By the mid-’60s, it’s fairly easy to tell who wrote the biggest part of a Lennon-McCartney song. The lead vocals usually gave it away. On Magical Mystery Tour, “Penny Lane” is a clear Paul McCartney number while “Strawberry Fields Forever” an obvious John Lennon song.
Even on a track like “A Day in the Life,” on which both John and Paul sing, you know it’s John song because he has the lion’s share of vocals. (Paul came up with the middle section.) Later, as writers asked them to break down each Beatles tune, Paul and John mostly agreed who did what.
But there were some songs where they didn’t remember it the same. For example, Paul remembered doing more on “A Day in the Life” and “In My Life” than it appears he did.
Speaking with Playboy’s David Sheff the weeks before he died, John remembered having a sizable hand in the composition — most of the lyrics, in fact — to “Eleanor Rigby,” a Revolver song that doesn’t sound like Lennon at all. Yet Paul said he only wrote “about half a line.”
‘Eleanor Rigby’ sounds very much like McCartney.
In the recording of “Eleanor Rigby,” you don’t hear any Beatles playing instruments. Paul’s vocal is backed by strings. Right away, that points to a McCartney tune, and John made no claim to the melody or bridge. He always said it was Paul’s music.
However, in the Sheff interviews that became All We Are Saying (1980), John said the majority of the lyrics came from him and others hanging out with the band one night. “The first verse is his and the rest are basically mine,” John said of “Rigby.” He explained the situation that night.
“Well, he knew he had a song. But by that time [Paul] didn’t want to ask for my help, and we were sitting around with Mal Evans and Neil Aspinall, so he said to us, ‘Hey, you guys, finish up the lyrics.'” John said he was “insulted and hurt” that Paul would make that suggestion instead of asking him.
“He actually meant he wanted me to do it, and of course there isn’t a line of theirs in the song because I finally went off to a room with Paul and we finished the song,” he told Sheff.
But Paul saw it as nearly 80% him. The others who were present also recalled Paul doing most of the lyric after coming up with the melody.
A close associate of The Beatles called John’s contribution ‘virtually nil.’
A lot happened between the composition and recording of “Eleanor Rigby” in ’66 and John Lennon’s last interviews of ’80. So it’s quite possible John didn’t remember exactly what went down that day. Pete Shotton, who was with the band at the lyric session, recalled John not involved at all.
Shotton said he suggested the idea of Rigby dying and Father McKenzie (originally Father McCartney) doing her burial service. John made some cutting remark to Shotton, who remembered John contributing “virtually nil” to the “Lennon McCartney classic.”
Meanwhile, everyone credited George Harrison for “all the lonely people” line. So it seems fairly clear: Paul wrote the melody and a chunk of lyrics while suggesting the string arrangement. Others chipped in a few key bits. Basically, that comes to about 80% Paul, just as he remembered.
John seems to have been accurate in taking credit for just about everything except for his part in “Eleanor Rigby.” It was the ’60s; we can probably all agree to let that one go.