Eleanor Rigby — The Beatles delivered a tragedy in microcosm

Dan Einav in Financial Times:

There is perhaps no better individual showcase of The Beatles’ infinite variety than the “Yellow Submarine”/“Eleanor Rigby” double A-side record released on August 5 1966. One single was a nonsensical nursery rhyme, the other, an elegiac “ba-rock” threnody about the forgotten elderly, which served as an exemplar of emotionally profound pop songwriting. Not that “Eleanor Rigby” really is a pop record in the conventional sense — after all, it marked the first time that none of the group played any instruments on a track. Instead, two string quartets (both playing the same melodies to “double” the sound) create a funereal soundscape perfectly suited to the song’s tale of loneliness, anonymity and death. While poignancy had never been far removed from some of The Beatles’ best early compositions (“In My Life”, “Yesterday”, “Help”), in “Eleanor Rigby” the band delivered a tragedy in microcosm.

Sitting at a piano one night, Paul McCartney found that the arrestingly sad and evocative opener of “picks up the rice in a church where a wedding has been” came to him almost spontaneously, as did the notion that they should become part of “a lonely old woman song”. Before anything else, McCartney needed a name for this character. “Daisy Hawkins” had been a placeholder in an early draft, but it wasn’t until he stumbled across a wine shop called “Rigby and Evens” in Bristol that McCartney found a satisfactorily “natural” name; “Eleanor” meanwhile was derived from Eleanor Bron, a cast member from the film Help! Those of a more psychoanalytic persuasion, however, may argue that the name was dredged up from the depths of his subconscious. For in July 1957, McCartney is known to have visited St Peter’s Churchyard in Woolton, Liverpool, where there is a grave belonging to the “real” Eleanor Rigby.

…Eleanor Rigby became a kind of metonymy for all the isolated and destitute; in Liverpool a statue was erected of “her” in commemoration of “all the lonely people”. And in the way it immortalises the overlooked and downtrodden, “Eleanor Rigby” can be seen as a pithy counterpart to Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”.

More here.

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