Sunday, 13 July 2008

Eleanor Rigby – The Beatles

If someone held a match to my bookshelf and said I absolutely had to choose just one song from The Beatles otherwise the Agatha Christie’s get it, the song I’d choose would always be Eleanor Rigby.

What an outstanding song this is – from composition to subject matter to final delivery. It was one of the first songs from a hugely popular band to seriously consider the effects of loneliness, although I’m not altogether convinced that Paul McCartney set out to write it as such, I think he just knew (and knows) when words sound good together. All the best songwriters are poets and storytellers at heart, and this song combines both abilities in a compelling and haunting tale that ends up being beautiful, despite the sombre images the words conjure in mind.

It brings a faded world into reality for me, those years left bleak after the Second World War, with widows and graves growing old. The name ‘Eleanor Rigby’ sounds like an older lady, and ‘picking up rice’ after a wedding, living in a dream. Already she is rather mysterious – is she thinking of her own wedding or a lost love? Does she work in the church? Either way it’s not a very cheerful hobby - and ‘rice’ now sounds rather exotic to people brought up with Clinton Cards paper confetti (if you are allowed to throw it, that is). Yet she goes home, does her make up, and sits and waits – now she sounds like Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, and the inference with the chorus is that no-one cares if Eleanor Rigby makes up her face or not, as she gets no visitors. ‘All the lonely people’ – such a sad refrain.

And then we have the good padre, Father McKenzie, still hoping to touch people with his words although no-one bothers to listen. He may be all alone but he still ‘darns his socks’ – again a hint of something now exotic – is he poor? Still cares about appearances even if no one sees his socks? Almost army-like, in a way… And there you have it, these two lonely people within a whisker of each other, she in the church yard, he in the church, but no happy ending in the third verse. Eleanor has died a lonely death, with only Father McKenzie attending (as his job) to help bury her (along with her name – oh that is so poignant). No one is saved, well; no one is safe from loneliness. It can creep up unbidden.

And that’s my take on the lyrics… which for me is also reinforced by how this song is used in the animated film Yellow Submarine, as that was almost certainly my first introduction to it. The style of the animation is odd and dark, strange snapshots of Liverpool with repeated moving images that look taken from a Pathe news reel, touched with an Andy Warhol screen-print of colour. Industrial chimneys, old architectural shapes made by the buildings and cobbles. And then there are the lonely people, all men in their suits, going off to work in the city, standing there with their symbols of old city life, the briefcase and the umbrella. It makes my heart sad, as their time has past and gone. On a more personal level, my dad used to go to work in the city with his briefcase and umbrella, and his time too is past and gone… so you can see how this tugs at my heartstrings. Ah well…

The melody – well – spot a Beatle playing on this! They didn’t, although George and John did sing harmony and backing to Paul’s lovely lead vocal. However I love the contributions alluded to on the wiki page for Eleanor Rigby, that all The Beatles (and their pal Pete Shotton) helped finish the song at John’s home, with Ringo coming up with the line ‘writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear’ and George with the brilliance of the refrain ‘Ah, look at all the lonely people’. It’s nice to think of them all there, and Paul playing his song for them, and them all suggesting ideas over a nice cup of tea and a biscuit. At least, that is how I imagine it!

So there we have it, the lovely Eleanor Rigby. We all know her name today… and it was the main inspiration when naming my main character in the novel, although that is not immediately apparent – you won’t find any Eleanor’s or any Rigby’s! But it’s rather obvious to me… I guess you’ll have to wait and see!


musicobsessive said...

You should've saved this til last! What a lovely post, it captures the song beautifully - and it's my favourite McCartney Beatles song (Strawberry Fields being my favourite Lennon).

Without trying to be too technical, ER is a Dorian mode melody, modes being in use well before the agreement of equal tempered 'keys' around Bach's time. This gives it a slightly 'monastic' or ancient churchy feel which is further enhanced by the final 'plagal' cadence in the harmony, generally used in church hymns.

The whole piece therefore has a past religeous ambience which brings home the lyric of past values and attitudes falling victim to today's culture.

Your analysis of the lyric is excellent. A great choice and a song that should be in every 'best of' list.

Jayne said...

That is a great compliment - thank you! And that is so interesting about the melody. I've just played it again with that in mind, and am even more impressed with such a subtle reinforcement of the lyrics - completely playing to the subconscious. Thanks for that bit of info - now my enjoyment of this song has increased, if that can be possible!