August 8, 1966—Simultaneously with the Beatles’ release of their seventh album, Revolver, in the United States, the Fab Four’s single “Eleanor Rigby/Yellow Submarine” appeared. The latter tunes from the LP offered fresh evidence that, even when recording a pop novelty song, the group was prepared to pull out all the stops in the studio—and that, when they became more ambitious, they could stretch the limits of the prototypical rock ‘n’ roll song like nobody except Bob Dylan.
It’s a measure of the Beatles’ greatness that you'll find partisans lining up behind different disks when asked about their favorite LP. Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, of course, set standards as a concept album; Abbey Road featured the great Side 2 medley as well as the George Harrison works that marked him as an indelible songwriting force, “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something”; and The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album), as a double album, featured as much of their work released at one point that anyone could ever want.
I recognize all of these arguments,.and yet I still would claim that Revolver bests them all, surpassed in the Beatles’ entire opus only by its immediate predecessor, Rubber Soul. It exhibits much of the sense of experimentation that marked Sergeant Pepper’s, and, though not achieving the same sense of artistic unity as the 1967 LP, maintains a more consistently high level among its songs. (Even tunes that did not climb the charts as singles were superb examples of their songwriting skills, as I realized several years ago at a Marshall Crenshaw concert, when that talented singer-songwriter paid tribute to the recently deceased Harrison by playing John Lennon’s “I’m Only Sleeping.”)
While Harrison did not reach the songwriting heights he would later scale on Abbey Road, the creative straitjacket in which he had operated until 1966—no more than two songs for each LP—was loosened enough to allow him a third song on Revolver—and gave Lennon and Paul McCartney, already challenging and competing with each other, still another force to reckon with within the band. Moreover, Revolver represented a point when Lennon and McCartney were still functioning, to some extent, as collaborative songwriters. (By the time of Abbey Road and the near-disastrous Let It Be, they were simply bringing their contributions pretty much fully formed separately to the studio.)
Lennon’s influence on the tone of Revolver is the most evident of the four musicians. In particular, “Tomorrow Never Knows” seems felicitously placed as the concluding tune, heralding not only Sergeant Pepper’s but also the entire drug-influenced “psychedelic rock” movement to follow. Two years removed from “Can’t Buy Me Love,” Lennon was taking Beatlemania on a long, strange trip indeed.
Over the years, Lennon has gained something of an upper hand over Paul McCartney for his lyrics. At his best, however, with someone prodding him to produce something other than silly love songs, Paul could be far more than the so-called “cute Beatle,” and “Eleanor Rigby” shows why.
For fans who wanted a slow, meditative, thoughtful love song, McCartney supplied “Here, There and Everywhere.” For those who wanted one of his optimistic anthems, “Got to Get You Into My Life” provided an especially brassy jump-starter.
But “Eleanor Rigby” was something radically different from anything he had written before, and maybe different from anything anyone in the band, Lennon included, would do again. It’s a bifurcated narrative with two figures, Eleanor Rigby and Fr. MacKenzie, united only in their loneliness and sense of futility.
Most astonishingly for a McCartney song, there is no happy ending. But, unlike a frequent Lennon attitude, there was no irony or cynicism, either, only a cry of sympathy: “Ah, look at all the lonely people!”
Just as unusual, “Eleanor Rigby” did not contain a single instrument commonly associated with rock ‘n’ roll: no guitar, no piano, no drums, no bass. While the Beatles join in the vocals, none plays an instrument here. Instead, session musicians were employed for the four violins, two violas, and two cellos.
McCartney, who had been listening to quite a bit of classical music in the months leading up to the album, shared his idea of all-strings instrumentation with producer George Martin. The latter, in turn, found inspiration in the film scores of Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Hitchcock’s longtime collaborator. The most notable impressions left by the song, then, are tension and lack of musical resolution—aural counterparts to life.
For his recent Yankee Stadium appearance, McCartney had five decades of songs from which to draw. But the fact that he included “Eleanor Rigby” on the set list for his 2 1/2-hour concert says much about his justifiable pride in the song—a pride reflected in its powerful influence on other, later rock ‘n’ rollers.
For instance, an account of the life of Elvis Costello, Graeme Thomson’s Complicated Shadows, has a short section on the making of The Juliet Letters, the string-oriented album that the musical polyglot made in 1993 with the Brodsky Quarter. Costello was trying to explain several years later why, despite success overseas, the album failed to catch on stateside, recounting his conversation with a clueless record company exec:
“This Juliet Letters would be all right if it just sounded more like ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but Paul McCartney already made that record. Why would we want to make that again? We’re trying to make a record that’s not like ‘Eleanor Rigby.’”
Ah, Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence”—his idea that texts are inevitably a response to what preceded them--would get quite a workout in this case. A record “not like ‘Eleanor Rigby’”? It wasn’t there on the basis of the evidence. McCartney’s collaborator on “My Brave Face” and “Veronica” might have been better served by frankly acknowledging that he was trying to create something even greater than that single, hard as it was to imagine.