Here’s the second in my selection of favorite Beatles music (n.b.: there may be more than a week’s worth).
This song, “Eleanor Rigby“, is one of the reasons I consider Revolver (1966) to be the best Beatles album. It’s simply a masterpiece, with music and lyrics perfectly attuned, and an unusual backing with classical rather than rock instruments. It also shows the tremendous contribution that producer George Martin made to some of the Beatles’ greatest hits.
Rolling Stone ranked it as #22 on its list of the 100 Greatest Beatles Songs, but I think it deserves a spot in the top 10. At any rate, the site gives some information about the composition:
When McCartney first played “Eleanor Rigby” for his neighbor Donovan, the words were “Ola Na Tungee/Blowing his mind in the dark/With a pipe full of clay.” McCartney fumbled with the lyrics until he landed on the line “Picks up the rice in a church where a wedding has been.” It was then that he realized he was writing about lonely people and transformed the song into the tale of a spinster, a priest and how their lives intersect at her funeral.
There are conflicting stories of how McCartney came up with the name for the title character. According to McCartney, he combined the first name of Eleanor Bron, the lead actress in Help!, with a last name taken from a sign he had seen in Bristol for Rigby & Evans Ltd, Wine & Spirit Shippers. But Lionel Bart, the writer-composer of Oliver!, claimed that on a walk with McCartney in London’s Putney Vale Cemetery, they saw the name Eleanor Bygraves, and McCartney said he would use it in a new song.
Most intriguing, in the 1980s, the gravestone of an Eleanor Rigby was discovered in the churchyard of St. Peter’s in the Liverpool suburb of Woolton — just yards from the spot where Lennon and McCartney first met in 1957 after a performance by Lennon’s group the Quarry Men. “It was either complete coincidence or in my subconscious,” McCartney said.
After McCartney wrote the melody on the piano at his girlfriend Jane Asher’s flat, he gathered Lennon, Harrison, Starr and Pete Shotton, Lennon’s childhood friend, at Lennon’s house in Weybridge to help finish the lyrics. The group all agreed on certain details about this session: The priest was originally called “Father McCartney” until they found the name “McKenzie” in a phone book; Starr chipped in the line “darning his socks in the night”; and it was Shotton’s idea that the song end with the funeral, bringing all of the principal characters together.
Here’s a statue of Eleanor Rigby in Stanley Street, Liverpool. As the plaque notes, it’s dedicated to “All the Lonely People“:
Wikipedia gives some details of the song:
“Eleanor Rigby” does not have a standard pop backing. None of the Beatles played instruments on it, though John Lennon and George Harrison did contribute harmony vocals. Like the earlier song “Yesterday”, “Eleanor Rigby” employs a classical string ensemble—in this case an octet of studio musicians, comprising four violins, two cellos, and two violas, all performing a score composed by producer George Martin. Where “Yesterday” is played legato, “Eleanor Rigby” is played mainly in staccato chords with melodic embellishments. For the most part, the instruments “double up”—that is, they serve as two string quartets with two instruments playing each part in the quartet. Microphones were placed close to the instruments to produce a more vivid and raw sound; George Martin recorded two versions, one with and one without vibrato, the latter of which was used. McCartney’s choice of a string backing may have been influenced by his interest in the composer Antonio Vivaldi, who wrote extensively for string instruments (notably “the Four Seasons”). Lennon recalled in 1980 that “Eleanor Rigby” was “Paul’s baby, and I helped with the education of the child … The violin backing was Paul’s idea. Jane Asher had turned him on to Vivaldi, and it was very good” The octet was recorded on 28 April 1966, in Studio 2 at Abbey Road Studios; it was completed in Studio 3 on 29 April and on 6 June. Take 15 was selected as the master.
George Martin, in his autobiography All You Need Is Ears, takes credit for combining two of the vocal parts—”Ah! look at all the lonely people” and “All the lonely people”—having noticed that they would work together contrapuntally. He cited the influence of Bernard Herrmann’s work on his string scoring. (Originally he cited the score for the film Fahrenheit 451 but this was a mistake as the film was not released until several months after the recording; Martin later stated he was thinking of Herrmann’s score for Psycho.
UPDATE: Reader aljones909 noted in the comments this videoanalysis of the song by Howard Goodall, part of Goodall’s documentary on the Beatles (there are other parts on YouTube). The analysis of “Eleanor Rigby” starts at 2:37. I hadn’t realized that McCartney was only 24 when he wrote it!