Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Masterpieces of Pop: "Eleanor Rigby"

One cannot survey the Masterpieces of Pop Music without looking at the catalog of the Masters of Pop. I refer of course to The Beatles, one of the most influential musical acts in pop music history. Their contributions to the evolution of pop music cannot be exaggerated. The only difficult part is, for the purpose of this series, trying to pick one Masterpiece of Pop from a catalog full of masterpieces.

The Beatles’ catalog can be divided into three phases: Early, Mid-period, and Late. Although many might argue that the early Beatles songs are some of their most influential in terms of the evolution of pop music at that time (the band were the first wave of the “British Invasion” which was the next step in the history of rock and roll after the likes of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis), the songs lack substance. Yes, they were important in the growth of the pop form, but they were a product of the period. Pop songs were in their infancy and the early Beatles sound shows it: quick, catchy, jangly tunes without—or with a very sketchy—narrative. It was only the beat that was important: in fact, the musical movement in Liverpool from which The Beatles emerged was called “Merseybeat,” so named for the River Mersey that runs through the city.

But of course as the group grew, as the individual members grew as people, and as contemporary culture grew, pop music evolved simultaneously. The Beatles found themselves torn between the commercial success of cute but vapid pop ditties and artistic expression, and fortunately for the world, artistic expression won out. They entered into an experimental phase, willing to explore sonically and lyrically, and were influenced by the cultural and psychological revolutions happening at the time. They transitioned from the “live Beatles” to the “studio Beatles” and began creating very sophisticated songs that simply could not be duplicated by a four-piece rock and roll band on a stage. They became mythical and created music that defied genres and expectations. For example, because of their association with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, sitars entered their music. Experiments with LSD led to mind-altering tracks that were expansive, liberating, and gloriously transcendent.

The late period Beatles is composed of some equally astounding music, but the output was slowed due to the dissolving relationships within the band. The stress and strain between the members can be felt in the music, however brilliant it may be. The songs created during this final phase can be seen as refinements of and variations on what was created during their mid-period.

In looking at these phases, I had to pass over the awesome psychedelic rock of “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Love You To;” I had to pass over the chilling, mind-boggling, sonic wonders of “A Day In The Life,” “I Am The Walrus,” and “Strawberry Fields Forever;” and I had to pass over just plain ol’ kick-ass songs like “Come Together” and “Hey Jude.” I had to pass them all over in favor of a two-minute and six second masterpiece called “Eleanor Rigby.” On their 1966 album “Revolver” (the first product of their rich, fertile mid-period), The Beatles pushed the boundaries of what a pop song could be by using classical arrangements, and by using traditional rock and roll instruments as well as ethnic and classical instruments. And “Eleanor Rigby” sparkles among the other spectacular songs from “Revolver.”

One of the few songs to be written by all four members of the band, Eleanor Rigby started life in Paul McCartney’s imagination as Daisy Hawkins, who sounds of course, too much like “Sadie Hawkins”… with a comic sense to it. Thankfully, Daisy turned into Eleanor Rigby, who sounds serious, tight, and repressed. The structure of the song is brilliant. We alternately follow two characters, Eleanor and Father McKenzie, both “lonely people” who never meet in their lives. Paul McCartney sings of “all the lonely people”, indicating that there are many more people like Ms. Rigby and Father McKenzie. One can imagine all of these lonely people living in a town where no one speaks to one another, at least not on a real, authentic level; they are separate, emotionally removed from one another in this shell-shocked, post-war British landscape. In this agonizing lament, Eleanor picks up the rice from the floor of an empty church after a wedding, invoking images of Miss Havisham, then waits at a window in her home, presumably doing nothing but staring out, while wearing a “face that she keeps in a jar by the door.” She waits for someone who is obviously never going to arrive. The priest is equally as disconnected, writing sermons that he will give to an empty church (our second glimpse of this empty church), and darning his socks, alone, by what I have always imagined to be candle light. These forlorn characters finally do meet but only because Eleanor has died. Father McKenzie officiates at her funeral, which again, is devoid of people. These images of the pair and their lost, desolate lives are heartbreaking. The narrative is amazingly full, not only because of what is sung, but because of what isn’t. Much like the song with which I started the Masterpieces of Pop series, “Ode To Billie Joe” by Bobby Gentry, it feels as if the contents of an entire novel have been expertly and delicately placed within the confines of this perfect two-minute gem, as if Joyce’s ULYSSES or Proust had been distilled down to their essence and poured into a small vial. That is really one of the hallmarks of a Masterpiece of Pop: the issue of brevity vs. content. It is possible to have an entire world of content, a narrative that evokes far more than what is presented, in a two or three minute pop song.

Another quality of a Masterpiece of Pop is that the music supports the lyrical ideas presented in the song. In this respect, “Eleanor Rigby” is truly perfect. Without any musical prelude or introduction, we are thrust into a tense, stark world right at the start of the song, as Paul, John, and George suddenly and shockingly sing—no, they practically keen and wail the chilling refrain, “Ah, look at all the lonely people.” The safety and familiarity of a four-piece rock and roll outfit is nowhere to be found. Instead of a slow, funereal sound that one would expect with such lyrical content, an urgently cadenced string octet, immediate and visceral, brilliantly arranged by Beatles producer George Martin (and, as legend has it, based on the film music of composer Bernard Hermann), relentlessly saws away at our emotions, with violins and cellos weeping and mourning the loneliness of life from which no one can be saved. This tragic elegy is all the more remarkable for a contrasting lack of sentiment in the presentation of its existential expression—there is simply no room for it. In the end, we are all, indeed, buried along with our name. We have no choice.

"Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice
In the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream

Waits at the window, wearing a face
That she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Father McKenzie, writing the words
of a sermon that no one will hear
No one comes near

Look at him working, darning his socks
In the night when there's nobody there
What does he care?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby, died in the church
And was buried along with her name
Nobody came

Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt
From his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved

All the lonely people
(Ah, look at all the lonely people)
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
(Ah, look at all the lonely people)
Where do they all belong?"


This is the ninth installment of my original, ongoing "Masterpieces of Pop" series. You can read the other essays here:

Masterpieces of Pop: "Ode To Billie Joe"
Masterpieces of Pop: "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"
Masterpieces of Pop: "I Only Have Eyes For You"
Masterpieces of Pop: "I'm Not In Love"
Masterpieces of Pop: "Warm Leatherette" and "Cars"
Masterpieces of Pop: “Family Affair”
Masterpieces of Pop: "Dreams"
Masterpieces of Pop: "Dance This Mess Around"

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