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Dec 05

THE BEATLES – “Eleanor Rigby”/”Yellow Submarine”

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#222, 20th August 1966

DIGRESSION:

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.

REVIEW:

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.

10

Comments

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  1. 26
    Tooncgull on 25 Sep 2009 #

    I’m sorry, but I put Yellow Submarine right up there with the Worst Beatles Songs of All Time. It nestles quite neatly in a bucket with “Wild Honey Pie”, and “Oh-blah-Di Oh-Blah-Da”… and there are very few Beatles songs I dont like.

    Eleanor Rigby however, is a masterpiece. A brooding, minor-keyed, autumnal song, which can start the hairs twitching at the nape of your neck if you let it. It manages to conjure up an entire lifetime of loneliness in under five minutes. A superb example of minimilistic writing, we have centuries of loneliness, shyness, stoicism, heartache, unrequited love, and death. You can almost feel the dampness of the autumn leaves… its bleak, its a wonderful song.

    Why they tied it up with Yellow Submarine is beyond me though.

  2. 27
    thefatgit on 26 Oct 2009 #

    Would it be fair or accurate to chalk Eleanor Rigby up as our first and probably only “minimalist” #1?

    I’m not usually inclined to pigeonhole stuff, but when the Fab Four have provided such a diverse array of music and styles, it almost seems too much of a temptation to regard this alongside the works of Phillip Glass and Michael Nyman.

  3. 28
    Waldo on 20 Nov 2009 #

    Tooncgull at #26 calls Eleanor Rigby a masterpiece and he/she is right. The accompanying description is also wonderfully bang on the money. It’s a bleak and beautiful serenade and Eleanor’s pitiful “lonely” funeral is harrowing. I wonder if McCartney was inspired by Kipling when he composed this wonderful song:

    Eddie’s Service
    by Rudyard Kipling

    Eddi, priest of St. Wilfrid
    In his chapel at Manhood End,
    Ordered a midnight service
    For such as cared to attend.
    But the Saxons were keeping Christmas,
    And the night was stormy as well.
    Nobody came to service,
    Though Eddi rang the bell.

    Yellow Submaine, meanwhile, was and remains one for the kids and there really isn’t anything much wrong with that.

  4. 29
    Izzy on 20 Nov 2009 #

    McCartney goes into quite a lot of detail about the composition in ‘Many Years From Now’.

    It came out of resistance to piano lessons he was taking. For fear of educating himself out of his way of working, he was ‘vamping’ an E-minor chord and let the melody suspend itself over that. Then came some nonsense words – “Ola Na Tungee/Blowing his mind in the dark/With a pipeful of clay/No-one can say”. Later the first actual line came out of some stream-of-consciousness – “picks up the rice in a church where a wedding has been”. This suggested two things: a cleaner, or an old spinster of the parish. He went with the latter for the poignancy, carried it on a bit with his own experiences of helping old people as a kid (‘Father Mackenzie’ was originally ‘Father McCartney’!), and John filled in the gaps. Eleanor came from a girl from the movie Help!, and Rigby from a shop in Bristol – and maybe from a subconscious memory of a gravestone in a churchyard where he’d played as a lad in Liverpool.

    I happened to have reached that page last night, I haven’t gone to town on the research or anything! It’s a fabulous book, I don’t understand why it isn’t better-known. Paul seems like a top, top bloke.

  5. 30
    the pinefox on 10 Jan 2011 #

    I agree.

    I also quite like Ewing’s comments at the top of the article. I think he is resisting what has probably become an A-level cliché, and trying to be more thoughtful and subtle.

  6. 31
    crag on 14 Apr 2011 #

    DESERT ISLAND DISCS WATCH:

    YELLOW SUBMARINE:
    John Huston, film director(1973)

    Mary Kelly Bluebell, dancer(1988)

    Baroness Halah Afshar, academic(2008)

    ELEANOR RIGBY:
    Arnold Wesker, writer(1966)

    Hermione Gingold, actress(1969)

    Mollie Lee, broadcaster(1971)

    Patricia Hayes, actress (1975)

    Lynn Seymour, ballerina(1976)

    Cathy Berberian, soprano(1978)

    Charles Aznavour, singer, actor(1978)

    Sir Geoffrey Howe, politician (1986)

    Antony Horowitz, writer(2006)

    Beryl Bainbridge, novelist(2008)

    Ann Pienkowski, artist(2009).

  7. 32
    Lena on 6 Sep 2011 #

    At number two, the unwitting riposte: http://musicsoundsbetterwithtwo.blogspot.com/2011/08/brian-wilson-western-recorders-los.html Thanks for waiting as well as reading, everyone!

  8. 33
    lonepilgrim on 7 May 2012 #

    The latest episode of Mad Men (season 5: episode 8) makes extraordinary use of a track from the Revolver album – underlining both how ahead and of its time it is/was. It brought tears to my eyes

  9. 34
    swanstep on 7 May 2012 #

    @lonepilgrim, 33. Yeah, ’twas an awesome music bomb (probably costing half the music rights budget for the entire season just the way Satisfaction did in Season 4!). I wonder whether even what you’ve written so far constitutes a bit of a spoiler though…

  10. 35
    Erithian on 29 Jul 2012 #

    So farewell then Geoffrey Hughes, aka Eddie Yeats, aka the voice of Paul in the film “Yellow Submarine”.

  11. 36
    lonepilgrim on 23 Jan 2013 #

    the USA enjoyed a proto-psychedelic number 1 for a week while the Beatles were at the top in the UK – as celebrated here.

  12. 37
    lonepilgrim on 30 Jan 2013 #

    no hurry for the next US number one – as noted here.

  13. 38
    mapman132 on 14 Feb 2014 #

    Good review. These two songs don’t seem to have much in common at first but I think Tom explained their juxtaposition well. “Eleanor Rigby” in particular is a masterpiece. I sometimes wonder if I could end up a Rigby too – hopefully the friends and family connections I’ve made will prevent that. “Yellow Submarine” is a silly song, but that doesn’t make it bad – I find myself humming it frequently.

    Notably, this was one of the few major Beatles releases that didn’t result in a US#1. “Yellow Submarine” peaked at #2 on the Hot 100, while “Eleanor Rigby” made a disappointing #11 (perhaps the subject matter too depressing for an extroverted American audience?).

    Not going to argue with Tom’s 10 here.

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