Eleanor Rigby

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.

Without further ado:

Here’s a statue of Eleanor Rigby in Stanley Street, Liverpool. As the plaque notes, it’s dedicated to “All the Lonely People“:

525px-EleanorRigbyStatue

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!

52 Comments

  1. gbjames
    Posted August 23, 2013 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    Yes. It, too, is a great song.

  2. Lianne Byram
    Posted August 23, 2013 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    Definitely one of the best!

  3. Barry Lyons
    Posted August 23, 2013 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    Yes, Bernard Herrmann’s score for “Psycho”! No question about it.

    If I were cobbling together a list of McCarnety-penned or -dominated Beatles songs, “Eleanor Rigby” comes in at number two — after “Penny Lane” (the sunny exuberance of “Penny Lane” song gets me every time).

    • Frank
      Posted August 23, 2013 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      Yes, sunny exuberance is such an apt description of Penny Lane, which came in at an astonishingly LOW number 32 on the Rolling Stone list! Is effect on me as a listener has not diminished one bit since 1967. I think part of the exuberance comes from the pounding piano chords, which likely reflect the influence of Brian Wilson’s God Only Knows (McCartney has frequently mentioned how he was blown away by the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds).

      • Barry Lyons
        Posted August 23, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink

        Oh yes, McCartney and Wilson were quite competitive! All the Beatles, particularly McCartney, were blown away by “Pet Sounds”.

        • Frank
          Posted August 23, 2013 at 9:26 am | Permalink

          And perhaps the most astonishing thing is that the double A-side of Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, which I consider to be the greatest single in the history of pop music, was the FIRST Beatles single NOT to reach #1 in the UK since Please Please Me!

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted August 24, 2013 at 12:15 am | Permalink

            Just shows that your taste (which I share btw) is vastly superior to that of the record-buying public 😉

        • JBlilie
          Posted August 23, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

          +1. And scared by it as well!

  4. Posted August 23, 2013 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    If I recall correctly from Geoff Emerick’s book, the string ensemble players greatly resented the close-miking technique. They were used to be recorded by more traditional room mikes that were often strung overhead at least 10 feet away. So it was a battle of wills as they tried to shuffle themselves away from the microphones. Emerick’s book is fascinating!

  5. Posted August 23, 2013 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    The best use of E minor since Chopin’s Prelude #4.

    • Barry Lyons
      Posted August 23, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink

      That’s an interesting connection! I love those Preludes, and I will check out number four later today.

    • Posted August 24, 2013 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

      Lots of great pieces in E minor…

      And in most other keys, too.

  6. aljones909
    Posted August 23, 2013 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    Eleanor Rigby is analysed in some detail by Howard Goodall in this documentary youtube /watch?v=HbcHG7lL_T4

    It’s a brilliant documentary. The opening monologue is kind of spine tingling for fabbists.

  7. JR
    Posted August 23, 2013 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    How about the Best Song Ever, beyond the Beatles (great as they were)?

    My nomination: Autumn Leaves, by Frank Sinatra (there are lots of good renditions, but none as perfect as Sinatra’s).

    Listen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AO-H9Ni5NiQ

    JR

    • darrelle
      Posted August 23, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      For many reasons I think it is impossible to select a best anything, especially a best song. One of my favorites would be The Christmas Song by Nat King Cole. That is based purely on emotional reaction to the song, though that no doubt is due in part to his amazing voice.

  8. Matt
    Posted August 23, 2013 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    Definitely one of their best. I think my personal favourite off Revolver might be “For No One”. Simple, heartbreaking little gem. Those horns hit me every time.

  9. Posted August 23, 2013 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    I agree with you: Revolver is my favourite Beatles album too. But I think Eleanor Rigby is one of the weakest songs, so Planet Crikkit. My favourite in Revolver is TNK

    • dave wisker
      Posted August 23, 2013 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      TNK is my favorite as well. It also has some wonderful cover versions: 801’s and Tangerine Dream’s, in particular. There is a YouTube video with Oasis (with assistance from Johnny Marr and Cornershop) doing the song very well, too.

  10. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted August 23, 2013 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Here’s a statue of Eleanor Rigby in Stanley Street, Liverpool. As the plaque notes, it’s dedicated to “All the Lonely People“:

    Oh sure, acknowledge “all the lonely people” by filling the benches with hardware so they have nowhere to sit.
    😉

  11. Diana MacPherson
    Posted August 23, 2013 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    I think Eleanor Rigby will stand the test of time because it’s content, both lyrically and musically, is something everyone relates to and feels a certain amount of shame over. Everyone has felt lonely or as an “other” at some point in their lives; it’s why people tend to gravitate toward the Spock, Sheldon and Data characters in fiction.

    • Posted August 23, 2013 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      I think “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” will stand the test of time for the same reasons. As you said, it “is something everyone relates to and feels a certain amount of shame over.”

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 23, 2013 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

        LOL except let’s dial “everyone” back to “some”

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 24, 2013 at 12:24 am | Permalink

        Also, the lyrics are easy to remember.

  12. darrelle
    Posted August 23, 2013 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Another great choice. A very haunting song for me. It has always made me feel a bit melancholy and uncomfortable.

    For anyone who enjoys guitar, George Benson did a very nice instrumental cover of Eleanor Rigby.

  13. revelator60
    Posted August 23, 2013 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    I’ve never heard a cover of “Eleanor Rigby” that was better than the original, but I am fond of Jackie Wilson’s cover, which gives the song an r&b-style makeover:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cvpZDWkwLNQ

  14. Wildhog
    Posted August 23, 2013 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Ah, E minor. A fine key indeed

    • JBlilie
      Posted August 23, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      Especially on guitar …

  15. Don
    Posted August 23, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    It seems odd to me that the “official video” of “Eleanor Rigby,”if that’s what it is, should have got the lyrics wrong in the transcription. She was buried “along with her name,” not “alone with her name.”

    • moarscienceplz
      Posted August 23, 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      I admit I always thought it was ‘along’, but are you sure ‘alone’ isn’t correct? Eleanor’s body, accompanied *only* by her name on her headstone – I’m starting to think that ‘alone’ is a better choice, even if that’s not what Paul chose.

      • JBlilie
        Posted August 23, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

        No, IMO, buried along with her name is better. The firghtful finality of it!

        • JBlilie
          Posted August 23, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

          Not to mention the frightful spelling.

        • Don
          Posted August 24, 2013 at 4:14 am | Permalink

          Yes. For most of us, what lives on after we die are the memories of others–attached to our names.

      • Don
        Posted August 23, 2013 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

        Paul sings “along” clearly enough, I think. And in a search for the lyric, I can find no instances of “alone.”

        http://www.metrolyrics.com/eleanor-rigby-lyrics-paul-mccartney.html

  16. Kevin Henderson
    Posted August 23, 2013 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Bloody amazing song. So much music has passed since then and yet this one will forever stand out. It spears the foundation of modern society and no one who listens to those words can escape the truths the lie in each of us.

    Musically, I find the song not as enchanting, partly because most of the music I listen to or play is in some minor mode but I can see that ‘back then’ it was different.

  17. Jeff K
    Posted August 23, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    And like The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, it’s got interesting modality.

    Dorian melody, Aeolian mode, per Wiki.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorian_mode

  18. JBlilie
    Posted August 23, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    McCartney was (and probably still is) a genius song writer.

    You know the story of “Picasso’s Last Words”?

    McCarteny and (his friend) Duston Hoffman were having lunch. Somehow it came around to songwriting and McCartney said he could write a song about anything. Anything? Says Hoffman. Sure. Hoffman picks a random article from the newspaper at hand about Picasso. McCartney writes the song, on the spot, in minutes.

    • JBlilie
      Posted August 23, 2013 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      More frightful spelling. Yech!

    • aljones909
      Posted August 23, 2013 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

      He was only 24 when he wrote it. So young for such a mature song. There is a rule in pop/rock – creativity falls off a cliff after 27/28. Musicianship and technical skills can last a lifetime but the creative spark dies.

      • Posted August 24, 2013 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

        That seems like a weird generalization to make, especially for a (I presume) skeptic. How exactly do age and creativity correlate?

        Brahms was over 40 before his first symphony was finished.

  19. lamacher
    Posted August 23, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    The Beatles were exceptionally good musicians. They did nearly as much for 4/4 time as did Bach. The quality of their music writing was not appreciated by the ‘cognoscenti’ for decades, but finally a few music critics decided to think for themselves. Personal favorites are Eleanor Rigby, Penny Lane, Hey Jude, Imagine.

  20. Thanny
    Posted August 23, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Different people have different conceptions of what music is. For me, 90% of the time I couldn’t care less what the lyrics are. They’re just another instrument, and what matters is how they sound.

    There’s even a band which takes this to the logical extreme – Sigur Ros – where many songs are sung in a fake language so that the lyrics are literally just another instrument.

    Some people consider the idea of divorcing the content of lyrics from the song as nonsensical. For them, that content is literally part of the music.

    As you would expect, there are musical groups which do much better or much worse when viewed from each perspective, before even accounting for different aesthetic tastes concerning sound and lyrical content.

    Something one should keep in mind when judging the quality of any particular example of music, or of the people who like or dislike it.

    • Matt
      Posted August 23, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      For me, it entirely depends on the artist. I’m a big Sigur Rós fan, and yeah, given that most of their lyrics are in Icelandic (or some in “Hopelandic” as you mentioned), they’re certainly not a major draw for the English-speaking listener. Even if you spend some time reading the translations though, they’re nice but nothing profound. I believe that Jónsi has actually stated that he considers his voice more an instrument than an outlet for poetry.

      But take someone like Bob Dylan. When I first discovered Dylan I wasn’t entirely sold. Then I started really focusing on the lyrics. A more modern example would be The Mountain Goats. Lyrics are without a doubt the focal point when it comes to these artists.

      So, yeah, the value placed in lyrics may differ from person to person, but there are certain artists (Dylan, Mountain Goats) where if you’re not listening to the lyrics you’re missing out on a major portion of what they offer.

      • Thanny
        Posted August 23, 2013 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

        Or, you may not like Dylan or the like at all, because of that fact.

        I’m a hard person to please, when it comes to profundity. I find virtually all musical lyrics fit in between trite and obvious. So if any given musician is letting the content of the lyrics carry too much weight, at the expense of melody, I tend not to like the song.

        Exceptions abound, of course. It’s entirely possible for lyrics to be so vapid that it even a competent melody can’t compensate. Or for lyrics to actually say something not obvious and not ridiculous, to compensate for a weak melody. But those exceptions are rare for someone with my tastes.

        Back to Jerry’s contention in general, I think that in the past, commercial popularity tracked quality much more than it does today. Popularity today is largely engineered. So you’re not going to hear the best that modern music has to offer when listening to a typical radio station. Maybe some non-profit college stations, or former college stations like WFMU (perhaps the most eclectic mix of radio programming in the world) will provide some better exposure, but otherwise you need to really search for the gems.

        • Matt
          Posted August 24, 2013 at 10:09 am | Permalink

          I agree with your last point. The notion that the quality of music is diminishing over time is only true in regards to popular music. The existence of a band simultaneously as talented and popular as The Beatles existing in the 2000s is unheard of. But great music still exists. I believe the trend towards quality artists existing more in the underground started in the ’80s with bands like The Smiths who deliberately went against the grain and developed unqiue sound and style, drawing a fambase as dedicated as those as The Beatles albeit smaller and perhaps more localized.

    • jimmy dace
      Posted August 24, 2013 at 7:04 am | Permalink

      It’s worth pointing out here that the Beatles themselves experimented directly with the concept of using their voices purely as an musical instruments. This groundbreaking technique is perhaps best seen when Lennon likewise to the above comment invented a language for the song “Sun King” on the Abbey Road album.

  21. Nom de Plume
    Posted August 23, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Fun fact: the first two songs on Revolver are about death and taxes.

    • moarscienceplz
      Posted August 23, 2013 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

      Are you ‘certain’? ;p

  22. mfdempsey1946
    Posted August 23, 2013 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    All Beatles songs are most welcome. But I hope for “Here Comes The Sun.” And Sinatra? “The Summer Wind.”

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted August 24, 2013 at 9:38 am | Permalink

      Right with you. In fact, “Here Comes the Sun” is the only Beatles song that I like more than “Eleanor Rigby.”

  23. jimmy dace
    Posted August 24, 2013 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    Eleanor Rigby is a great song and demonstrates the unsurpassed creativity of the Beatles for sure. But it’s interesting to ponder which version of Revolver (British or American) folks are referring to when they tout the album as amongst the greatest of all time. Growing up American I of course prefer listening to the nostalgic capitol mix of my youth, but honestly have to admit that the British version had the better (and longer) list of songs. That said however, I’d rather listen to the Capitol version of “And Your Bird Can Sing” appearing on Yesterday and Today album with it’s end of the era Americanized production offering a more “in your face” brand of rock. Eleanor Rigby however is at least common between the two Revolver mixes and thus not likely to stir up much debate as being timeless just as it is.

    • aljones909
      Posted August 24, 2013 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

      Jimmy, the british albums were the creative entities produced by the band. The american releases were corporate constructions designed to maximise revenue. The exception to my distaste for the U.S. tampering was the Magical Mystery Tour album. The corresponding U.K. release was a double EP! It might have been the only double EP. ever released. I was eventually able to buy an imported (U.S.) album at an inflated price.

      Note. An EP was a ‘single’ with more than one track per side.

  24. Steven Pounders
    Posted August 25, 2013 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    McCartney said,”It was either complete coincidence or in my subconscious,” McCartney said.”

    I once added what I thought was an original and exciting bit of staging to a play I was directing. I was convinced that it was my own idea, but later discovered the exact stage direction in another play by the same author. I realized that I must have borrowed the idea subconsciously.

    I’m sure others have had this experience, but it was the first time I ever realized just how malleable my memory is.


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