Dec 05

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

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#222, 20th August 1966


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.



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  1. 1
    Ian on 3 Jan 2006 #

    The digression is interesting (and I’m glad you kept it in there), but the review is really, really amazement. I think I can live with the death of NYPLM if that means Popular is going to be this exciting and incisive!

  2. 2
    Anonymous on 3 Jan 2006 #

    As you say, a perfect pairing. This is my favourite Beatles single.

    Who wrote the string quartet arrangement for “Rigby”? It’s amazing – I can’t think of another pop song that uses this voice/quartet combination so well/interestingly.

    I doubt anyone will moan at this 10 but FWIW I think that so far you’ve saved them for just the right singles.

    Jeff W

  3. 3
    Joe Williams on 3 Jan 2006 #

    I think the story is that the string arrangement was written by George Martin and Paul McCartney while they were recording.

    It’s strange that at this time of their careers, the Beatles should release a single containing two of their simpler songs, musically speaking (off the top of my head I think both use only three chords). I suppose the point is that they were trying to do things differently, which didn’t necessarily mean more complex.

  4. 4
    bza on 3 Jan 2006 #

    I could be wrong, but isn’t “Eleanor Rigby” the only beatles song where none of the beatles play any instruments?

  5. 5
    Stephen on 3 Jan 2006 #

    Bza: Revolution No. 9?

    Also, Tom this was terrific. More writing about the Beatles like this please!

  6. 6
    Rosie on 3 Jan 2006 #

    I can’t follow those comments – brilliant and I couldn’t have put it better even if I’d thoughht of it.

    But hey – I spent the 1960s divided almost exactly between Greasby, on the Wirral, and Welwyn Garden City. Neither place exactly the hub of the univers. But I don’t feel at all that the canonical 1960s passed me by. To be young was very heaven!

  7. 7
    Frank Kogan on 4 Jan 2006 #

    Tom, we’re just getting to where my real time is starting. I was a folkie at age 12 (hi Rosie, we must be in the same grade; who’s your home-room teacher?), scared of pop. Then I returned to it (still scared). This was on the radio and had made it to number three. I hated “Yellow Submarine,” loved “Eleanor Rigby,” which was basically a folk song – which in my mind apparently had nothing to do with the Anglo-American folk tradition, but with intense songs about life’s problems. I probably heard this as a protest song. It’s just a step from here to Simon & Garfunkel, and once there – face it – you’re on your way to the Velvets and “Heroin” and the Stooges and the rest. All the lonely people. Another year with nothing to do. I’m gonna try and nullify my life. But anyway, I later was embarrassed that I ever found this song profound, and I no longer love it. And I no longer hate “Yellow Submarine.” Not that I like it all that much, but it’s sure better than “Octopus’s Garden.”

  8. 8
    Anonymous on 4 Jan 2006 #

    Doctor Mod said:

    Tom, this is a stunning review, and I’m not going to try to improve on it. Glad to see you back in such fine form!

    I’ll admit that I’d never seen the connection between the two sides of the single which, on the surface, seem as unalike as could be. But yes–what you say is true.

    “Yellow Submarine” was the party we all wanted to go to–and “Eleanor Rigby” contains our fear that we aren’t invited.

    It just so happens that I bought the Sandbrook book myself last month for use in my ongoing research. I think you’re right that most people were a mix of the two sides of the dichtomy he attempts to create–and dichotomies are generally just a template for sorting out the phenomena of existence, rarely an accurate description of the realities of life. The two sides of the record would seem to see how the two sides of this paradigm are connected.

    A perfect 10.

  9. 9
    Anthony on 4 Jan 2006 #

    What were the berni inns

  10. 10
    Rosie on 4 Jan 2006 #

    Berni Inns were a chain of restaurants where you could get a prawn cocktail and a steak and a reasonable glass of plonk at a time when eating out was a novelty for most people. They were a cut above the Wimpy Bar and a family shoppi8ng trip to Watford or St Albans wasn’t complete without lunch at the Joseph Benskin or Tudor Tavern respectively.

    In retrospect they seem unbelievably naff but it would be unfair to mock them. They were very much of their time.

  11. 11
    Tom on 4 Jan 2006 #

    Something of their spirit lives on in the Harvester chain.

    I never had a bad time at a Berni inn. I have a really vivid memory of Dad’s birthday falling on a Sunday one year and listening to the Top 40 in the back of the car on the way to one. “A View To A Kill” went straight in at number 2 I believe.

    Thanks for the comments, I will reply to some a bit later I hope.

  12. 12
    Rosie on 4 Jan 2006 #

    I know what I wanted to ask. Eleanor Rigby is pretty short for a single – a tad over two minutes I think – but what is the *shortest* single to get to number one?

  13. 13
    Tom on 4 Jan 2006 #

    Some of the 50s and 60s hits clock in at about 1 minute 40, can’t remember which though.

  14. 14
    Tom on 4 Jan 2006 #

    Google say it’s Adam Faith’s “What Do You Want”, which is 98 seconds.

    (The longest Number 1 is Oasis’ apalling “All Around The World”.)

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    Lex on 4 Jan 2006 #

    I didn’t know these were the flipsides of the same single! That’s interesting cos ‘Eleanor Rigby’ is just about the only Beatles song I can stand while ‘Yellow Submarine’ kinda encapsulates most of what I loathe about them.

    Even then Aretha’s version of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ >>>> original.

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    p^nk s on 4 Jan 2006 #

    lex you are surely just PRETENDING to know what a “flipside” is

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    Marcello on 4 Jan 2006 #

    This post has been removed by the author.

  18. 18
    Lena on 4 Jan 2006 #

    I have little to add here, except that I never want to shop to “Eleanor Rigby” (not a prettified instrumental version but the real thing) again as it is just too sad; a world of people doing things for no apparent reason, like you said Tom, with poor Eleanor ignored even after her death! I don’t know if I can give it a 10 because it actually is so depressing, but I can’t find much fault with it.

    I like “Yellow Submarine” as a nonsense song, though I was so scared by the Blue Meanies in the movie as a kid that I was relieved by the (necessary) jolly seaside hoedown and don’t/didn’t see it as too mindless.

    Welcome back Tom!

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    bza on 5 Jan 2006 #

    Stephen, with Revolution No 9, that’s only true if you don’t count the fader as an instrument. :)

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    rjm on 6 Jan 2006 #

    Tom, this is an amazing piece of criticism, really first rate. I never thought of these songs going together in quite this way either. Maybe as reality/escape, but never quite as near the same thing. I’m not sure that Yellow Submarine is about community, though, except as a “Let’s all get out of here together” drug utopia sort of thing (wasn’t Yellow Submarine a name for a particular type of amphetimine?). Someone mentioned Octopus’s Garden, and the two could almost be seen as a progression (with the cold bath of Magical Mystery Tour somewhere in the middle) from an optimistic belief in group escape to a desire to hide away from just about everybody except your most intimate friends. I’m not sure you’d find Eleanor Rigby on board the Yellow Submarine, but you might well find her moping in the Octopus’s Garden.

  21. 21
    Frank Kogan on 7 Jan 2006 #

    I forgot to mention the most important thing about “Eleanor Rigby” (well, most important to Jordana, Lia, and Michaela Ryerson in 1999), which is that Paul pronounces church as “chuhch.”

  22. 22
    Mark Gamon on 4 Feb 2006 #

    Good review, Tom, and amen to that 10.

    I don’t want to break the rules or anything, but this immediately set me thinking about the greatest of all the Beatles singles – which, curiously, only made it to Number 2 (as I’m sure you’re aware).

    Couldn’t you make an exception for Penny Lane / Strawberry Fields? There are parallels with Eleanor Rigby / Yellow Submarine. I’m not sure which piece of rubbish kept it off the top spot (Humperdinck?) but I don’t think we’d miss very much if you muddled the numbers just for the one week…

  23. 23
    Wizz on 15 May 2006 #

    Like the reviews Mate. Keep them coming. ‘Eleanor Rigby’ IS one of my favourite songs by the Beatles. I do find that due to my constant mood change, their earlier tracks have more of a ‘real life’ feel about them, and even today, I heard a Beatles song whilst dozing and heard more than I ever thought there was within the music??????? (It seemed someone had put an extra instrument on the track, when in fact, it’s been there all the time).

  24. 24
    FreakyTrigger » My Own Trumpet on 17 Aug 2006 #

    […] Da Capo Best Music Writing 2006: look ma! It’s me! Regular readers of Popular will of course have no need to buy this excellent book (erm, other than to read all the even better stuff by Greil Marcus, Frank Kogan, Miss AMP, J Edward Keyes, Dave Tompkins and lots of other people) as they’ve already read my piece on “Yellow Submarine” and “Eleanor Rigby”. But this is still quite exciting for me as I’ve seen the previous editions of the series in real actual bookshops. […]

  25. 25
    Dan R on 2 Jun 2008 #

    And two years later, I add a thought. While there are more flashily drug-influenced and psychedelic Beatles songs – most of them written by Lennon – Yellow Submarine has always struck me as the most ‘stoned’ sounding Beatles song. It’s particularly the draggy beat, but also the monotony of ‘we all live in’ and ‘yellow submarine’, the way the voices barely harmonise and merely seem to drag each other down.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

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