John Lennon claimed to have written “about 70 per cent” of the words for ‘Eleanor Rigby’, although in separate accounts Paul McCartney and Pete Shotton both remember otherwise. Shotton described Lennon’s contribution as “virtually nil”.

Ah, the first verse was his and the rest are basically mine. But the way he did it… Well, he knew he had a song. But by that time he didn’t want to ask for my help, and we were sitting around with Mal Evans and Neil Aspinall, so he said to us, ‘Hey, you guys, finish up the lyrics.’

Now I was there with Mal, a telephone installer who was our road manager, and Neil, who was a student accountant, and I was insulted and hurt that Paul had just thrown it out in the aid. He actually meant he wanted me to do it, and of course there isn’t a line of theirs in the song because I finally went off to a room with Paul and we finished the song. But that’s how… that’s the kind of insensitivity he would have, which upset me in later years. That’s the kind of person he is. ‘Here, finish these lyrics up,’ like to anybody who was around.

Oh, he had the whole start: ‘Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been.’ And he had the story and knew where it was going. So we had to work out, ‘Well, is there anybody else in this story?’ We came up with Father McCartney for a bit, but Paul said his dad would be upset, so we made it into McKenzie, even though McCartney sounded better. And then we went on to new characters… It’s hard to describe, even with the clarity of memory, the moment the apple falls. The thing will start moving along at a speed of its own, then you wake up at the end of it and have this whole thing on paper, you know? Who said what to whom as we were writing, I don’t know.

I do know that George Harrison was there when we came up with ‘Ah, look at all the lonely people.’ He and George were settling on that as I left the studio to go to the toilet, and I heard the lyric and turned around and said, ‘That’s it!’

John Lennon, 1980
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

Paul McCartney recorded a demo of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ at the Ashers’ house. He later claimed that Marianne Faithfull expressed an interest in recording the song after she and Mick Jagger were played the demo.

I remember thinking to myself, What am I going to do when I’m thirty? Thirty was the big age. Will I still be in a group? I remember being round at John Dunbar’s house, having a very clear vision of myself in a herringbone jacket with leather elbow patches and a pipe, thinking ‘Eleanor Rigby’, this could be a way I could go, I could become a more serious writer, not so much a pop writer.
Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

In the studio

Recording began on 28 April 1966. With a score by George Martin, and inspired by the music written by Bernard Herrmann for the Truffaut film Farenheit 451, no Beatles played on the record. Instead a closely-miked string octet was recorded in 14 takes, after which Paul overdubbed his lead vocals.

The violins backing was Paul’s idea. Jane Asher had turned him on to Vivaldi, and it was very good, the violins, straight out of Vivaldi. I can’t take any credit for that, a-tall.
John Lennon, 1980
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

On 29 April McCartney added more vocals, and he, Lennon and Harrison provided harmonies. The song was then considered complete until 6 June, when Paul added one more vocal part.

George Martin had introduced me to the string quartet idea through ‘Yesterday’. 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. In George’s version of things, he conflates my idea of the stabs and his own inspiration by Bernard Hermann, who had written the music for the movie Psycho. George wanted to bring some of that drama into the arrangement. And, of course, there’s some kind of madcap connection between Eleanor Rigby, an elderly woman left high and dry, and the mummified mother in Psycho.

George Martin’s score was released in 1996 unadorned by vocals, on Anthology 2. The song also appeared in remix form on the Love album.

Chart success

The double a-side single ‘Eleanor Rigby’/‘Yellow Submarine’ was released in the UK on 5 August 1966, the same day as Revolver.

The single entered the charts on 10 August at number two. The following week it reached the top, where it remained for four weeks.

In America it fared less well. Released on 8 August 1966, it charted at number 11 and spent six weeks in the top 40.

The US single peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and Cashbox charts; this has been attributed to the downbeat subject matter, and also the fallout from John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” comments.

‘Eleanor Rigby’ was nominated for three Grammy awards in 1966, and won the Best Contemporary Rock and Roll Vocal Performance, Male.

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