In terms of Paul McCartney songs, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ ranks at the very top of the pile. One of The Beatles’ more art-inclined pieces of music, the flecks of the baroque era that it contains, courtesy of the atmospheric, swooning string section, confirmed it as a highlight of 1966’s Revolver.
Unsurprisingly, the song set the scene for rock striving for a more expansive creative palette and preceded future juggernauts such as Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’. It’s an aural representation of just how forward-thinking McCartney and his bandmates were at the time, incrementally refuting each established musical tradition.
Famously, when McCartney penned the lyrics for ‘Eleanor Rigby’, which include the timeless refrain, “Ah, look at all the lonely people”, his songwriting partner John Lennon was impressed. However, the version of the song that Paul presented to Lennon was quickly changed, all because of his father.
Over the years, McCartney has explained that he performed an early version of the songs whilst he was taking music lessons as an adult. Recalling how he wrote the ‘Eleanor Rigby’ in a 2021 piece for The New Yorker, McCartney said that he was dating the actor Jane Asher at the time and that her mother had arranged piano lessons for him, and it was during these sessions that he formed the earliest arrangement of the track.
“When I was in my early 20s, Jane’s mum, Margaret, organised lessons for me with someone from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where she worked,” Paul said. “I even played ‘Eleanor Rigby’ on piano for the teacher, but this was before I had the words. At the time, I was just blocking out the lyrics and singing ‘Ola Na Tungee’ over vamped E-minor chords. I don’t remember the teacher being all that impressed. The teacher just wanted to hear me play even more scales, so that put an end to the lessons.”
When the time came for McCartney to show Lennon the lyrics for ‘Eleanor Rigby’, he realised that one section which mentioned his father had to change as it made him very uncomfortable. He eventually altered the line ‘Father McCartney’ to ‘Father McKenzie’, and thus the song was finally ready to become one of the band’s most lauded pieces. McCartney was delighted with its final form, as he believed he’d reached new heights with his songwriting, and he wasn’t wrong.
“Initially, the priest was ‘Father McCartney’, because it had the right number of syllables,” Paul revealed. “I took the song to John at around that point, and I remember playing it to him, and he said, ‘That’s great, Father McCartney’. He loved it. I wasn’t really comfortable with it, because it’s my dad — my father McCartney — so I literally got out the phone book and went on from ‘McCartney’ to ‘McKenzie’.”