by Kevin Burton
Since there won’t be any more Lennon/McCartney songs, the next best thing is a Lennon/McCartney story.
That is what we got Oct. 18 in a New Yorker piece by Paul McCartney about the song “Eleanor Rigby.” It starts with this tidbit:
“My mum’s favorite cold cream was Nivea, and I love it to this day. That’s the cold cream I was thinking of in the description of the face Eleanor keeps “in a jar by the door,” McCartney wrote. “I was always a little scared by how often women used cold cream.”
You can’t talk about Eleanor Rigby without remembering the crucial contributions of producer George Martin.
“George Martin had introduced me to the string-quartet idea through “Yesterday,” McCartney wrote. “I’d resisted the idea at first, but when it worked I fell in love with it.”
“So I ended up writing “Eleanor Rigby” with a string component in mind. When I took the song to George, I said that, for accompaniment, I wanted a series of E-minor chord stabs. In fact, the whole song is really only two chords: C major and E minor.”
The first Eleanor Rigby recording session was on April 27, 1966, with the recording of the string octet backing, according to the Beatles Bible. It, featured four violins, two violas and two cellos.
They performed a score written by Martin. Two brief rehearsals took place, with and without vibrato, and the musicians opted to play without.
“I was very much inspired by Bernard Herrmann, in particular a score he did for the Truffaut film Farenheit 451,” Martin said. “That really impressed me, especially the strident string writing. When Paul told me he wanted the strings in Eleanor Rigby to be doing a rhythm it was Herrmann’s score which was a particular influence.”
Both Lennon and McCartney were present at the studio, but remained in the control room. Martin was on the studio floor conducting the musicians. The strings were recorded with a close microphone technique, giving them a timbre different from anything that had previously been heard.
“On Eleanor Rigby we miked very, very close to the strings, almost touching them,” said sound engineer Geoff Emerick. “No one had really done that before; the musicians were in horror.”
But what emerged was a classic far exceeding the usual limits of rock and roll to be remembered as a treasured piece of art.
And it came from some unexpected places.
“Growing up, I knew a lot of old ladies—partly through what was called Bob-a-Job Week, when Scouts did chores for a shilling. You’d get a shilling for cleaning out a shed or mowing a lawn. I wanted to write a song that would sum them up,” McCartney wrote.
Eleanor Rigby is based on an old lady that I got on with very well. 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.”
“Later, I would offer to go and get her shopping. She’d give me a list and I’d bring the stuff back, and we’d sit in her kitchen. I still vividly remember the kitchen, because she had a little crystal-radio set. So I would visit, and just hearing her stories enriched my soul and influenced the songs I would later write.”
“The name Eleanor Rigby (was) on a marker in the graveyard at St. Peter’s Church in Woolton, which John and I certainly wandered around, endlessly talking about our future,” McCartney wrote. I don’t remember seeing the grave there, but I suppose I might have registered it subliminally.
“My memory has me visiting Bristol, where Jane Asher was playing at the Old Vic. I was wandering around, waiting for the play to finish, and saw a shop sign that read ‘Rigby,’ and I thought, ‘That’s it!’”
“When I got back to London, I wrote the song in Mrs. Asher’s music room in the basement of 57 Wimpole Street, where I was living at the time.’
“Initially, the priest was ‘Father McCartney,’ because it had the right number of syllables. I took the song to John at around that point, and I remember playing it to him, and he said, ‘That’s great, Father McCartney.’ He loved it. But I wasn’t really comfortable with it, because it’s my dad—my father McCartney—so I literally got out the phone book and went on from “McCartney” to “McKenzie.”
“The song itself was consciously written to evoke the subject of loneliness, with the hope that we could get listeners to empathize,” McCartney wrote.
“Those opening lines—‘Eleanor Rigby / Picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been / Lives in a dream.’ It’s a little strange to be picking up rice after a wedding. Does that mean she was a cleaner, someone not invited to the wedding, and only viewing the celebrations from afar? Why would she be doing that? 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.”
“Allen Ginsberg told me it was a great poem, so I’m going to go with Allen. He was no slouch,” McCartney wrote.