The 1966 song by the Beatles, “Eleanor Rigby,” not only became something of an important departure for pop music in its day, it also inspired at least one piece of sculpture in the Beatles’ hometown of Liverpool, England. The bronze statue, shown below, is displayed at Stanley Street in Liverpool not far from the Cavern Club where the young Beatles performed. It depicts a woman seated on a bench in coat and head scarf with a handbag on her lap and a shopping bag on her right. Also on the bench is a discarded newspaper where a sparrow is pecking at a piece of bread likely provided by the woman as she looks down at the bird. The woman is cast here as of one of the “lonely people,” described in the Lennon-McCartney song, “Eleanor Rigby.”
The statue was designed and sculpted by Tommy Steele, a famous rock musician himself (and sometime sculptor) who rose in the 1950s as Britain’s first teen idol, then dubbed as the U.K.’s answer to Elvis Presley. He is known for his 1957 No. 1 hit, “Singing the Blues.” In 1981, on a visit to Liverpool where he performed, Steele made an offer to city officials to create the sculpture as a tribute to the Beatles, donating his labor. The city fathers approved the idea and also helped fund the project. The cost of casting the figure was met by The Liverpool Echo newspaper. Steele completed the piece in December 1982 when the sculpture was unveiled.
On the wall behind the figure is an inscribed plaque which reads in part, “Eleanor Rigby, Dedicated to ‘All the Lonely People…’ This statue was sculpted and donated to the City of Liverpool by Tommy Steele as a tribute to the Beatles…”
Ah, look at all the lonely people
Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice
All the lonely people
Father McKenzie, writing the words
All the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people
Eleanor Rigby, died in the church
All the lonely people
The Beatles’ song “Eleanor Rigby,” credited as a Lennon-McCartney creation, was released on the Beatles’ 1966 album Revolver and as also as single. It appears to be one of those songs, fashioned at least partially, by a group process during the give and take of songwriting. In addition to Lennon and McCartney, where the division of labor was 80 percent McCartney and 20 percent Lennon, according to McCartney, several others also contributed suggestions for phrasing and composition that figured into the final song.
“Eleanor Rigby”-The Beatles
The idea for the song began with McCartney, who initially had been working with earlier lyrics that he set aside, most of which would be abandoned. But when he hit upon the phrase, “…picks up the rice in a church where a wedding had been,” it became a pathway to the song’s story. McCartney imagined this woman picking up the rice as odd, since others would leave it on the ground. He envisioned her “as a lonely spinster type of this parish,” not likely to have her own wedding, and that’s when he decided the song would be about lonely people. In particular, the song was structured around the spinster and a priest, who presides at the woman’s funeral.
The name Eleanor Rigby came over time as well, with “Eleanor” first borrowed from Eleanor Bron who had appeared with McCartney and the Beatles in the 1965 film Help!. “Rigby” came about from a business sign McCartney had seen – Rigby & Evans Wine & Spirit Shippers. But there is also something earlier from when young Lennon and McCartney first met in 1957, which was near a cemetery at St Peter’s Church in Woolton, a hang-out spot at the time. In that cemetery one tombstone’s engraving includes an “Eleanor Rigby” entry. As McCartney has stated about the name: “It was either complete coincidence or in my subconscious” from his earlier years.
Other lyrics for the song came after McCartney gathered his bandmates together – Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, along with Lennon friend, Pete Shotton – at Lennon’s home to help finish the song. George came up with the opening phrase, “Ah, look at all the lonely people.” Ringo contributed “darning his socks,” and Shotton offered that the song should end with a funeral, bringing all the story’s characters together.In the studio, meanwhile, it was George Martin’s idea to add strings to the composition, which Paul at first did not like, as he thought it would sound too syrupy. But apparently he grew comfortable with the idea. In fact, according to Lennon, McCartney at the time was listening to and liking Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, introduced to him by way of his then girlfriend, Jane Asher.
In any case, two string quartets – comprised of four violins, two cellos, and two violas, scored by George Martin – would become central to the song. However, McCartney did ask that the strings have a “biting” sound in the arrangement. And this was met through the work of engineer Geoff Emerick who, according to Rolling Stone, “was determined to capture the sound of bows striking strings with an immediacy previously unheard on any recording, classical or rock…” In order to achieve this, Emerick miked the instruments separately. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, as the strings stand out in “Eleanor Rigby” – clearly audible, dominant, and not syrupy at all.
The Beatles, however, do not play any instruments on “Eleanor Rigby.” McCartney provides the lead vocal, double-tracked, with Lennon and Harrison adding harmonies. But the message in “Eleanor Rigby” is as important as the music.The song was among those that took the Beatles – and for that matter, a portion of contemporary music – away from simple pop-styled rock `n roll to more sophisticated studio productions and songs that had something to say.
“Eleanor Rigby” is described by Rolling Stone as “a meditation on solitude and aging that sounded like nothing else on the radio at the time.” AllMusic critic and reviewer Richie Unterberger has noted that “singing about the neglected concerns and fates of the elderly” on “Eleanor Regby” is one example “of why the Beatles’ appeal reached so far beyond the traditional rock audience”.
After Paul McCartney heard the final track, his perception of his own songwriting changed, according to Rolling Stone, seeing the song as something of breakthrough, moving him away from pop styles toward more serious possibilities in the future.
Still, on the popular music charts of 1966, “Eleanor Rigby” did quite well, especially in the U.K. It was released in early August 1966 as a single and also on the album Revolver. It was the second track on that album, following George Harrison’s “Taxman.” Ringo Starr’s “Yellow Submarine,” which would be paired with “Eleanor Rigby” on the single, is also on Revolver.
Revolver was the Beatles’ 7th studio album and their second following Rubber Soul, which marked a progression in their new “studio phase” of music making, where they began experimenting with new sounds and new techniques, evolving a more sophisticated body of work (see also at this website a separate story on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” also from Revolver).In the U.K, the “Eleanor Rigby” single on the Parlophone label went to No. 1, staying there for four weeks. In the U.S., on the Capitol label, it hit No. 11. The song was also nominated for three Grammys, with McCartney winning the 1966 Grammy for Best Contemporary Vocal Performance. Rolling Stone magazine rated “Eleanor Rigby” at No. 138 on its 2004 list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
Beatles song historian, Ian MacDonald, author of Revolution in the Head (1994), has noted that “Eleanor Rigby” – while certainly not the first popular song to deal with death and loneliness – “came as quite a shock to pop listeners in 1966.”
The song, as others have noted, despite its bleak message of depression and isolation with funeral trappings, went right to the top of the pop music charts. Prior Beatles material, for the most part, had been focused on love songs in one form or another.
By 1966, they had released a few songs such as “Nowhere Man” and “Paperback Writer.” But “Eleanor Rigby” marked an even sharper departure from their earlier years. Adds AllMusic.com reviewer Richie Unterberger:
… In a broader sense, the Beatles could be commenting here on the alienation of people in the modern world as a whole, with a pessimism that is rare in a Beatles track (and rarer still in a McCartney-dominated one). What are these characters doing their small tasks for, and what is the point: those are the questions asked by the song, albeit in an understated tone. Pessimism about the worth of organized religion is implied in the desolate portrait of Father McKenzie and the finality of the phrase ‘no one was saved.’…
In any case, the musicians and producers of that day were listening, and they heard something new. Pete Townshend of the rock group The Who noted in one 1967 interview: “I think ‘Eleanor Rigby’ was a very important musical move forward. It certainly inspired me to write and listen to things in that vein.” And American songwriter Jerry Leiber has stated: “The Beatles are second to none in all departments. I don’t think there has ever been a better song written than ‘Eleanor Rigby’.” Howard Goodall, an English composer of musicals, choral, and theatrical music has remarked on the song as being an urban version of a tragic ballad with classical Greek influences.The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” has also been covered by a long list of contemporary artists, at least 62 of whom have recorded it on albums. Among those covering the song vocally have been Joan Baez, Aretha Franklin, John Denver, Bobbie Gentry, and Sarah Vaughn, to mention a few. Instrumental versions include those by Booker T and the MGs and The Percy Faith Strings.
“Eleanor Rigby”-Ray Charles
However, one cover version of “Eleanor Rigby,” offered by Ray Charles and his Raelettes, provides a strong and vibrant interpretation – adding a touch of soul and R & B from the master, along with a little call-and-response action from the Raelettes. The Ray Charles version, in fact, cracked the U.S. Top 40 in July-August 1968, reaching No. 35.The Beatles, meanwhile, would also issue the song on a number of their albums. In addition to Revolver in 1966, it also appears as the second song in the Beatles’ 1968 animated film, Yellow Submarine, but is not on the original Yellow Submarine soundtrack album. In 1984, a re-interpretation of the song was included in the film and album Give My Regards to Broad Street, written by and starring Paul McCartney. The song in that production segues into a symphonic extension titled, “Eleanor’s Dream.”
A fully remixed stereo version of the original “Eleanor Rigby” was issued in 1999 on the Yellow Submarine Songtrack for the re-release of the 1968 film. It also appears on several other Beatles collections, anthologies, and box sets issued since the 1990s.
See also at this website “Beatles History” a topics page which includes ten additional story choices focused on the Beatles, 1962-2015. The “Annals of Music” category page includes other story choices as well. Thanks for visiting — and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
Date Posted: 31 August 2015
Last Update: 10 August 2016
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Jack Doyle, “Eleanor Rigby, The Beatles: 1966,”
PopHistoryDig.com, August 31, 2015.
Source, Links & Additional Information
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