-like backing, to the number one spot of the pop charts. The bleak lyrics were not the Beatles’ first deviation from love songs, but were some of the most explicit.” “Eleanor Rigby” showed the Beatles could be more than, as George later called them, “the Spice Boys.” The tune broke many pop music conventions of the time, and prolific American songwriter Jerry Leiber once said, ” I don’t think there has ever been a better song written than ‘Eleanor Rigby.'”
“Eleanor Rigby” is the second featured song in the 1968 “Yellow Submarine” film. It’s used here to set the scene in Liverpool (having just transitioned from Pepperland to England). I have to say, I’m impressed with the animation given the technology they had to work with back in the ‘60s/’70s.
George Martin’s instrumental score appeared on “Anthology 2,” released in 1996. It’s definitely worth a listen.
Going into this post, I had heard “Eleanor Rigby” too many times to count, but it wasn’t one of my favorite Beatles songs. I definitely understood why it was significant, both to the grow of their careers and to popular music of the 1960s, but if I could only listen to one Beatles song forever, this wouldn’t have been my pick. Heck, it’s still not my favorite of favorites, but reading all the background information has given me a new appreciation for this number. Its history is richer than I knew before. Plus, anything that allows me to use “mastodon of divine conceit Bernard Herrmann” is amazing in my book.