In my intro to The Beatles’ last #1 – ‘Paperback Writer’ – I said that it was a definitive split away from ‘The Fab Four’. This latest chart-topper from the group, then, is an even greater stride away from the mop-top days.
Eleanor Rigby / Yellow Submarine, by The Beatles (their 11th of seventeen #1s)
4 weeks, from 18th August – 15th September 1966
The first side of this double-‘A’ disc contains a song that features no guitars, no drums, no nothing apart from strings. It’s a story about two people: Eleanor Rigby, who lives in a dream and wears a face kept in a jar by the door, and Father McKenzie, who writes sermons that nobody will hear and who spends his nights darning socks… We are a million miles away from ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, and that was barely two and a half years ago!
It’s a horribly sad song. Just start with the main refrain: Ah, look at all the lonely people! Then delve into the details. The images. Eleanor sweeping confetti from the floor of a church, after a joyful wedding party has been and gone. The priest and his socks. Eleanor’s funeral, at the end of which Father McKenzie wipes the dirt from his hands and walks back to church alone. No-one was saved…
The characters are fictional, although Paul McCartney has at times been ambiguous when asked about them. The grave of an Eleanor Rigby exists in Liverpool, very near to where Paul and John first met as teenagers. She died in 1939, aged just forty-four, and it does seem slightly too much of a coincidence. But then again, if you were going to invent a fictional old woman’s name, Eleanor Rigby wouldn’t be a bad shout.
Real or invented, Eleanor’s song races along on tight, menacing violins – the story told in barely two minutes. It’s a vignette, a moment in time. You can imagine Paul McCartney viewing the churchyard from the window of a double-decker bus, Eleanor sweeping the church steps, Father McKenzie waiting for the congregation that will never come, and then going home to write the song. Just what is it about? A study in loneliness? The decline of Christianity? A comment on the misery of post-war Britain? The more you listen to it, the more important ‘Eleanor Rigby’ sounds. And the less like a chart-topping record. Only The Beatles could have taken this song to chart success. Largely because only The Beatles were capable of writing pop songs like this.
They were also the only band capable of writing songs like the one on the other side of this disc. We flip the record, and move from the sublime into the ridiculous. As if they thought that ‘Eleanor Rigby’ might be too much of a departure, too avant-garde, and so wanted something childishly reassuring to go along with it. But, in its own way, ‘Yellow Submarine’ is every bit as arresting…
Let me state right here right now – it is impossible to truly hate ‘Yellow Submarine’. It might be irritating, cheesy and pointless… but there’s a loveable nugget buried in there. Perhaps it’s because ‘Yellow Submarine’ is often the first Beatles song people ever hear as toddlers. I think also, for me, it’s the fact that Ringo sings it. There’s something wonderfully soothing about Ringo’s voice. It’s got a melancholy tremble that contrasts nicely with the song’s stupidly optimistic lyrics. Plus, his voice always reminds me of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’, which was my favourite TV show as a sprog.
In the town, Where I was born, Lived a man, Who sailed to sea… Ringo and chums sail out to find the land of submarines. They live a life of ease, beneath the waves… The end. It’s a complete novelty. The silliest, most childlike chart-topper since ‘(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window’ from way back when. To pair this with ‘Eleanor Rigby’ reminds me of when Elvis paired ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ with ‘Rock-a-Hula Baby’, times ten.
But hey. I like the bit where the band begins to play, and the use of goofy sound effects as the sub gets its journey underway, and the final verse, with the shouted, distorted backing vocals. The band must have enjoyed recording it, as they went and endorsed a whole movie based on the song. The cartoon ‘Yellow Submarine’ is probably one of the iconic Beatles images, along with Sgt Peppers and the EMI stairwell pictures.
Of course, this being The Beatles, the lyrics to ‘Yellow Submarine’ have undergone intense scrutiny. Just what is it about, man? Is it an anti-war statement (Yellow Nuclear Submarine?) Is it an ode to a hippy commune? The band themselves, as they usually did, stated that it was just a children’s song about a big, yellow submarine. Nothing more, nothing less.
So, there you have it. Two completely bizarre songs from the biggest band in history, at the height of their powers. There’s an arrogance to them releasing this disc – in them saying to their adoring public: ‘Here, get your pretty little heads around this!’ And it marks the start of a mini-hiatus from the top of the charts for The Beatles. Their next release, another very famous double-‘A’ side, will (gasp!) not make #1, and we won’t hear from them until almost a whole year has passed. By which time they will have taken another supersonic leap forward…
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