Beatles – Eleanor Rigby

Rarely if ever do I say a song is a piece of art. This one would qualify in my opinion. I can’t imagine being a peer at the time and having to compete with this.

Paul McCartney wrote most of this song. It is said he got the name “Eleanor” from actress Eleanor Bron, who appeared in the 1965 Beatles film Help!. “Rigby” came to him when he was in Bristol, England and spotted a store: Rigby and Evens Ltd Wine and Spirit Shippers. He liked the name “Eleanor Rigby” because it sounded natural and matched the rhythm he wrote.

There is also a gravestone for an Eleanor Rigby in St. Peter’s Churchyard in Woolton, England. Woolton is a suburb of Liverpool and Lennon first met McCartney at a fete at St. Peter’s Church. The gravestone bearing the name Eleanor Rigby shows that she died in October 1939, aged 44. McCartney has denied that that is the source of the names, though he has agreed that they may have registered subconsciously.

This song was on the great Revolver album that peaked at #1 in the Billboard Album Charts in 1966. Eleanor Rigby peaked at #11 in 1966. This was on a double A-sided single paired with Yellow Submarine.

The Beatles didn’t play any of the instruments on this track. All the music came from the string players, who were hired as session musicians. A string section scored by Beatles producer George Martin consisting of four violins, two violas, and two cellos were used in the recording.

Paul McCartney: “When I was really little I lived on what was called a housing estate, which is like the projects – there were a lot of old ladies and I enjoyed sitting around with these older ladies because they had these great stories, in this case about World War II. One in particular I used to visit and I’d go shopping for her – you know, she couldn’t get out. So I had that figure in my mind of a sort of lonely old lady.

Over the years, I’ve met a couple of others, and maybe their loneliness made me empathize with them. But I thought it was a great character, so I started this song about the lonely old lady who picks up the rice in the church, who never really gets the dreams in her life. Then I added in the priest, the vicar, Father McKenzie. And so, there was just the two characters. It was like writing a short story, and it was basically on these old ladies that I had known as a kid.”

 

From Songfacts

McCartney explained at the time that his songs came mostly from his imagination. Regarding this song, he said, “It just came. When I started doing the melody I developed the lyric. It all came from the first line. I wonder if there are girls called Eleanor Rigby?”

McCartney wasn’t sure what the song was going to be about until he came up with the line, “Picks up the rice in a church where a wedding has been.” That’s when he came up with the story of an old, lonely woman. The lyrics, “Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door” are a reference to the cold-cream she wears in an effort to look younger.

The song tells the story of two lonely people. First, we meet a churchgoing woman named Eleanor Rigby, who is seen cleaning up rice after a wedding. The second verse introduces the pastor, Father McKenzie, whose sermons “no one will hear.” This could indicate that nobody in coming to his church, or that his sermons aren’t getting through to the congregation on a spiritual level. In the third verse, Eleanor dies in the church and Father McKenzie buries her.

“Father Mackenzie” was originally “Father McCartney.” Paul decided he didn’t want to freak out his dad and picked a name out of the phone book instead.

After Eleanor Rigby is buried, we learn that “no one was saved,” indicating that her soul did not elevate to heaven as promised by the church. This could be seen as a swipe at Christianity and the concept of being saved by Jesus. The song was released in August 1966 just weeks after the furor over John Lennon’s remarks, “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now.”

For the most part, the song eluded controversy, possibly because the lilting string section made it easier to handle.

In Observer Music Monthly, November 2008, McCartney said: “These lonely old ladies were something I knew about growing up, and that was what ‘Eleanor Rigby’ was about – the fact that she died and nobody really noticed. I knew this went on.”

This was originally written as “Miss Daisy Hawkins.” According to Rolling Stone magazine, when McCartney first played the song for his neighbor Donovan Leitch, the words were “Ola Na Tungee, blowing his mind in the dark with a pipe full of clay.” 

The lyrics were brainstormed among The Beatles. In later years, Lennon and McCartney gave different accounts of who contributed more of the words to the song.

Microphones were placed very close to the instruments to create and unusual sound.

Ray Charles reached #35 US and #36 UK with his version in 1968; Aretha Franklin took it to #17 US in 1969. A year later, an instrumental by the group El Chicano went to #115. The song reached the chart again in 2008 when David Cook of American Idol fame took it to #92.

Because of the string section, this was difficult to play live, which The Beatles never did. On his 2002 Back In The US tour, Paul McCartney played this without the strings. Keyboards were used to compensate.

This song was not written in a normal chord, it is in the dorian mode – the scale you get when you play one octave up from the second note of a major scale. This is usually found in old songs such as “Scarborough Fair.” 

Vanilla Fudge covered this in a slowed-down, emotional style, something they did with many songs, including hits by ‘N Sync and The Backstreet Boys. Their version of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” was a #6 US hit in 1968. Fudge drummer Carmine Appice told Songfacts: “Most of the songs we did, we tried to take out of the realm they were in and try to put them where they were supposed to be in our eyes. ‘Eleanor Rigby’ was always a great song by The Beatles. It was done with the orchestra, but the way we did it, we put it into an eerie graveyard setting and made it spooky, the way the lyrics read. Songs like ‘Ticket To Ride,’ that’s a hurtin’ song, so we slowed it down so it wouldn’t be so happy. We would look at lyrics and the lyrics would dictate if it was feasible to do something with it or not.”

In 1966, this song took home the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Pop Vocal Performance, Male. It was awarded to Paul McCartney. 

In August 1966, the long-defunct British music magazine Disc And Music Echo asked Kinks frontman Ray Davies to review the then newly released Revolver album. This is how he reacted to this song: “I bought a Haydn LP the other day and this sounds just like it. It’s all sort of quartet stuff and it sounds like they’re out to please music teachers in primary schools. I can imagine John saying: ‘I’m going to write this for my old schoolmistress’. Still it’s very commercial.”

The chorus of this song was sampled as part of Sinead O’Connor’s 1994 song “Famine,” which is based on the story of the potato famine in Ireland. >>

In 2008 a document came to light that showed that McCartney may have had an alternative source for the Eleanor Rigby name. In the early 1990s a lady named Annie Mawson had a job teaching music to children with learning difficulties. Annie managed to teach a severely autistic boy to play “Yellow Submarine” on the piano, which won him a Duke of Edinburgh Silver Award. She wrote to the former Beatle telling him what joy he’d brought. Months later, Annie received a brown envelope bearing a “Paul McCartney World Tour” stamp. Inside was enclosed a page from an accounts log kept by the Corporation of Liverpool, which records the wages paid in 1911 to a scullery maid working for the Liverpool City Hospital, who signed her name “E. Rigby.” There was no accompanying letter of explanation. Annie said in an interview that when she saw the name Rigby, “I realized why I’d been sent it. I feel that when you’re holding it you’re holding a bit of history.”

When the slip went up for auction later that year, McCartney told the Associated Press: “Eleanor Rigby is a totally fictitious character that I made up. If someone wants to spend money buying a document to prove a fictitious character exists, that’s fine with me.”

This was released simultaneously on August 5, 1966 on both the album Revolver and as a double A-side with “Yellow Submarine.”

The thrash band Realm covered this song on their 1988 album Endless War. It is a speed metal version of the song that got them signed to Roadrunner Records. 

McCartney told Q magazine June 2010 that after recording the song, he felt he could have done better. He recalled: “I remember not liking the vocal on Eleanor Rigby, thinking, I hadn’t nailed. I listen to it now and it’s… very good. It’s a bit annoying when you do Eleanor Rigby and you’re not happy with it.”

Former US President Bill Clinton has stated that this is his favorite Beatles song. >>

Richie Havens covered this on his 1966 debut album, Mixed Bag, and again on his 1987 Sings Beatles and Dylan album.

Eleanor Rigby

Ah look at all the lonely people
Ah look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice
In the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window, wearing the face
That she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Father McKenzie, writing the words
Of a sermon that no one will hear
No one comes near
Look at him working, darning his socks
In the night when there’s nobody there
What does he care

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Ah look at all the lonely people
Ah look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby, died in the church
And was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt
From his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

 

Author: badfinger20 (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

25 thoughts on “Beatles – Eleanor Rigby”

  1. In my list of top 10 Beatles tunes, and that’s a show of how good they were. For most bands of the 60s, this would be IT – their crowning achievement. Also the song that showed George Martin really was the “fifth” Beatle (this and ‘All You Need Is Love’).
    One of my favorite authors is Douglas Coupland and he wrote a novel called ‘Eleanor Rigby’, yet somehow I don’t think i ever read it.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I believe that he subconciously or not…remembered that grave with Eleanor Rigby on it from when John and him hung out. It’s not like that is a common name…or it could be a coincidence.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. This is more middle…the pot years but great all the same.

      Lennon was more religious than most people think…it was true that more people wanted to see them than go to Church

      Like

      1. I guess 1966 IS the middle, considering they were 1960-1970. I was looking at it from an American perspective…I guess, since they didn’t get here until 1964.

        I remember reading about the backlash of his comment that they were more popular than Jesus. Oops.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yea that was a major mistake on John’s part. It could have gotten them killed. He felt bad for the others.
        I see those clips of bonfires and they are throwing all of these albums…that…..they probably went back and bought again a few months later.

        Like

      3. I love people that get all pissed off at some icon and destroy all their stuff related to said icon. The money has been spent. You just trashed your investment. Bravo.

        Like

  2. Now, we’re talkin’! 🙂

    Great song. I think that beautiful string arrangement is one of the highlights of George Martin’s work with The Beatles. The Beatles wouldn’t have been the same without Martin, and Martin wouldn’t have done such high caliber work without The Beatles. They were a perfect match!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I totally agree with you…without Martin, not many other producers would have given them any thing close to the same results.
      This song is special.
      They were leagues ahead of most bands then.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. One of my favourite Beatles songs. Despite having heard it loads of times, I’ve never thought of the ‘saved’ part of the lyric with religion, I’ve always thought of it as having been saved from some kind of disaster. And… I’ve never thought of Eleanor as an old woman… just kind of ageless, really.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do think he subconsciously got that name from that tomb stone. Not a name you hear everyday.
      I like the production. They didn’t go over the top with it and make it too slick.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Remarkable that Paul was like 23 years old when he wrote this! Art indeed. Off topic a little I saw today where Mark said that Volume 2 won’t be coming out until maybe 2023 at the earliest.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh geez that is a wait. I wonder if he is also gathering info for volume 3…
      That is longer than I thought. I thought next year.
      You and Mrs Hans doing alright?
      I’m working strictly from home now.

      Like

      1. yes I was hoping earlier but I think originally he was talking about ten years to do each one so that would be about right. I think he keeps coming up with more info- I can’t even imagine what its like doing this project. Where would you even start?… We are doing fine- I have had a cold since November- it kind of comes and goes but other than a cough i am doing ok. Still working from home, You and your family keep well!

        Liked by 1 person

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