The Songbook was analyzing a set of songs about Loneliness and Individualism, such as Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence,” before it got side-tracked into laying out my theory of modernity’s sociological stages. It’s time to return to the first task, which brings me for the first time to considering a song that I positively loathe. Revolver is a very good Beatles album, but I always program it to skip “Eleanor Rigby.”
First of all, it is catchy in a bad way. It’s not so unlike a little set-piece in an opera or a musical, but still, the impression its melancholy yet rushed melody gives is one of fast-food profundity. Not what you want stuck in your head.
Second of all, it is annoying that both at the time and to this day it has been held up as one of the Landmark Moments in which rock and roll Got Serious, becoming…(cue: Olympiad kettle drums) dum-dum-dum-dum…ROCK, because it employs classical instrumentation/composition and addresses a Social Issue.
With respect to the music, it is true that Lennon/McCartney make the classical elements the center of the song, whereas the more typical pop pattern had been to “add strings” to a jazz or R+B structure more as ornamentation. Not that it required no artistry to get the arrangements and overall mix right for Charlie Parker with Strings or “Stand by Me,” or the Charles’ version of “Georgia on My Mind,” but “Eleanor Rigby” was a further step down the road of mixing pop melody and classical elements (although it didn’t mix things as fundamentally as jazz composers like Stan Kenton and Dave Brubeck had). But whatever degree of “step” it was, it didn’t work well enough to create a lasting genre. A more ornamental-leaning approach, which we might call the “Rock with Strings” approach, such as we hear a couple years later with the songs on Love’s Forever Changes or, to skip ahead 20 years, Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain, works far better. Songs that went for a more integral mix, such as “Eleanor” or the Yardbirds’ “Still I’m Sad,” were awkward sounding, truth be told, and had they been released by unknown bands, they would not have attracted radio play on their own merits.
So since “Eleanor Rigby” was more of an experiment/novelty than a development-causing musical breakthrough, it’s annoying that it was pronounced a Big Deal, whereas songs like “Just Friends” and “Stand by Me” were merely admitted to be special.
But it is the lyrics that make the song particularly unendurable. To begin with, there are the open digs against Catholics and all Christians in its dwelling upon Father McKenzie’s writing a sermon that no-one will hear, and then in its pronouncing that no-one was saved. Lennon’s interview comment that the Beatles had become “bigger than Jesus” infuriated certain Christians, but in my judgment it was a fair-enough bit of wit about the absurd heights their popularity had reached. This lyric, however, reveals that the Beatles did notice the 60s decline in church attendance, and that they were quite willing to rub believers’ faces in it.
As disturbing is the impersonal character of the lyrics. One of the points that emerged from the earlier Songbook posts on “Individualism and Loneliness songs,” is that the more personally involved approach to the topic, such as in “That’s Not Me,” seemed healthier than the more “social problem” approach of a song like “Sounds of Silence.” But whereas Simon and Garfunkel delivered the sociological angle while still allowing the listener some dignifying distance—in “I Am a Rock” by setting the narrator up as a kind of caricature individualist, and in “Sounds of Silence” by use of an ingenious dream trope—“Eleanor Rigby” proceeds like some pitiless news-report, announcing the social problem in the chorus, and then providing three close-ups of personal misery. The theme of the lonely-crowd problem is the same, but the feel is quite different. Honestly, it feels like a violation, it feels obscene. I can accept, with some reservations, a song that reports and wallows in raw misery, but here, The Beatles, at the time the most sought-after persons in the world, report on others’ loneliness without at all alluding to any that they’re feeling. We are invited to stand with their song’s impersonal I, (the “ah” that begins the chorus also sounds like “I”) and look at all these people constituting this social problem, and to shed a tear.
I’m getting angry; so, I’ll speak right to the source.
Yes, Beatles, the world is hard. Even Xerxes, after looking over his magnificently huge army, felt bad about the human condition. True, you aren’t a tyrant, but then again, he didn’t go looking for an “Eleanor Rigby” so he could shove his “artist’s camera” into her misery. Do you have any excuse for doing this? Do you mean to implicitly criticize the impersonal I that only looks? I doubt it, but even if so, has not your song created a vehicle for every listener to become that impersonal eye for two minutes? If there is something wrong about how this eye looks upon Ms. Rigby, can you really provide poetic medicine against it by having us act it out with you? And in truth, there never has been an Eleanor Rigby in the world, has there? Unattended funerals have happened, of course, but have you shown us the full extent of what a real Fr. MacKenzie would be thinking during it, or what a real Eleanor would think about as she died? Or, given the limitations of the pop-song format that would prevent this, have you at all hinted at their human complexity? No, you haven’t. Your portrait, like so much crappy modern art, is hopelessly reductive.
We can see this all the more by next considering “A Rose for Emily,” by the Zombies.