The Beatles: Eleanor Rigby & Cellar Door

January 3rd, 2011 by | Tags: , , ,

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. Here’s the first:

I’ve been learning The Beatles lately. I’m fairly unfamiliar with them, with only a passing knowledge of their catalog. I know “Come together! Right now! Over me!” from a pickup truck commercial (and it was probably the Aerosmith version), I believe, and bits from movies or karaoke. I started with Revolver, because that’s what people said was their best album, and listened to it about ten times over Christmas weekend.

What’s most surprising, I think, is how infinitely singable this record is. Something about a song like “Eleanor Rigby” demands that you sing along. It’s compelling, but not in terms of content. The lyrics and vocals aren’t that complicated, is what it is. They’re simple, especially when compared to the diva’d up songs (word to 0:40-1:00, can I get an amen?) that I usually need to sing along to. It’s pop, in the purest meaning of the word. It’s popular and appropriate for a mass audience. Paul McCartney’s singing voice is conversational, almost, and a little bit haunting. It’s a sad song, but a catchy one.

What’s more is what I tend to think of as the focal point of the song, the phrase “Eleanor Rigby,” is incredibly pleasing to the ear. It sits alone in the verse, separated from the rest of its line by a beat, and really draws my attention. Something about the name puts me in mind of the phrase “cellar door.” It’s intensely musical in and of itself and regardless of what it actually means. “El-ea-nor-rig-by” has a specific rhythm and a pleasing sound, even when spoken in plain language. The Rs flow into each other. “Father McKenzie” isn’t quite as musical, I think due to the hard K sounds in the last segment, but it still works after being setup by “Eleanor Rigby.”

(This ties into the rhythm, as well. Biggie’s “Super Nin-ten-do Sega Genesis” has much the same effect. It’s like hypnosis.)

My mental impression of “Eleanor Rigby,” the song, is partly abstracted. It’s a loose collection of pleasant sounds (“I look at all the lonely people” and then “Eleanor Rigby”) followed by coherent lyrics, and then bookended with more pleasing sounds. And you can’t not sing along with it for that very reason. It sounds good, a kind of good that demands homage. It works, and works hard.

There are a few other songs on the album I have this reaction to, though none as strong as “Eleanor Rigby.” “Taxman” is quite good, and I like the harmony (harmonial?) aspects of it (“Yeaaaaahyeah, I’m the Taxmaaaan,” “Ah-ah, Mis-ter Willll-son,” and that crazy verse from 0:55-1:12) and the way their accent alters the pronunciation of certain common words (“Don’t ask me what I want it for/if you don’t want to pay some more,” the “small/all” rhyme prior to that) makes for a very enjoyable tune. “She Said She Said” has a couple of great bits (“No no no you’re wrong” rising into “when I was a boy” before that line fades back to normal), too. “Good Day Sunshine” has the kind of chorus that I think of as superhero music. It feels like it’s rising, and is vibrant and catchy.

(I liked “I’m Only Sleeping” because it reminds me of Mark 5:22-43: “He went inside. Then he said to them, ‘Why all this confusion and sobbing? The child is not dead. She is only sleeping.'” It’s a facile connection, but a deep one that I can’t quite put out of my mind.)

This isn’t a new way to look at music for me. But it’s interesting that the songs on Revolver hit me like they did. My only other Britpop touchstone is Blur, which I do like to sing to. Do I like Blur and The Beatles for the same reasons? I’ve listened to Rubber Soul eight or nine times at this point, and I had a similar reaction to “Drive My Car,” which feels like a pounding Aretha Franklin joint and is super funky, and “Norwegian Wood,” which sounds like what I imagined Beatles songs sounded like before I started listening to them. “I once had a girl. Or should I say, she once had me.”

Long story short, though, I ordered The Beatles: Rock Band, even though it only has three joints from Revolver.

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16 comments to “The Beatles: Eleanor Rigby & Cellar Door”

  1. Norwegian Wood is the chillest, most laid-back song ever about burning down a girl’s house. I love that track.

  2. Cornershop’s Norwegian Wood cover is fantastic too – recontextualized into Punjabi by an Anglo-Indian band.

  3. Yeah the Beatles to me are probably the best pop group in history. That’s their legacy, and it’s nothing to sneeze at because writing really good pop is really hard. A song like “Blackbird” is a marvel. The Beatles were really good at putting together songs with lots of hooks and great vocal parts that just sound really, really good. The KLF (a British electronic / pop group) wrote a manual to getting a number one hit (which they did) and they talk about pop as something that satisfies really basic, common needs – that speaks to really simple emotional urges while sounding great. And I think the Beatles are the best at making the kind of pop they talk about. The Manual itself is really interesting and worth reading, btw. http://freshonthenet.co.uk/?page_id=52

  4. Good start to the new series. Love that title.

  5. Eleanor Rigby is a totally solid pop song, but the string section is what elevates it to genius material. If you never heard the vocal track, the strings would still sell the truth of the pice to you.

    And while its soundtrack is entirely comprised of covers, I think you’d appreciate the movie Across The Universe – it takes a number of the Beatles’ hits and uses them as the framework to hang the story of a young man named Jude who comes to America from Liverpool in the early 60s and gets caught up in the changes society was going through at the time. The “Let It Be” scene is if not the best, one of the three best and most powerful of the entire movie, and they managed to make their version of the song even better than the original. If you have a Netflix membership, I believe it’s still available for instant streaming. Totally worth whatever time and effort you put into seeing it, regardless.

  6. I don’t know if it’s true or not (too lazy to research) but I read somewhere that Elenor Rigby was the first Beatles song that the Beatles didn’t play instruments on. And the musicians got paid scale.

  7. I grew up with Beatles music, but so many of their non-singles/hit songs managed to pass me by or just not stick with me, so stuff like She Said She Said is relatively new to me.

  8. @David Uzumeri: Norwegian Wood is the chillest, most laid-back song ever about burning down a girl’s house.


    Mind = blown.

  9. @Maddy: It totally is.

    “She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh
    I told her I didn’t, and crawled off to sleep in the bath
    And when I awoke I was alone, this bird had flown
    So I lit a fire. Isn’t it good Norwegian wood?”

    He found a girl for a hookup and she led him on and played him out. In exchange, after waking up in her bathtub, he burns it down.

    I’m gonna be working through more of the catalog over the year. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts, since you grew up with it. And “She Said She Said” is a great breakup song.

    @Prodigal: I saw the trailer, but it didn’t look like my kind of film. I like the music, but the story summaries I’ve read suggest it ain’t really for me. Thanks, though.

  10. Great post – that resonance in I’m Only Sleeping is something I never noticed before, but it’s so *obvious* now.

    A.L. Boroza – Eleanor Rigby was the first Beatles track on which none of the Beatles played at all (some say there’s an acoustic guitar on there, but I’ve never heard it), but there had been at least one track – Yesterday – where only Paul had played and none of the other Beatles appeared at all. The musicians did only get scale, but they didn’t, of course, write their own parts – they were arranged by George Martin with help from Paul McCartney, and Martin got a royalty.

  11. @david brothers: Fair enough. I’d still recommend checking out the soundtrack, though.

  12. […] David Brothers is listening to the Beatles for the first time […]

  13. I’m often a fan not of the masters, but of the people who try to emulate in the shadow of the masters. A lot of people look at the “David”, but I love looking at all the other apprentices who tried their best to emulate the master and ended up putting their unique spin on it.

    Elenore Rigby is a grand song and it is the strings that elevate it to a new level. There is a wonderful Aretha Franklin version that blows the roof off the song and gives you this gospel number about people left at a church on a Sunday. The version developed by the LOVE: Cirque de Solei album uses careful editing to give focus to the character Elenore Rigby as a way to see her plight as the narrative of the story continues with other Beatles songs.

    But my all-time favorite version of Elenore Rigby has to be “Lonely People” by the Rutles. Most people dismiss this parody group, but there is great mastery of taking an original song, putting your own spin on it, and having it sound similar but not the same as the original song. This isn’t like Weird Al doing song parodies. This is more like “On Earth 2, they listen to the Rutles.” I highly recommend that version, if only to see the Beatles through an interesting mirror that replicates the feeling and mood and musicianship, but not the actual songs of the Beatles.

  14. sorry, the Rutles song is called “Lonely Phobia”

  15. I’ve been trying to get David to watch Yellow Submarine in light of all this, which I believe he’d dig.

    Then when he’s done with the Beatles, he can go through the history of the Be Sharps. It’s rough in the beginning, but the group gets a lot better once Chief Wiggum leaves.

  16. […] from previous meetings of the Society: The Beatles – “Eleanor Rigby”, Tupac – Makaveli, Blur – 13 (with Graeme McMillan) Blur – Think […]