'Eleanor Rigby' by The Beatles: The making of the dark pop classic

13 June 2023, 13:12 | Updated: 26 September 2023, 14:04

The Beatles - Eleanor Rigby
The Beatles - Eleanor Rigby. Picture: Apple Films/Getty

By Mayer Nissim

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Backed with 'Yellow Submarine', 'Eleanor Rigby' was The Beatles' only single from their masterpiece Revolver and one of their best-loved songs.

But did you know which Beatle actually wrote the song? Or if its tragic title character and Father Mackenzie were real people?

Here's everything you need to know about 'Eleanor Rigby'.

The Beatles - Eleanor Rigby (From "Yellow Submarine")

Who wrote 'Eleanor Rigby'?

The Beatles on tour
The Beatles on tour. Picture: Getty

'Eleanor Rigby' was (i) a Beatles song, (ii) not a cover, and (iii) not one of George Harrison's.

That means it's course credited to Lennon/McCartney, but it's a bit more complicated than that.

With Paul McCartney singing it, the assumption is that it's (mainly) one of Paul's, and that's right... more or less.

The basic song came to Paul when he was sitting alone a the piano and he got that immortal name Eleanor Rigby Daisy Hawkins in his head, and paired it with Father McKenzie Father McCartney.

Wait, what? Daisy Hawkins and Father McCartney?! More on that later.

Paul McCartney and John Lennon
Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Picture: Getty

"Then I took it down to John's house in Weybridge," Paul told official Beatles biographer Hunter Davies. "We sat around, laughing, got stoned and finished it off.

"I thought of the backing, but it was George Martin who finished it off. I just go bash, bash on the piano. He knows what I mean."

So John has a hand in it, and George Martin too. If he followed the lead of many modern producers you wouldn't blame him for claiming credit on so many Beatles songs.

And so do fellow Beatles George Harrison (who apparently came up with the "all the lonely people" line) and Ringo ("darning his socks").

And then there's John's best pal Paul Shotton who was also round (he apparently came up with the funeral ending to the story AND found the name McKenzie in the phone book).

(Lennon later claimed to have written about 70% of the lyrics, but that was when he and Paul weren't exactly on good terms, and no-one else remembers it like that.)

So McCartney-Lennon-Martin-Harrison-Starr-Shotton, then.

Was 'Eleanor Rigby' a real person?

The Grave Of Eleanor Rigby
The Grave Of Eleanor Rigby. Picture: Getty

Well, sort of.

You may well have seen that oh-so-famous gravestone of the "real life Eleanor Rigby".

There was an Eleanor Rigby who was buried at St Peter's Church in Woolton, not far from Paul McCartney's home, and it's not impossible that he walked past the gravestone and the name unconsciously wedged itself in there

But that's not what Paul said for years. "All our songs come out of our imagination," he claimed. "There was never an Eleanor Rigby."

Later in his unconventional memoir The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present he backtracked a bit, claiming that "Eleanor Rigby is based on an old lady that I got on with very well" that he may have met during the Scouts' Bob-A-Job week and would help with the shopping.

"I found out that she lived on her own, so I would go around there and just chat, which is sort of crazy if you think about me being some young Liverpool guy," an excerpt from the book in The New Yorker reveals.

George Martin with The Beatles
George Martin with The Beatles. Picture: Getty

The way he tells it, after he dumped the idea of "Daisy Hawkins" he walked around the Bristol shops while he was hanging about for Jane Asher at the Old Vic and saw the name "Rigby".

He married it to Eleanor, in honour of Eleanor Bron who played Ahme in Help! a year earlier and well, there you go.

And as for Father McCartney, Paul was worried that people would think he was writing about his dad (and he wasn't), so to the phonebook for a suitable replacement with enough syllables.

Who plays on 'Eleanor Rigby'?

Eleanor Rigby (Strings Only / Anthology 2 Version)

Unlike some bands of the era, The Beatles of course played their own music on their own records.

Well, they usually did. As on 'Yesterday' a year earlier, you just had Paul and his guitar backed by a session string quartet.

Paul had actually written the song with strings in mind after being strong-armed by George Martin into the idea for 'Yesterday'.

"When I took the song to George, I said that, for accompaniment, I wanted a series of E-minor chord stabs," he said about the alternating C major and E minor chords.

And George took those minor chord "stabs" a bit literally, taking a nod from Psycho composer Bernard Herrmann.

"There’s some kind of madcap connection between 'Eleanor Rigby', an elderly woman left high and dry, and the mummified mother in Psycho," Paul says.

And on 'Eleanor Rigby' you've got Paul's lead vocal, backing vocals from John and George. And other than that, without any piano, drums, bass or guitar in the song, the other Beatles didn't play a single note.

Instead, the backing came from Tony Gilbert, Sidney Sax, John Sharpe and Jurgen Hess on violins, Stephen Shingles and John Underwood on violas, and Derek Simpson and Norman Jones on Cellos.

Produced by George Martin and engineered by Geoff Emerick, it was recorded on 28-29 April, 1966 at Abbey Road 2, and finished off on June 6, 1966 at Abbey Road 3.

What is 'Eleanor Rigby' about?

Hunter Davies says that Beatles expert Professor Colin Campbell of York University has written an unpublished 29,000-word essay on the lyrics to 'Eleanor Rigby' (which sounds more like a book to us), so it's clear that there's a lot going on in its two minutes and ten seconds.

Why was Eleanor picking up rice at the church (was she a cleaner or a gawper)? What does it mean to keep your face in a jar by the door? (Nivea cold cream, Paul acknowledged later in his lyrics book). What does it mean to be buried along with your name (and nothing else?)

Was Eleanor unmarried, or a (war?) widow? A sex worker waiting at the door?

Did she really die in the church or is that a metaphor? Who are the lonely people, and of course, where do they all come from (and belong?).

As you can tell, there are many more questions than answers, but we can obviously tell it's about despair, dashed hopes and dreams, and above all else loneliness.

"It’s a little strange to be picking up rice after a wedding," Paul notes. "I wanted to make it more poignant than her just cleaning up afterward, so it became more about someone who was lonely. Someone not likely to have her own wedding, but only the dream of one."

Maybe the key line is no one was saved. A more subtle but arguably more explicit attack on religion than all that "bigger than Jesus" blather that would later cause The Beatles so much bother.

How did 'Eleanor Rigby' do in the charts?

Eleanor Rigby / Julia

Beatlemania was just as massive in the US as the UK, but there were key differences in how the music of the Fab Four was presented to each audience, and also how they responded.

US fans got totally different versions of Beatles albums until Sgt Pepper, though 'Eleanor Rigby' was included on both the UK and US Revolver when it was released in August 1966.

The contrasting double A-side of 'Yellow Submarine'/'Eleanor Rigby' was lapped up back home, going to number one in the UK for four weeks.

But in the US 'Eleanor RIgby' it stalled at number 11 in the Billboard Hot 100. We'd probably take that, but it wasn't great for a Beatles single, especially given 'Yellow Submarine' got to number 2 separately due to US chart rules.

The song also popped up in 1968's animated film Yellow Submarine, which is where its music video is cut from.

Who has covered 'Eleanor Rigby'?

Aretha Franklin - Eleanor Rigby - 3/7/1971 - Fillmore West (Official)

'Eleanor Rigby' hasn't been covered as much as 'Yesterday', but a fair few people have given it a go.

One of the first was by folk icon Joan Baez in 1967, which opened the floodgates to artists as diverse as Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Booker T & the MG's, Bobby Darin, John Denver, Joe Jackson, Kansas, Hank Marvin, Panic! At the Disco, Pearl Jam, Vanilla Fudge, Rick Wakeman, Jackie Wilson and more than we could even begin to list here.

Ray Charles - Eleanor Rigby

Two covers even charted, with Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin both doing fine soul versions in 1968 and 1969 respectively.