The range of inspiration from which The Beatles’ principal songwriters Paul McCartney and John Lennon drew their song ideas is broad and highly varied. Though founded on the basic principles of rock ‘n’ roll, love, lust and staying out all night, the pair had opened up their mind to every possible inspiration imaginable. However, even the most diehard fans would be surprised to learn that Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror film, Psycho influenced one particular classic Fab Four song.
As well as drawing inspiration from literature, young lovers and everyday life, seemingly it was also perfectly within Paul McCartney’s songwriting wheelhouse to find his muse in the most terrifying of places — horror films. He does just that for one of the Liverpool lads’ most adored songs.
McCartney’s prowess for songwriting is not to be underestimated; the singer and bassist has long since been heralded as one of the best British songwriters of all time, an accolade he still holds to this day and pumps up with every new release. Drawing inspiration from across the human spectrum, including postmen, stalkers and even the odd conceptual band, Macca also revealed that Alfred Hitchock’s horror classic Psycho influenced one of his most beloved songs, ‘Eleanor Rigby’.
We will add the quick caveat that MacCartney was not intrinsically drawn to the character of the shudder-inducing Norman Bates, or the murder at the heart of the picture; it was instead the film’s iconic score that acted as the instigating moment for McCartney. The marvellous score, so synonymous with the golden age of cinema, convinced him that strings could be “edgy” and a perfect fit for the song.
The score, written by Bernard Herrmann, is one of the most recognisable in cinema history, and it was an avant-garde moment for the 1960 feature film. Herrmann took the previously heralded classical instrument, the warm violin and turned it into a violent weapon, capable of putting any person on edge—who can forget the piercing shower scene.
Having been so ingrained in the musical world for such a long time, it feels strange that McCartney could dismiss classical music. But it took the singer watching Hitchcock’s masterpiece for him to be convinced of the genre’s capabilities within the new and expansive field of pop music.
McCartney took his newfound inspiration to George Martin, the Beatles’ producer extraordinaire, who recalled: “He [Paul] came to me with ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ which cried out for strings.” Martin said the strings shouldn’t be “the smooth, legato stuff of ‘Yesterday,’ but something very biting…[and] very edgy.” McCartney handed over the score for Psycho to Martin as a spark of influence.
Martin took the score, along with another Herrmann soundtrack, this one for François Truffaut’s film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, and began to work diligently on the strings for ‘Eleanor Rigby’. Both scores combined strings with electronic instruments, and Martin was keen to introduce a degree of bit and a “tight rhythm.”
Psycho may well have completed the track, but the song’s first line was inspired by something very different indeed. “It just came. When I started doing the melody, I developed the lyric. It all came from the first line. I wonder if there are girls called Eleanor Rigby?” We imagine there certainly are now! The luscious trace is beautifully mirrored in the lyrics, which depict the story of a lonely older woman.
One of many great McCartney tracks from Revolver—arguably his best showing on record for the band—the song is a continuation of Macca’s fascination with the unloved and forgotten. As well as shining a light on those lost stories, McCartney always puts a mirror up to our actions and asks if we’ve done enough.
Listen to The Beatles’ ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and see if you can pick up the notes inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.