100 Greatest Beatles Songs

From 'Helter Skelter' to 'Sgt. Pepper's,' ranking of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison's output

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'Eleanor Rigby'
Dave Benett/Getty Images22/100

22. 'Eleanor Rigby'

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: April 28, 29 and June 6, 1966
Released: August 8, 1966
8 weeks; no. 11

When McCartney first played "Eleanor Rigby" for his neighbor Donovan, the words were "Ola Na Tungee/Blowing his mind in the dark/With a pipe full of clay." McCartney fumbled with the lyrics until he landed on the line "Picks up the rice in a church where a wedding has been." It was then that he realized he was writing about lonely people and transformed the song into the tale of a spinster, a priest and how their lives intersect at her funeral.

There are conflicting stories of how McCartney came up with the name for the title character. According to McCartney, he combined the first name of Eleanor Bron, the lead actress in Help!, with a last name taken from a sign he had seen in Bristol for Rigby & Evans Ltd, Wine & Spirit Shippers. But Lionel Bart, the writer-composer of Oliver!, claimed that on a walk with McCartney in London's Putney Vale Cemetery, they saw the name Eleanor Bygraves, and McCartney said he would use it in a new song.

Most intriguing, in the 1980s, the gravestone of an Eleanor Rigby was discovered in the churchyard of St. Peter's in the Liverpool suburb of Woolton — just yards from the spot where Lennon and McCartney first met in 1957 after a performance by Lennon's group the Quarry Men. "It was either complete coincidence or in my subconscious," McCartney said.

After McCartney wrote the melody on the piano at his girlfriend Jane Asher's flat, he gathered Lennon, Harrison, Starr and Pete Shotton, Lennon's childhood friend, at Lennon's house in Weybridge to help finish the lyrics. The group all agreed on certain details about this session: The priest was originally called "Father McCartney" until they found the name "McKenzie" in a phone book; Starr chipped in the line "darning his socks in the night"; and it was Shotton's idea that the song end with the funeral, bringing all of the principal characters together.

Beyond that, though, Lennon and McCartney offered dramatically different versions of the writing process. "The first verse was his and the rest are basically mine," Lennon told journalist David Sheff in 1980. "It was Paul's baby, and I helped with the education of the child." McCartney, on the other hand, maintained that "John helped me on a few words, but I'd put it down 80-20 to me." (Shotton said, "My recollection is that John's contribution was virtually nil.")

None of the Beatles actually play an instrument on "Eleanor Rigby" — McCartney sings the double-tracked lead vocal, and Lennon and Harrison contribute harmonies, but the music is performed entirely by a pair of string quartets, arranged by George Martin. "Paul wasn't immediately enamored of the concept," said engineer Geoff Emerick. "He was afraid of it sounding too cloying."

When he agreed to the idea, McCartney said he wanted the strings to sound "biting." With that in mind, Emerick was determined to capture the sound of bows striking strings with an immediacy previously unheard on any recording, classical or rock & roll. Instead of recording the octet on a single microphone, he miked each instrument individually. "I was close-mik-ing the strings — really close," he said. "So close that the musicians hated it, because you could see them sort of keep slipping back on their chairs to get away from the mic in case they made any errors."

McCartney saw the finished track — a meditation on solitude and aging that sounded like nothing else on the radio at the time — as a breakthrough moment for him as a songwriter. He later reflected that when he wrote "Eleanor Rigby," he had been musing about what kind of work he might do when he was done being a Beatle.

"This could be a way I could go," he recalled himself thinking. "[I had] a clear vision of myself in a herringbone jacket with leather elbow patches and a pipe. I could become a serious writer, not so much a pop writer. Yes, it wouldn't be bad, actually — at the terrible old age of 30."

Appears On: Revolver

The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time: The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby"
The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Revolver'
Photos: The Beatles on the Cover of Rolling Stone

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