The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” Lyrics Meaning

“Eleanor Rigby” is a certified Beatles’ classic, indeed somewhat of a cultural phenomenon in and of itself. And as such, certain information should be established from the onset.

Eleanor Rigby isn’t real!

First is that for all intents and purpose it is safe to say that the titular character, Eleanor Rigby, was not a real person. This seems to be an idea that many fans of the song have a hard time accepting. But throughout the years, for the most part Paul McCartney, the primary writer of the tune, has contended that Miss Rigby is indeed a fictitious character. Yes, at one point he did acknowledge that his conjuring up this name may have been the subconscious result of being influenced by a particular tombstone in a graveyard he used to hang out in during his youth. But he has also contended that she is a totally-fictitious character, one whose people’s insistence to prove is real has to some degree confounded him

Indeed at the end of the day, the factual consensus is that he got the first name of the character from an actress (Eleanor Bron) who was associated with the Beatles at the time. And the last name was derived from a liquor store (Rigby & Evens Ltd, Wine & Spirit Shippers) he was familiar with in the UK.

Father McKenzie is not real!

And the same also goes for the second character we are introduced to in this song, Father McKenzie. In fact he was originally named Father McCartney after Macca himself. But to Paul personally, this appellation invoked images of his father. And upon realizing that his dad is nothing like the character portrayed in the song, he decided to rename him.

“Eleanor Rigby” is partially based on Reality

But with those facts being established, this is not to imply that “Eleanor Rigby” does not have any basis in reality. Rather let’s say that the titular character is a composite of a number of different elderly ladies Paul McCartney used to hang out with when he was a child. Indeed he even used to run errands for them. So you can say that his sympathy for the type of person Eleanor is depicted as is real.

Narrative

Now as for the narrative itself, it centers primarily on the Beatles acknowledging “all the lonely people”. More specifically it depicts Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie as lonely souls themselves. And the first of the two we are introduced to is Eleanor. Interestingly enough her age is never specified. However, one peculiar characteristic she has is her tendency to ‘pick up the rice in a church where a wedding has been’. And despite this being somewhat of an unorthodox statement, it does effectively relay the fact that she is indeed lonely, perhaps even suffering from some sort of mental issues or poverty as a result.

Father McKenzie is also an interesting case. We see that he is in fact a priest of some sort or a head of a church. However, his congregation is nonexistent.  Thus his loneliness is manifest by him being akin to a leader with no followers. Yet despite this, he stays committed to his profession.

Climax of the Story

So the way the story climaxes is with Eleanor Rigby eventually passing away.  And sadly enough, “nobody came” to her funeral. But furthermore it is Father McKenzie who actually buries her. And so the story ends, with the Beatles apparently lamenting for “all the lonely people” throughout.

Lyrics of "Eleanor Rigby"

Now it’s debatable that they are trying to relay certain messages, lessons if you will, via this tale. For instance, it has been speculated by some fans that the case is presented as ideally Eleanor and Father McKenzie would have met when she was still alive, became friends and thus served as the remedy to each other’s loneliness. There is also a peculiar, ambiguous line at the end of the third verse, after Rigby is buried, which reads “no one is saved”. 

Now at the time this song was dropped, the Beatles, particularly John Lennon, was going through an anti-Christian phase, so to speak. So it is honestly quite-feasible that since the church is one of the settings of this song, as well as a priest being one of its central characters, that the band is actually taking a jab at the organized religion. And if so what they would basically be pointing to is the idea of Christianity failing some of its adherents in the most-fundamental way.

Conclusion

Verily, if a listener wants to look for additional meaning in this song by examining the rich history of the Beatles, combined with the symbolic nature of some of its lyrics, there is definitely enough there to lend to varying interpretations. But by and large, the narrative featured within “Eleanor Rigby” is straightforward and easy-to-follow. That is to say that most people who appreciate the tune lyrically do so because of the parts of the song that are simple to understand. And in that regard, it is fundamentally a sad song. It is a sorrowful song centered on an old lady who lives with no one to care for her and dies with no one to bury her. 

In other words it’s the type of track to invoke sympathy for those who may actually be living under such circumstances, i.e. a humanitarian tune. And at the end of the day, “Eleanor Rigby” is one of the reasons why many people feel that the Beatles were musical geniuses. They were pop artists who were able to write and recite a hit song about such thought-provoking and heart-wrenching subject matter as care for the elderly and sympathy for the lonely.

Facts about “Eleanor Rigby”

The credited writers of this song are Paul McCartney and an entity known as Lennon-McCartney. The latter would be a combination of Paul McCartney and his Beatles’ bandmate, John Lennon (1940-1980). Furthermore it is noted for being the first song which Mr. McCartney had written which was not centered on the theme of love.

The musical score of this song was composed by another Beatle, George Harrison (1943-2001). None of the Beatles themselves actually played instruments on this track. And in that regard, “Eleanor Rigby” is said to be one-of-a-kind. In this case what they did do was employ session musicians consisting of two violists, two cellists and four violinists. And due to the complexity of the instrumental, the Beatles never played this tune live.

The producer of “Eleanor Rigby” was the Beatles co-worker on most of their hits, Sir George Martin (1926-2016).

This track originally came out on 5 August 1966 as part of the Beatles’ album entitled “Revolver”.  

“Eleanor Rigby” was quite-successful. It topped the UK Singles Chart and performed likewise in Canada and New Zealand. In fact it is noted for being the top-selling song in the UK for 1966.

Moreover it peaked at number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100. Apparently it was not promoted as heavily in the United States as it was in the UK due to the religious references in the song.

“Eleanor Rigby” also earned Paul McCartney in particular a Grammy Award. This was in 1966, and it was awarded in the category of “Best Contemporary (R&R) Solo Vocal Performance – Male or Female”.

Moreover as of 2011, Rolling Stone has ranked this track at number 138 on its list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.

Popular Covers of “Eleanor Rigby”

A number of prominent artists have covered “Eleanor Rigby”, especially during its heyday. Amongst them are:

  •  Ray Charles (1968)
  • Aretha Franklin (1969)
  • John Denver (1970)
  • Tony Bennett (1971)
  • José Feliciano (1992)
  • Pearl Jam (2005)

Paul McCartney also did his own remix of this song and featured it on his 1984 solo album, “Give My Regards to Broad Street”.

The Eleanor Rigby Fascination

Despite Paul McCartney acknowledging, as aforementioned, that Eleanor Rigby is not a real person, fans of the tune have still been obsessed with tracking down a real person by this name who fits the character described in the song.  Indeed sometimes their efforts are borderline comedic. For instance, the aforementioned headstone in Liverpool, England (i.e. the Beatles’ hometown) which cites an “Eleanor Rigby” has accordingly become somewhat of a tourist attraction. Said headstone is even depicted on the music video to the 1995 Beatles’ track “Free as a Bird”. Moreover a document from 1911, which Paul McCartney at one time personally handled, which references a Eleanor Rigby (more specifically “E. Rigby”) was auctioned off for a whopping £115,000 pounds (approximately $250,000) in 2008.

Interesting to note is that there is also a real Eleanor Rigby statue located in the English city of Liverpool. It was erected in the aforementioned city in 1982. And interestingly, it is directly based on the character from the song.

Eleanor Rigby statue
The famous Eleanor Rigby statue situated in the heart of Liverpool, England.

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