Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Eleanor Rigby

In the pantheon of Beatles songs, "Eleanor Rigby" is pretty goshdarned special. Even if one doesn't count it as a personal favorite (me, I go back and forth on putting it into my top 20, depending on how tremulous and moody I feel), one must admit that it's a watershed for the band.

Or rather, not really for the band, none of whom play on the track. Really a watershed for Paul McCartney, and at least as much of one for producer George Martin, who scored the strings. It's a hugely different kind of pop song sitting blithely on a hugely different kind of pop album, just waiting to blow your mind once the needle hits. Picture, if you will, being a standard teenybopper fan in August of 1966-- if you live in the Bay Area, perhaps you've already purchased your Candlestick Park ticket and have been busy praying that they play "She's a Woman"-- and bringing home a brand new copy of Revolver. Once you've made it through "Taxman" you're obviously already sitting taller and paying a bit more attention. And then this starts up.

You'll note that I'm claiming Paul wrote this song, which of course he did. I did just recently give Paul a hard time for taking credit for writing a song that I firmly believe he had little if anything to do with writing, though, so it seems fair-- in fact, necessary-- to point out that John has similarly claimed that he wrote most of the lyrics to "Eleanor Rigby." Which is utter bullshit. In fact, the lyrics to the song came mostly from Paul, albeit with feedback from a workshop-- since he knew it was an unusual song, he sought some help in a get-together with the other Beatles as well as Pete Shotton, a lifelong friend of John's and the rest from when they were boys in Liverpool. (Pete is interesting-- he managed a grocery store and hung out with his very famous friends when he could, and he seems to have always remained resolutely normal, which Lord knows they probably needed sometimes.)

Anyway, Paul had his two characters mostly lined up, but needed some help sketching details. Ringo contributed the line "darning his socks in the night when there's nobody there," which is genius, and George suggested the "ah, look at all the lonely people" refrain, which is also good, but isn't it just like George to bludgeon one slightly with the obvious? (Sorry. That was snarky.) Pete, in addition to naming the priest (who had been named Father McCartney as a placeholder originally), also suggested that the two characters could meet in the end, but in a tragically-too-late kind of way. John, who seems to have suggested nothing at all, made it clear that he thought Pete's idea was completely stupid. Which it was not-- in fact, that idea arguably makes the song. This entire story is recounted thoroughly in Pete Shotton's book and backed up by basically everyone else who was there, by the way, and I can't figure out why John would have told the story otherwise, except that he was jealous that Paul had actually written some pretty freaking fantastic lyrics. I think John liked to be known as the lyrics guy, honestly. And he was certainly prone to fits of envy and vitriol. Point is: if you have ever sniffed derisively (as I'm sure we all have) at the vastly subpar lyrics of Paul's solo hits, just remember that it was indeed Paul who wrote "wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door," which is maybe the best Beatles lyric ever-- and not John.

So Paul had his melody and his lyrics, but had to tackle the arrangement, and at some point early on he decided that he wanted strings for this one. Although he'd been skeptical of this approach for "Yesterday," that had certainly turned out all right, hadn't it? So he went to George Martin to see what could be done. For "Eleanor Rigby," which is very different from "Yesterday" (the latter sounds like a pop standard, almost like it's looking backward, whereas the sophistication of "Eleanor Rigby" makes it sounds light years ahead of its time, don't you think?), Martin ups "Yesterday"'s string quartet into an octet. The octet, though, functions like a double quartet-- that is, there are four parts with two musicians on each. So the doubling gives us a richer, slightly more lugubrious sound than had been heard from Beatles strings yet in 1966, but never reaches the level of tedious melodrama. As with the best of Martin's arrangements, it has this really appealing dryness and objectivity (this is no "She's Leaving Home," is my point). Martin had the string players try it with vibrato, and then without it, and the version without vibrato is what made it onto the track-- hence that dry sound.

The arrangement of the strings has been deemed interesting enough by powers greater than myself that a track of only strings can be found on Anthology 2. I won't post it-- you've devoted enough time just to reading all of this, for chrissake-- but if you're curious it's worth a really good listen just to hear how it all works. Martin writes in all these tremendous details such that no verse is the same. So the first verse is the sparsest and features some weird cackling violins in double-time in the second half, the second verse has a more dynamic cello solo line and then the extra solo moment for the second violins, and then the third verse gets the most dramatic stuff, with that gorgeous sustained note in the first violins followed by the loudest, most violent playing of all, while the cello acknowledges the melody for the first and last time by singing along with Paul. I know this is really geeky, but just listening to it again now I'm freaking salivating. It's such good writing. George Martin has said that he took inspiration from the film score of Fahrenheit 451, a film that I haven't seen. But you know what I HAVE seen a bunch of times? Psycho. And it turns out that a guy named Bernard Herrmann scored BOTH films. Do you now get an echo of the famous Psycho riff in this song? Doesn't that just make it even COOLER?

Before I get any more excited (and trust me, there's lots more that could be said), I'll wrap this up and let you listen again yourself. Even when I've heard it a zillion times, "Eleanor Rigby" never get stale for me. There's still not really anything like it.

"Eleanor Rigby," released in the U.K. side A track 2 of Revolver, as well as on the B-side of the "Yellow Submarine" single, August 5, 1966; in the U.S., side A track 2 of Capitol's crappy Revolver as well as B-side to same single, August 8, 1966.


  1. Good call on ther Herrmann influence. I can totally hear that.

    And go see Farenheit! Nick Roeg shot the movie, and it's certainly not your typical Truffaut. Super stylized, but in a really neat way. I still have my trusty VHS copy of it, though it's been put out on DVD now.

  2. What a terrific post, Megan. Your writing is a perfect blend of casual - like you're having a conversation - and analysis, but presented in a clear style that is never pedantic. I don't know if this is just naturally how you write or if you have to work at it, but it's great. I did not know the history of how this song was written. Quite interesting. I would not list this song as a fave of mine (I have strong leanings toward more rock and roll numbers WITHOUT strings), yet i can appreciate the beauty of the lyrics and the great score. I can also appreciate the Beatles' confidence in doing something so different. But, give me Hey Bulldog any day!

  3. Will do, Cullen. Especially if it'll help me appreciate this song all the more.

    And thanks, Frank! I think this is how I naturally write-- it's also very much like how I talk, except I sound dumber when I talk. Because I say "like" a lot and all that crap, and I swear more. Anyway, I agree about the rock thing, which is why I never quite put this in my all-time favorites list, but there's a lot to appreciate about how envelope-pushing it is. I think it qualifies as a great moment in Paul's career, anyway.

  4. Great overview, as always. I've tried to reconcile Shotton's recollections with Lennon's, as John repeatedly emphasized that he wrote a great deal of the lyrics. The best I've come up with is that he kept mostly silent during the early songwriting session (as per Shotton) and then at a later session with McCartney finished off the words to the later verses (with Shotton not present). Memories are always fuzzy, but John really pressed this one - beginning in '71, five years after it was written. Then again, this is the same guy who said that "Cry Baby Cry" was not his!

  5. Thanks very much! See, I agree-- memories are fuzzy, but as much as I love John, I wouldn't put a little outright dishonesty past him, particularly in the snarkfest that was the '70s.

    On a different note, I've never understood his not claiming "Cry Baby Cry." That song's not bad at all. Neither is "Day Tripper," which he also basically said was garbage. Mainly, I think he was just insecure enough to occasionally try to take credit for Paul's successes, which is a bummer...