The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #204: Eleanor Rigby by The Beatles (RS)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song and going until I reach Song . When you see the song title listed as something like: Song (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #204: Eleanor Rigby by The Beatles.

What an exquisitely written song this is! Paul McCartney has painted portraits of two people who are lonely and living lives of quiet desperation and, in doing so, has penned a song that reads more like a short story or a play, rather than a Pop song. Not only does McCartney capture the world of those who exist on the margins of our thoughts, he, also, captures the mood of an entire nation, as it was coming to grips with the aftermath of the Second World War and all of the broken families left in its’ wake. As it stands, “Eleanor Rigby” has turned out to be one of the most beloved and appreciated songs in the entire Beatles catalogue. Here is the story of how it came to be.

I have to imagine that Paul McCartney must have been a decent sort of chap growing up. In his words, he says that what inspired him to write “Eleanor Rigby”, in a general sense, was the time he spent with elderly ladies who lived in the same community housing projects that he did growing up. According to Paul, he would help run errands for the ladies who never seemed to be able to get out of their homes and, in return, they would tell him stories from days gone by; especially, stories of life during war time. From this experience with these ladies, who seemed resigned to their lonely lives, came the inspiration for one of Music’s great characters, “Eleanor Rigby”.

“Eleanor Rigby

Picks up the rice in the church where a wedding had 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?”

These words are a devastating description of someone whose life has become invisible and, as far as the world is concerned, really doesn’t matter. According to McCartney, he says that he had the line about picking up the rice first and, from that, the rest of the song fell into place.

As much as “Eleanor Rigby” gets the attention in this song, the character of “Father McKenzie” is equally bereft of love and warmth in his life.

“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?”

A simple example of the razor-sharp precision of McCartney’s lyrics can be seen in the seemingly innocuous line about Father McKenzie darning his socks. Storywriting lesson for all wannabe writers is “to show, don’t tell”. In other words, don’t say that Father McKenzie is lonely, show it. That is what McCartney does so well in such a few, concise words. In those days in England, the darning of socks would have usually fallen to the woman of the house. Obviously, Father McKenzie has no one to mend his socks for him so he has to do it himself. Mending socks that no one will ever know had holes in them to begin with because no one is ever close enough to him to see him in sock feet.

The song, “Eleanor Rigby” is not based upon a real person, according to McCartney. He says that he wanted a name that sounded natural and that “Eleanor Rigby” seemed common enough and rolled off the tongue easily enough. He says that the “Eleanor” part was based upon an actress who was performing in a nearby play and that the “Rigby” was the name of a store. However, despite his denials to the contrary, in the cemetery in his hometown, there rests a formerly married lady named “Eleanor Rigby”, as well as, a “Father McKenzie”. Despite McCartney’s insistence that the people in his song are fictitious, fans of the band flock to this cemetery and routinely wear away the grass by the tombstones, as they pay homage to those they believe the song is really about.

In a musical sense, “Eleanor Rigby” was one of the first gems mined after The Beatles had finished their US Tour (the one that saw the “The Beatles are bigger than Jesus” controversy) and had decided to become a studio-only band. “Eleanor Rigby” is accompanied by an orchestra of sorts and stands as one of the only songs ever released by The Beatles on which none of them play any of the instruments. Consequently, “Eleanor Rigby” was difficult to replicate live and, as such, was rarely ever played on stage. Later, after Paul McCartney started out on his solo career, he played this song live by substituting all of the strings for keyboards. “Eleanor Rigby” was one of the featured songs on the revolutionary Beatles album, “Revolver”. When it was released as a single, it was done as a “Double A-side”, sharing the single with “Yellow Submarine”. As mentioned earlier, it has gone on to be recognized for the genius of the lyrics and for the empathy extended toward those suffering from loneliness and depression.

So, without further delay, I am proud to present one of the greatest Beatles songs of the all….”Eleanor Rigby”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Eleanor Rigby” by The Beatles, can be seen here.

The link to the official website for The Beatles, can be seen here.

he link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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