For Christmas I got Never Had It So Good, the first part of Dominic Sandbrook’s huge new history of Britain in the sixties. Here’s what he says about the project:
“This book seeks to rescue ‘from the enormous condescencion of prosperity’…the lives of the kind of people who spent the 1960s in Aberdeen or Welshpool or Wolverhamption, the kind of people for whom mention of the sixties might conjure up memories not of Lady Chatterley, the Pill and the Rolling Stones, but of bingo, Blackpool and Berni Inns.”
This leaves me both sympathetic and suspicious. Sympathetic because I agree the point of history writing isn’t just to applaud the exciting stuff. Suspicious because the divide is too crude: my Dad, for instance, was an educated middle-class 60s young thing, but until they all closed his regular birthday treat would be a trip to the Berni Inn, and he only owned three pop albums. But then those pop albums included stuff by Dylan and the Doors. The point being that the division Sandbrook makes still gives the canon-sixties too much power, as if taking the Pill or listening to the Stones were magical things that put you beyond the reach of Bernis and bingo. For some people surely they were, for many all these things would have existed in jumbled parallel, fitted piecemeal into a life.
The list of 60s number ones works as a fossil record of one part of British pop-culture activity – going to shops, buying singles. It helps make the jumble real, “Green Green Grass Of Home” next to “Good Vibrations”, Dodd and the Stones in juxtaposition. But taking into account the jumble shouldn’t blind you to the obvious – 1966 is stuffed with hit records that wouldn’t and couldn’t have been made 5 years earlier. “Eleanor Rigby” may be one of them.
One thread running through Ian MacDonald’s book about the Beatles is the idea that they were particularly aware of the unique breadth and size of their global audience, and of what they could do with it. Gestures like “All You Need Is Love” – and maybe “Revolution 9” – only make full sense with this kind of scale as a background. Both sides of this single sound to me like a step in creating that audience – a deliberate reaching out to a wider context than the shining pop scene, a step into Berniland. “Eleanor Rigby” is also a clumsy, but moving, attempt to write about that context.
The brisk orchestral arrangement of “Eleanor Rigby” is tense and fussy, with something of Eleanor’s spinsterish neatness: the strings bring to mind sewing, or sweeping the steps, one of those little daily things you do unthinking, or instead of thinking. They also sound a little like a horror film soundtrack, and “Eleanor Rigby” is cinematic, and it is about horror. It’s Paul McCartney taking one of pop’s smooth-rubbed words – “lonely” – thinking it through, and recoiling. His matter-of-fact delivery is superb: it creates a camera’s length distance (“Look at him working”) that stops us taking the song as melodrama, but there’s enough inflection on the song’s central simple question to let us know that this isn’t voyeurism, that the loneliness people end up in worries him.
(It worries him enough that on “When I’m 64” he goes and makes a gentle joke of it.)
(It worries me, too; but for a lucky meeting here or there I think I could finish up a Rigby. That’s perhaps a reason I?m more sympathetic to Number 1s than records nobody knows.)
“Eleanor Rigby” remains neat to its end, so neat that you might forget that this question of the lonely people hasn’t remotely been answered. For that you need the other side of the single, “Yellow Submarine”.
The vocal in “Eleanor Rigby” squeezes tightly into a gap in its arrangement: “Yellow Submarine”, on the other hand, is meant to be sung along to. For me, more so than “Yesterday”, it’s the Beatles song that feels like it’s always existed, fished out of some collective unconscious in 1966. The air of antiquity comes from the marvellous wheezing production, Ringo’s guileless vocals and the framing story. Of course it helped that I grew up in the 1970s when dungareed men sang “Yellow Submarine” all the time on kids’ TV, though it’s been adapted for football terraces too, testament to its broad appeal and basic virtues.
Intentionally or not, “Eleanor Rigby” and “Yellow Submarine” make a perfect pair. Crushing isolation as the flip of a song that values limitless community – “And my friends are all aboard / Many more of them live next door”. The one set in a drably recognizable town, the other in a fantasy utopia. Recital and singalong. It strikes me that the idea of singing along – with friends, or in costume, or to mantras, or on a worldwide satellite link – is a thread in much later Beatles music. For me though, this big-hearted single is the best expression of what made them great.