The song continued the transformation of the Beatles from a mainly pop-oriented act to a more experimental, studio-based band. With a double string quartet arrangement by George Martin and striking lyrics about loneliness, "Eleanor Rigby" broke sharply with popular music conventions, both musically and lyrically.Richie Unterberger of Allmusic cites the band's "singing about the neglected concerns and fates of the elderly" on the song as "just one example of why the Beatles' appeal reached so far beyond the traditional rock audience."
Paul McCartney came up with the melody of "Eleanor Rigby" as he experimented with his piano. However, the original name of the protagonist that he chose was not Eleanor Rigby but Miss Daisy Hawkins. The singer-composer Donovan reported that he heard McCartney play it to him before it was finished, with completely different lyrics. In 1966, McCartney recalled how he got the idea for his song:
A promotional poster for the single from the UK.
I was sitting at the piano when I thought of it. The first few bars just came to me, and I got this name in my head... 'Daisy Hawkins picks up the rice in the church'. I don't know why. I couldn't think of much more so I put it away for a day. Then the name Father McCartney came to me, and all the lonely people. But I thought that people would think it was supposed to be about my Dad sitting knitting his socks. Dad's a happy lad. So I went through the telephone book and I got the name 'McKenzie'.
Others believe that "Father McKenzie" refers to "Father" Tommy McKenzie, who was the compere at Northwich Memorial Hall.
McCartney said he came up with the name "Eleanor" from actress Eleanor Bron, who had starred with the Beatles in the film Help!. "Rigby" came from the name of a store in Bristol, "Rigby & Evans Ltd, Wine & Spirit Shippers", which he noticed while seeing his girlfriend of the time, Jane Asher, act in The Happiest Days of Your Life. He recalled in 1984, "I just liked the name. I was looking for a name that sounded natural. 'Eleanor Rigby' sounded natural." However, it has been pointed out that the graveyard of St Peter's Church in Liverpool, where John Lennon and Paul McCartney first met at the Woolton Village garden fete in the afternoon of 6 July 1957, contains the gravestone of an individual called Eleanor Rigby. Paul McCartney has conceded he may have been subconsciously influenced by the name on the gravestone. Bizarrely, the real Eleanor Rigby lived a lonely life similar to that of the person in the song.
McCartney wrote the first verse by himself, and the Beatles finished the song in the music room of John Lennon's home at Kenwood. John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and their friend Pete Shotton all listened to McCartney play his song through and contributed ideas. Harrison came up with the "Ah, look at all the lonely people" hook. Starr contributed the line "writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear " and suggested making "Father McCartney" darn his socks, which McCartney liked. It was then that Shotton suggested that McCartney change the name of the priest, in case listeners mistook the fictional character in the song for McCartney's own father.
The song is often described as a lament for lonely people or a commentary on post–war life in Britain.
McCartney could not decide how to end the song, and Shotton finally suggested that the two lonely people come together too late as Father McKenzie conducts Eleanor Rigby's funeral. At the time, Lennon rejected the idea out of hand, but McCartney said nothing and used the idea to finish off the song, later acknowledging Shotton's help. The Rolling Stones' song 'Paint It Black' with its oblique reference to a funeral 'a line of cars...all painted black' was in the charts when the recording of 'Eleanor Rigby' was being completed.
Lennon was quoted in 1971 as having said that he "wrote a good half of the lyrics or more" and in 1980 claimed that he wrote all but the first verse, but Pete Shotton, Lennon's childhood friend, remembered Lennon's contribution as being "absolutely nil". McCartney said that "John helped me on a few words but I'd put it down 80–20 to me, something like that."
The song is a prominent example of mode mixture, specifically between the Aeolian mode, also known as natural minor, and the Dorian mode. Set in E minor, the song is based on the chord progression Em-C, typical of the Aeolian mode and utilizing notes ♭3, ♭6, and ♭7 in this scale. The lead melody, however, is taken primarily from the somewhat lighter Dorian mode, a minor scale with sharpened sixth degree. "Eleanor Rigby" opens with a C-major vocal harmony ("Aah, look at all..."), before shifting to E-minor (on "lonely people"). The Aeolian C-natural note returns later in the verse on the word "dre-eam" (C-B) as the C chord resolves to the tonic Em, giving an urgency to the melody's mood.
The Dorian mode appears with the C# note (6 in the Em scale) at the beginning of the phrase "in the church". The chorus beginning "All the lonely people" involves the viola in a chromatic descent to the 5th; from 7 (D natural on "All the lonely peo-") to 6 (C♯ on "-ple") to ♭6 (C on "they) to 5 (B on "from"). This is said to "add an air of inevitability to the flow of the music (and perhaps to the plight of the characters in the song)".
The gravestone of the "real" Rigby, St. Peter's Parish Church, Woolton, August 2008
In the 1980s, a grave of an Eleanor Rigby was "discovered" in the graveyard of St. Peter's Parish Church in Woolton, Liverpool, and a few yards away from that, another tombstone with the last name "McKenzie" scrawled across it. During their teenage years, McCartney and Lennon spent time sunbathing there, within earshot of where the two had met for the first time during a fete in 1957. Many years later, McCartney stated that the strange coincidence between reality and the lyrics could be a product of his subconscious, rather than being a meaningless fluke.
An actual Eleanor Rigby was born in 1895 and lived in Liverpool, possibly in the suburb of Woolton, where she married a man named Thomas Woods. She died on 10 October 1939 at age 44. Regardless of whether this Eleanor was the inspiration for the song or not, her tombstone has become a landmark to Beatles fans visiting Liverpool. A digitised version was added to the 1995 music video for the Beatles' reunion song "Free as a Bird".
In June 1990, McCartney donated to Sunbeams Music Trust a document dating from 1911 which had been signed by the 16-year-old Eleanor Rigby; this instantly attracted significant international interest from collectors because of the coincidental significance and provenance of the document. The nearly 100-year-old document was sold at auction in November 2008 for £115,000 ($250,000). The Daily Telegraph reported that the uncovered document "is a 97-year-old salary register from Liverpool City Hospital." The name "E. Rigby" is printed on the register, and she is identified as a scullery maid.
Statue of Eleanor Rigby in Stanley Street, Liverpool. A plaque to the right describes it as "Dedicated to All the Lonely People"
"Eleanor Rigby" does not have a standard pop backing. None of the Beatles played instruments on it, though John Lennon and George Harrison did contribute harmony vocals. Like the earlier song "Yesterday", "Eleanor Rigby" employs a classical string ensemble—in this case an octet of studio musicians, comprising four violins, two cellos, and two violas, all performing a score composed by producer George Martin. Where "Yesterday" is played legato, "Eleanor Rigby" is played mainly in staccato chords with melodic embellishments. For the most part, the instruments "double up"—that is, they serve as a single string quartet but with two instruments playing each of the four parts. Microphones were placed close to the instruments to produce a more vivid and raw sound; George Martin recorded two versions, one with and one without vibrato, the latter of which was used. McCartney's choice of a string backing may have been influenced by his interest in the composer Antonio Vivaldi, who wrote extensively for string instruments (notably "the Four Seasons"). Lennon recalled in 1980 that "Eleanor Rigby" was "Paul's baby, and I helped with the education of the child ... The violin backing was Paul's idea. Jane Asher had turned him on to Vivaldi, and it was very good." The octet was recorded on 28 April 1966, in Studio 2 at Abbey Road Studios; it was completed in Studio 3 on 29 April and on 6 June. Take 15 was selected as the master.
George Martin, in his autobiography All You Need Is Ears, takes credit for combining two of the vocal parts—"Ah! look at all the lonely people" and "All the lonely people"—having noticed that they would work together contrapuntally. He cited the influence of Bernard Herrmann's work on his string scoring. (Originally he cited the score for the film Fahrenheit 451, but this was a mistake as the film was not released until several months after the recording; Martin later stated he was thinking of Herrmann's score for Psycho.)
The original stereo mix had Paul's voice only in the right channel during the verses, with the string octet mixed to one channel, while the mono single and mono LP featured a more balanced mix. On the Yellow Submarine Songtrack and Love versions, McCartney's voice is centred and the string octet appears in stereo in an attempt to create a more "modern" sounding mix.
The "Eleanor Rigby"/"Yellow Submarine" single issued by Parlophone in the UK. "Eleanor Rigby" stayed at #1 for four weeks on the British pop charts.
The song was nominated for three Grammys and won the 1966 Grammy for Best Contemporary (R&R) Vocal Performance, Male or Female for McCartney. Thirty years later, a stereo remix of George Martin's isolated string arrangement (without the vocal) was released on the Beatles' Anthology 2. A decade after that, a remixed version of the track was included in the 2006 album Love.
It is the second song to appear in the Beatles' 1968 animated film Yellow Submarine. The first is "Yellow Submarine"; it and "Eleanor Rigby" are the only songs in the film which the animated Beatles are not seen to be singing. "Eleanor Rigby" is introduced just before the Liverpool sequence of the film; its poignancy ties in quite well with Ringo Starr (the first member of the group to encounter the submarine), who is represented as quietly bored and depressed. "Compared with my life, Eleanor Rigby's was a gay, mad world."
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 McCartney. It segues into a symphonic extension, "Eleanor's Dream."
A fully remixed stereo version of the original "Eleanor Rigby" song was issued in 1999 on the Yellow Submarine Songtrack, with some minor fixes to the vocals.
The "Eleanor Rigby"/"Yellow Submarine" single from Japan. The photo shows The Beatles on stage in Tokyo in 1966.
"Eleanor Rigby" was important in the Beatles' evolution from a pop, live-performance band to a more experimental, studio-oriented band, though the track contains little studio trickery. In a 1967 interview, Pete Townshend of The Who commented, "I think 'Eleanor Rigby' was a very important musical move forward. It certainly inspired me to write and listen to things in that vein."
Though "Eleanor Rigby" was far from the first pop song to deal with death and loneliness, according to Ian MacDonald it "came as quite a shock to pop listeners in 1966." It took a bleak message of depression and desolation, written by a famous pop band, with a sombre, almost funeral-like backing, to the number one spot of the pop charts. The bleak lyrics were not the Beatles' first deviation from love songs, but were some of the most explicit.
In some reference books on classical music, "Eleanor Rigby" is included and considered comparable to art songs (lieder). Classical and theatrical composer Howard Goodall said that the Beatles' works are "a stunning roll-call of sublime melodies that perhaps only Mozart can match in European musical history" and that they "almost single-handedly rescued the Western musical system" from the "plague years of the avant-garde". About "Eleanor Rigby", he said it is "an urban version of a tragic ballad in the Dorian mode."
Celebrated songwriter Jerry Leiber said, "The Beatles are second to none in all departments. I don't think there has ever been a better song written than 'Eleanor Rigby.'"
Big Country played this live at Dingwalls in London in 1996 and the track can be found on the Eclectic CD/DVD.
McCartney performed a live version of "Eleanor Rigby" at Citi Field in July 2009 in which he played acoustic guitar, and the string section was played on keyboard. This version can be found on that concert's recording Good Evening New York City.
In 1994, Irish singer Sinéad O'Connor used the lyrics of the song's chorus for her song "Famine", which appears on Universal Mother. The song was later remixed and released as a single in 1995, and was a Top 40 UK hit.