Eleanor Rigby

The Beatles

Song Review by Richie Unterberger

"Eleanor Rigby" was the most serious-minded song that the Beatles ever released when it first appeared in mid-1966, as part of a double-A-side with "Yellow Submarine." The Beatles had only just begun to write and sing songs that were not about love, with "Nowhere Man" and "Paperback Writer." "Eleanor Rigby" was different yet from those two predecessors -- it was not only not about love, but was written entirely in the third person. What's more, it was a first in that the Beatles themselves did not play any instruments on the recording, which was played by a double string quartet of session musicians. Writing-wise, it was principally the work of Paul McCartney, who gave the piece one of his most outstanding sad melodies. In the main the lyrics were the sketch of lonely spinster Eleanor Rigby, although another lonely elderly figure, Father McKenzie, also has a prominent role. 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." Far more controversial a critique of organized religion, when you think about it, than John Lennon's famous statement of the period that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus (which landed him in a great deal of trouble). It was most unusual, then and now, in such a youth-oriented medium as rock for a group to be singing about the neglected concerns and fates of the elderly, and was thus just one example of why the Beatles' appeal reached so far beyond the traditional rock audience. The desolation of Rigby and McKenzie's lives was brilliantly amplified by the arrangement, for which producer George Martin must take much credit. Its strident strings produce emphatic, dramatic beats in the manner of a Bernard Herrmann soundtrack (Martin has admitted to being influenced by Herrmann's score for the Francois Truffaut film Fahrenheit 451 when devising "Eleanor Rigby"'s score), while the tempo variations subtly complement the lyric. Listen to how the strings increase in speed at the point where Father McKenzie is seen working, for instance. Other than Paul McCartney's lead vocal, the Beatles barely appear on the track at all, but they do add fine full harmonies to the chorus. As a double A-side, "Eleanor Rigby"/"Yellow Submarine" made number one in the U.K., but in the U.S. (where the sides were charted separately), it only made number 11 to "Yellow Submarine"'s number two. It made for quite a daring pairing, actually: one side was the Beatles' most somber song to date, the other their wackiest. "Eleanor Rigby" is not an easy song to cover, due to its ambitious melody, varied rhythms, and the indelible imprint of Martin's arrangement, but somehow that has not kept a lot of people from trying, including soul singers Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles; Booker T. & the MG's (who did an instrumental soul version); jazz artists such as Joshua Redman; Dr. West's Medicine Show & Junk Band (with Norman "Spirit in the Sky" Greenbaum), who did an instrumental jug band rendition with kazoo; folk-rock singer Richie Havens, who put it on his Mixed Bag album; and the Vanilla Fudge, who did a typically agonizing drawn-out heavy rock treatment in the late '60s.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Revolver 1966 Apple Records / Capitol 2:07
A Collection of Beatles Oldies 1966 Parlophone 2:02
1962-1966 1973 Capitol / Parlophone 2:08
CD Singles Collection 1993 EMI Music Distribution 2:06
The Ultimate Box Set 1995 Capitol 2:07
Anthology 2 1996 Capitol / EMI Records / Apple 2:06
Yellow Submarine Songtrack 1999 Capitol / EMI Records / Apple 2:05
1 2000
Capitol 2:05
The Beatles: Stereo Box Set 2009 Capitol 2:06
The Beatles USB 2009 Capitol / EMI 2:06
1962-1970 2010 EMI / Parlophone 2:08
The U.S. Albums 2014 Capitol / Universal 2:09