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Get to know A Bit About Britain - an idiosyncratic view of places to visit in Britain, British history - and stuff. Warts and all. Where shall we go today?

Friday, 22 January 2016

Eleanor Rigby

Eleanor Rigby, Tommy Steele, Stanley Street, Liverpool

Ah, look at all the lonely people...

A bronze statue of a woman sits on a stone bench in Liverpool’s Stanley Street.  She appears middle-aged, tired, worn down by life.  Her small handbag sits carelessly in her lap.  She seems to be gazing down wistfully to her left at a sparrow that perches on a rumpled newspaper.  Her hand is in her pocket – she’s felt the cold, perhaps, and nodded off without finishing reading.  Her partially empty shopping bag rests on the bench to her right.  As you get closer, you observe that she only has the merest hint of a face.

Eleanor Rigby, statue, Tommy Steele, Stanley Street, Liverpool.

This is Eleanor Rigby, the statue, a slightly spooky and bleak image that fits a slightly bleak song by the Beatles, and its slightly spooky mythology.  The statue is the work of entertainer Tommy Steele.  It was his own tribute to the Beatles and was unveiled by him in December 1982.  The plaque had been stolen by someone else before I got there, but dedicates the sculpture to “All the lonely people”.


Stanley Street is a somewhat seedy thoroughfare, though handy for the Beatles’ trail, because it’s just round the corner from the Cavern.  Hessy’s Music Shop, frequented for decades by a string of Liverpool’s key (see what I did there?) musicians, and where John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi is reputed to have bought him a guitar, once stood on Stanley Street.  Across the road from Eleanor Rigby, the statue, is Eleanor Rigby, the hotel.  Bachelor parties are advertised, and pole dancing.  Poles are much sought after for dancing, I understand – along with Lapps, of course.  I suspect the hotel would probably not be to Eleanor’s taste.


The Beatles released Eleanor Rigby as a single with the relatively awful Yellow Submarine in August 1966.  It stayed in the UK charts for 13 weeks, four of those at No 1.  The album Revolver came out at the same time as the single and featured Eleanor Rigby as the second track; Paul’s velvety vocal and the backing of see-sawing strings leaps in without warning after George’s staccato studio-coughing Taxman.  Eleanor Rigby is a haunting, sad, song, a little over 2 minutes long.  Like so many Beatles’ numbers, its origin, conception and subsequent development is the stuff of pop legend.

Revolver, 1966, artwork, Klaus Voormann.

Paul McCartney first came up with the tune that became Eleanor Rigby in the little basement music room at girlfriend Jane Asher’s parents’ house, 57 Wimpole Street, London.  The singer Donovan recalls Paul turning up with it at his flat where he sang, “Ola Na Tungee/Blowing his mind in the dark/With a pipe full of clay/No one can say” – though some stories have the song starting life as “Daisy Hawkins” – which does not scan so well.  Apparently, the song was finished at John Lennon’s Kenwood mansion, with input from the other three Beatles and Pete Shotton, John’s childhood friend.  The ratio of input varies according to which account you read; I’ve always thought it was largely Paul’s composition, with John contributing the ‘Ah, look at all the lonely people’ line – which kind of sounds right.  The ‘Father McKenzie’ referred to in the song, though, started out as ‘Father McCartney’.

Still with me?

Eleanor Rigby, memorial, St Peter's churchyard, Woolton.

So who was Eleanor Rigby, this somewhat forlorn spinster who lived in a dream and was buried along with her name?  Was she just a figment of imagination?  According to Paul, the name was partly inspired by Eleanor Bron, actress and friend, who worked with the Beatles on the movie Help!.  The ‘Rigby’ was spotted on a shop front in Bristol, where Paul was visiting Jane Asher whilst she was acting in theatre there.  Yet, by spooky coincidence, in St Peter’s churchyard, Woolton, Liverpool, close to where Lennon and McCartney first met, is a memorial to Eleanor Rigby, who died on 10th October 1939.  Could Paul – or even John – have subconsciously taken in the name?  John, in particular, knew this churchyard well.  Continuing the coincidence, a few gravestones away is a memorial to Martha and John McKenzie – is that also where Father McKenzie came in, or was he just a convenient name from the ‘phone book?  Incidentally, Paul had a dog called Martha.

In 2008, the Daily Mail carried an intriguing article which documented the real Eleanor Rigby’s life and family.  Curiously, she was born and spent most of her life in a house in Vale Road, Woolton, which backs onto Menlove Avenue where John Lennon grew up.

Weirdly, when we visited Woolton, a family was gathered at the Rigby grave and I’m sure I heard the woman telling her little girl that Eleanor was an old relative.

If you do the Beatles trail, you will want to include Eleanor Rigby.  Next week, we'll talk about JFK, Princess Di, aliens and crop circles.  Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a link to a YouTube clip of Paul McCartney performing Eleanor Rigby – the Beatles never performed the number live and the only instruments on the original were strings, played by session musicians.


31 comments:

  1. very interesting! and it is such a hauntingly beautiful song! have a beautiful weekend!

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  2. I love it when I have visited places you are describing. I was in Liverpool last May and saw this sculpture. I didn't know it was by Tommy Steele! I had no idea that he was that talented. I thought leaving it almost faceless was an excellent tribute to lonely people as isn't that just how they feel? Enjoyed reading the background to the use of names in the song. After visiting Liverpool I had to buy their red and blue CDs so I can sing along as loud as I like on my numerous car journeys between London and Manchester!

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  3. Very interesting. I have always liked this hauntingly beautiful song and it is good to have some background information. Thank you. xx

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  4. Background stories to films, books, songs and paintings are always fascinating to know. If any of this should come up in the next pub quiz, I'll be the one to score that point for my team!

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  5. Lots of intreguing coincidental there

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  6. Oh, such a poignant song, so beautiful it hurts! So I am a Beatle tragic who saw them in the 60s.... Thank you for a look back, and showing that wonderful statue; I've never heard about it. Maybe I'll get to Liverpool one day and follow the trail.

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  7. Enjoyed that tour around Liverpool and the origins of the song. One of my favourites and I never knew about the sculpture. Probably a lot of lonely people in the E.R. Hotel as well so maybe it's not that inappropriate being there. Great post.

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  8. I love that song. When you consider how few notes there in an octave and what a great combination of rhythm and notes in even that first line... What a haunting statue, although I suppose it particularly seems so because of the song now playing in my head. Did you throw Martha in there just to confuse us? Anyway, another great post. I'm glad you took us out to the cemetery as well. Those connections were all fascinating, and as always, your humor gives me a nice morning chuckle.

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  9. I wonder if the piece of artwork at Dismaland of the lady sitting on the bench being attacked by seagulls was inspired by this? I've never seen anything to suggest it was but there are so many parallels with the birds and the shopping trolley and even that the lady is faceless. Fascinating story and surly there must have been a conscious or subconsciously link to the lady herself ...

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  10. Always enjoyed that particular song, and enjoy the fascinating stories you dig out!

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  11. a fun departure of your typical history. Enjoyed. Before I flipped down...I was already in youtube playing 'All the Lonely People'...and 'Imagine' came on afterward *wink*

    Have a great weekend

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  12. How fascinating. I didn't know all this. ~:)

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  13. Some great information, have always wanted to do the Beatle Trail. We did some of the Beatle Trail in London.

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  14. It wouldn't surprise me if the grave was an influence for them. It is an unusual sculpture.

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  15. I remember singing along with the Beatles to this tune. Lots of information here that is new to me. Looking forward to next week's topic.

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  16. I had no idea it was made by Tommy Steele. I saw it a few times when I lived in Liverpool but, as you can imagine, I didn't frequent that part of town more often than I needed to. Seedy is polite!

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  17. Interesting statue. The very first picture I ever sold was of Eleanor Rigby. I painted it in high school and sold it to our social studies teacher.

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  18. Such interesting history in this country isn't there!

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  19. Thanks for sharing that. Learn something every time I read your blog. The Utube clipped looked like it was the White House and sure enough there were the Obamas on the front row clapping. Wonder when that was?

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  20. Of course this is just an engaging and delightful post, one of my favorite songs too, (pretty much all of them are, can't recall one I don't like) and I certainly would make a stop here, (the hotel does appear questionable? But interesting to see, just not by myself. I would include this for a complete tour. It's all quite interesting, and much of it new information to me. I'm looking forward to your future tours, especially the aliens!

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  21. I love that Beetle song, sad but very haunting music that keeps playing on in my head long after it has finished. It appears that it is a song that is still very relevant for today as apparently loneliness is a very big problem for our society at the moment.
    I had no idea that Tommy Steele could sculpture, it is very impressive.

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  22. Hi Mike - oddly enough "Closer, let me whisper in your ear" is being sung by the Beatles now?! Co-incidence. What an amazing statue - I too hadn't realised Tommy Steele was so talented .. I love the ghostly face ... no-one can put a person to the sculpture ... also the story-line of Eleanor from the graveyard .. fascinating to read about. I've never been to Liverpool - one day ... thanks for the highlights - I wouldn't stay or visit the Eleanor Rigby hotel .. looks distinctly seedy. Cheers Hilary

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  23. I had no idea there was a statue. This was a very interesting post.

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  24. Of course I know the song, but nothing else, have to say I did enjoy learning about the statue

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  25. Yeah, but the Yellow Submarine movie was a sight to behold to an 11 year-old hillbilly boy!

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  26. Thank You for this fabulous post!
    It was so great learning more about the song.

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  27. I remember listening to the song as a youngster, nice to know they story behind it

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  28. Thank you for a very interesting post. I liked most of the Beatles songs, even "Yellow Submarine", which is going round in my head now! That's a very nice forlorn statue, I liked Tommy Steele but had no idea he was so talented. Fascinating coincidences.

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  29. I have listened to many a Beatles son while growing up, as my Dad was a fan. I didn't realize the Eleanor Rigby had a statue! Your previous post about Avebury Henge has the most stunning photos. I really enjoyed them.

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  30. What an interesting post! I like the bit of animation that illustrates this song in the Beatles animated film, Yellow Submarine. Have you seen it?

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Hi - thanks for dropping into A Bit About Britain. New material is now being posted to www.bitaboutbritain.com and most of the material here will gradually be updated and moved over to that new site. Please drop in there, click on the blog page, and take a look round. TTFN - Mike.