The First Time I Heard “Eleanor Rigby” by The Beatles

Reid Dickie

            It was a Friday, August 5, the day after my 17th birthday, 1966. My after-school and summer job at the Shoal Lake Locker Plant mostly consisted of stocking shelves and sweeping up. Once I turned 16, my other duty was delivering groceries around the little town to people who’d called in or were too elderly to carry them. The store had a Chev they’d knocked all but the driver’s seat out of, making room for the deliveries. I piled in the bags of groceries with the family names written on them. I was expected to know where everyone lived and I did. It was a small town.

            I enjoyed getting out of the store, driving around my familiar little town listening to the radio. CKY, Canada’s Friendly Giant, 50,000 clear channel watts out of Winnipeg, had been shouting all day about having an exclusive on the new Beatles single and would play it at precisely 4:55. The DJ kept telling us we wouldn’t believe our ears. They wouldn’t even tell us the name of the song. I was a zealous fan. The Beatles defined and informed a large part of my youth. I was excited.

            Setting the stage musically for Eleanor Rigby‘s arrival, the previous five singles The Beatles released were Paperback Writer/Rain, June 1966, Nowhere Man, March 1966, We Can Work It Out/Day Tripper, December 1965, Yesterday, September 1965, Help, August 1965 – solid rock tunes but for Yesterday, with plenty of chiming guitars and backbeat, each a musical advance showing growth. The Beatles loved to surprise us but I was completely unprepared for what was coming next.

            The day was hot and I was sweaty in the old car but the breeze felt cool and in a few minutes there would be a brand new Beatles song in the world. Life was good!

        Just as I was pulling into Richcoon’s driveway, as relentlessly promised all day, CKY announced they would play the new Beatles 45. I sat in the Chev, fully baited. Eleanor Rigby played. The announcer said he was going to play it again and did. The voices were right but not a guitar or drum within earshot, instead a string octet supporting a wailing tale of desolation and woe. Nothing like this had ever happened before! My little Shoal Lake Locker Plant delivery boy’s mind was blown right there in Richcoon’s driveway. I carried, rather floated the groceries to their door, got back behind the wheel of the Chev and just sat there, confused, queasy, thinking, “Is this the end of the world?”

            It wasn’t.

Eleanor Rigby was one of the first story-songs The Beatles, usually Paul, wrote. Norwegian Wood on Rubber Soul hinted at the future but their little movies continued with When I’m 64, Penny Lane, Bungalow Bill and so on. There is a tombstone in a cemetery in Liverpool, England with the name Eleanor Rigby on it. Whether McCartney knew that and used the name intentionally isn’t known. He claims the first name he tried in the song was Miss Daisy Hawkins but eventually named it Eleanor after actress Eleanor Bron who starred in The Beatles movie, Help.

            Revolver, the album Eleanor Rigby came from, was released the following Monday, August 8 and provided a radical setting for The Beatles new eloquence and their increasingly precise pop sensibility. An instant classic, Revolver is at the top of many people’s all-time favourite album lists, including mine. Timeless yet surprising pop songs, quantum leaps in story-telling and sonic adventures combine to make Revolver a stunning achievement in pop culture.

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