FEATURE: Groovelines: The Beatles – Paperback Writer





paperback writer picture sleeve.jpg

IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images 

The Beatles – Paperback Writer


THIS is a ‘sort of’ well-timed mention of The Beatles...


 IN THIS PHOTO: John Lennon/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images/Press

as today, in 1980, the world lost the great John Lennon. Although The Beatles’ Paperback Writer was mostly penned by Paul McCartney; I had to mention Lennon and, as this is my favourite song from The Beatles, this will have to be my tribute! The first time I really experienced the song in all its brief and brilliant glory was when I received The Beatles’ number-ones collection, 1, for Christmas back in 2000. It was a treasured Christmas gift from my sister and I remember rushing into my room, even though I was seventeen at the time, and playing all the songs through. The album is still in my car and I feel, for any huge Beatles fan or new acolytes alike; you cannot go wrong by buying 1. The album is a chronological account of all of The Beatles’ number-ones and Paperback Writer sits between We Can Work It Out and Yellow Submarine – not only a trippy, head-spinning trio of songs but proof the band were as eclectic and broad you can get! One of the things that strikes me about The Beatles’ popularity is the fact we still celebrate a band whose hits, largely, were done with over two or three minutes. Now, so many artists are stretching tracks all over the place and we rarely see the tight and sharp Pop attacks that say so much and leave you wanting more.

That is the case with Paperback Writer. The track was a non-album single released in 1966 – with Rain as its B-side – and was the last new song from the band to be included on their last-ever tour. Rarely do you get artists releasing singles not on albums but, since the start of their career, The Beatles were released between-album songs that kept the pace going. 1966 was the year The Beatles released Revolver and was the start of a period that, to many, was their golden time. Even though their touring days were almost through – due to the noise and sheer rapture from their fans – the band were still coming up with great ideas and, when Paul McCartney had that opening line “Dear Sir or Madame...” it was the start of a remarkable track. Paperback Writer is a little over two minutes and is this intense, thrilling and memorable song that, as it goes, is about an aspiring writer who has written a novel – more or less one-thousand pages – and is keen to get his break. There is no shock the song went to number-one following its release on 30th May, 1966 and, with a B-side as strong as Rain; it was a meteoric and titanic time from the world’s greatest band! I will provide my thoughts on the song and why it resonates but I want to bring in an authoritative Beatles article that takes apart the song and charts its history.


IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles protected from the rain in 1966/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images/Press

Drugs always played a part in The Beatles’ creative process and, following the marijuana-infused inspiration behind 1965’s Rubber Soul; a year later, Eastern mysticism and L.S.D. was playing more or a role – almost like their choice of drugs was as changeable and bold as the music itself. Say what you want about their excess and creative juices but it was clear, after the success of the single, We Can Work It Out, in December of 1965; there was this gap that needed to be filled before the boys embarked on a huge tour. In today’s music, we would just let the artist rest and people would not be too worried: given the fame of The Beatles, there was demand for another single to go out into the world! Although John Lennon claimed Paperback Writer was not one of their best songs – possibly because the lion’s share was from his writing partner – fans would challenge that and, as a huge fan of The Beatles, Paperback Writer is the embodiment of their focused and instantly memorable brand of Pop that would, as they started to experiment more, change and be replaced with bolder and more sense-altering sounds. The vast majority of Pop songs at the time – including those from The Beatles – were about love and, since that was what the market was used to and what teenagers wanted to hear, it was a surprise to see something a little different come into the fold:

The fourth song they set to record, however, was more quickly recorded and was deemed suitable for a quick release as a single.  While it did have many of the usual hallmarks of a hit pop record of the time, such as the catchy melody line and a melodic guitar riff, the lyrical content was very much out in left field for 1966.  Instead of romance, the only mention of a relationship was of “a dirtyman” whose “clinging wife doesn’t understand.”  Nonetheless, “Paperback Writer” was rushed out as their next single, topping the charts internationally”.


IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles in 1966/PHOTO CREDIT: Robert Whittaker for Mojo Magazine

Although the creative influence was not a huge break from the standard Pop fare, the fact it was not another love song was quite a bold departure from The Beatles. The start of the song arrived from a very traditional and familiar combination: Lennon and McCartney getting together to have a cup of tea and write a major hit:

With these ideas implanted in his mind, Paul travelled out to John’s Kenwood home for a songwriting session.  “You knew, the minute you got there,” Paul relates, “cup of tea and you’d sit and write, so it was always good if you had a theme.  I’d had a thought for a song and somehow it was to do with the Daily Mail so there might have been an article in the Mail that morning about people writing paperbacks.  Penquin paperbacks was what I really thought of, the archetypal paperback”.

The fact that the band were being urged to bring out a single – at a rather hot and pivotal time in their career – did not seem to faze them too much. McCartney’s song about an aspiring writer who was desperate for positive feedback and this start of a new career came together in the humbleness and comfort of his car:

I would often start thinking away and writing on my way out, and I developed the whole idea in the car,” McCartney remembered, “I came in, had my bowl of cornflakes and said, ‘How’s about if we write a letter:  ‘Dear Sir or Madam,’ next line, next paragraph, etc?”  In his book “Many Years From Now,” he explains further:  “I arrived at Weybridge and told John I had this idea of trying to write off to a publishers to become a paperback writer, and I said, ‘I think it should be written like a letter’... 


PHOTO CREDIT: @dhudson_creative/Unsplash 

 I took a bit of paper out and I said it should be something like, ‘Dear Sir or Madam, as the case may be…’ and I proceeded to write it just like a letter in front of him, occasionally rhyming it.  And John, as I recall, just sat there and said, ‘Oh, that’s it,’  ‘Uhuh,’  ‘Yeah.’  I remember him, his amused smile, saying, ‘Yes, that’s it, that’ll do.’  Quite a nice moment:  ‘Hmm, I’ve done right!  I’ve done well!’  And then we went upstairs and put the melody to it.  John and I sat down and finished it all up, but it was tilted towards me, the original idea was mine.  I had no music, but it’s just a little bluesy song, not a lot of melody”.

McCartney had the basic idea for the song and, whilst the end result of Paperback Writer was a way away, it was clear the band had a hit and it was going to take their career to a new phase. 1966 was a great time for The Beatles and it was at a time when they were still writing together and there was harmony in the ranks. They would start to fray and argue by 1968/1969 but, understandably, there was this friendly competition between John Lennon and Paul McCartney when it came to penning their next big hit! I guess there is a bit of irony about this struggling writer trying to create himself a break when the song’s author was at the peak of his powers and seemed to have Paperback Writer firmly in his grasp.


 IN THIS IMAGE: Paul McCartney/IMAGE CREDIT: Helen Green

The recording sessions and initial meetings were filled with a lot of confidence – especially from the main writer, McCartney:

The primary engineer for this session, the equally young Geoff Emerick, recalls much specific details regarding this session in his book “Here, There And Everywhere.”  Emerick relates:  “Paul strolled into the studio, marched straight over to the piano and confidently proclaimed, ‘Gather round, lads, and have a listen to our next single.’  John gave Paul a sideways glance of disapproval – he never liked losing – but nevertheless joined Ringo and the two Georges for a private concert.  Paul pounded out a catchy melody, instantly hummable, filled with memorable hooks.  I couldn’t make out the lyric entirely, but it seemed to involve book writing.  Each time he would come to the chorus, Paul would stop playing and gesture to John and George Harrison, pointing out the high harmony part he planned on assigning each.  By the time he finished the first run-through, it was obvious to everyone in the room that this was an instant hit...

Emerick continues, "Fortunately, as Paul and John turned to George Harrison and began showing him the chords to ‘Paperback Writer,’ inspiration struck.  It occurred to me that since microphones are in fact simply loudspeakers wired in reverse…why not try using a loudspeaker as a microphone?  Logically, it seemed that whatever can push bass signal out can also take it in – and that a large loudspeaker should be able to respond to low frequencies better than a small microphone.  The more I thought about it, the more it made sense.”  However, as other data indicates, this experiment was left off for the next day”.


 PHOTO CREDIT: @freestocks/Unsplash

Whilst the story seemed clear and the narrative was taking shape; there was this need to create something fully-packed and meaty. The boys noticed a lot of the U.S. R&B/Pop songs had a louder sound and crackled with greater energy. The Beatles, not to be outdone and denied, were keen to replicate that same chunkiness and firepower. Ideas were being pitched out and it just needed that spark and breakthrough:

Now was the appropriate time to experiment with creating the beefier bass guitar sound Paul asked for the previous day.  “I broached my plan, gingerly, to Phil McDonald,” remembers Geoff Emerick,  “His response was somewhat predictable:  ‘You’re daft; you’ve completely gone around the twist.’  Ignoring him, I took a walk down the hall and talked it over with Ken Townsend, our maintenance engineer.  He thought my idea had some merit.  ‘Sounds plausible,’ he said.  ‘Let’s wire a speaker up that way and try it”.

Like all great and innovative Beatles recordings; there was a bit of trial-and-error and getting things from the studios nobody else had. We have so much technology now that it is easy to get any sound and effect we want. Back in the 1960s, there was not that luxury and, with fine hands like George Martin boldly conspiring and testing, you got these great revelations and discoveries. The story carries on:

Over the next few hours, while the boys rehearsed with George Martin, Ken and I conducted a few experiments.  To my delight, the idea of using a speaker as a microphone seemed to work pretty well.  Even though it didn’t deliver a lot of signal and was kind of muffled, I was able to achieve a good bass sound by placing it up against the grille of a bass amplifier, speaker to speaker, and then routing the signal through a complicated setup of compressors and filters – including one huge experimental unit that I secretly borrowed from the office of Mr. Cook, the manager of the maintenance department”.


 PHOTO CREDIT: @brandi1/Unsplash

Once the lyrics had come together and that punchy and bold sound had been created; it was a case of putting it all together and getting the best mix! There were some downsides and disadvantages regarding the song’s stereo mix:

This stereo mix was made on October 31st, 1966 in the control room of EMI Studio One by the same team of Martin, Emerick and McDonald.  They intended to mix this song along with “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” in stereo for the first time but, since “Paperback Writer” took two hours to do, they left the other two for another day.  “Unfortunately, the stereo mix…does the song no justice,” Emerick admits.  “It’s completely disjointed, and it isn’t at all the balance that we intended.  To me, the mono mix is much more exciting”.

I love the eccentricities of the song. The “Frère Jacques” backing vocals are a delight and a nice contrast to the foreground.  The song has that restless energy but breaks after the verses to allow a crackle of percussion of some mighty riffs. Although it sounds flawless and seamless Beatles in the final mix; it took a lot of time to get things together:

The second harmony from John and George consist of the “paperback writer” phrase starting on the second measure when Paul sings the word “writer” and then those harmonies holding out the word “writer” from the third measure throughout the fourth measure (actually mistakenly stopping a little short each time the chorus is heard).  The third harmony overdub consists of John and George layering on another falsetto “paperback writer” phrase that stretches out between the third and fourth measure.  Although it’s hard to tell, Paul’s voice may very well have been included in these harmony overdubs.  Nonetheless, much time and work was needed to put all this detail together”.

Some have claimed the backing vocals are lazy and almost mocking but, in fact, the band were on the same page and liked the song. Paperback Writer would be weaker and barer without the backing and there is this almost childlike melody and singalong that propels this song of a writer who wants to make some big money. We go from the first verse about the plea to get his work read – this book being based “on a novel by a man named Leer” – and needing a job. The opening verse is the idea being pitched and this rather basic introduction. McCartney goes on to explain the premise of his grand work – about a “dirty man” whose son works for The Daily Mail – that seems to be rooted in reality. McCartney, as the man who writes for the newspaper (a steady and okay job) and wants to step into a more serious and prosperous realm is imploring and asking for some luck. Although you have this passion and optimism by the middle of the song; things start to become a little more defeatist as McCartney accepts that his manuscript might be returned – he even says he can make it shorter or longer and change the style around if the publishers are not keen! Our hero knows he can make a million overnight and just needs that break.


 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images/Press

It was a fresh subject back then in Pop and, to be fair, not something we hear much of nowadays. The tightness of the band and the sparkling energy that comes from every quarter brings urgency to Paperback Writer:

The song’s conclusion comprises a vamping on the G chord from the rhythm track that includes a simple repeating guitar phrase from Paul.  Vocal wise, two sets of intertwined harmonies are repeated until the song fades away, the first being a staggered repeat of the title phrase sung in falsetto that stretches out to two measures in imitation of the lead voice in the chorus.  Just as this ends another set of harmonies enter with a quick repeat of the song’s title.  With some adlib fluctuations of the first phrase setting in on their fourth repeat (“wri-i-i-ter”) and some interesting gurglings from John’s rhythm guitar occurring in places, the song fades off into the sunset.  Yet another Beatles timeless classic is born!

Although it was a classic Lennon-McCartney cut; it is the latter whose lyrics and lead vocal sets the song alight. Lennon would have more say and control later in the band’s life – many says the group’s 1968 eponymous record is defined by Lennon’s genius – but McCartney, at this point, knew what the market needed and how to craft a catchy and memorable Pop tune:

Paul again is center stage, understandably because of this being primarily his creation.  His top-notch vocals, bass and lead guitar is extremely fitting for the occasion, Paul knowing full well how to continue the aura and allure of the group on the radio airwaves.  John’s songwriting inventiveness of the period, as incredible as it was, was somewhat less commercial due to his infatuation with his chemical mind-expanding activities of the time”.


 IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles in 1966/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

There was no stopping The Beatles in 1966 – or at any point in their career! – and, whilst Paperback Writer fared better in the U.S. (compared to the U.K.), it was a big hit that saw them grow even larger and more dominating:

Capitol Records couldn’t wait until June 10th, 1966 to release the latest Beatles single as Britain did, so they rushed it out eleven days earlier on May 30th of that year.  While “Paperback Writer” was the least selling Beatles single in their home country since 1962’s “Love Me Do,” it became a million seller in the US and, according to “The Billboard Book Of Number One Hits,” the single “made the second largest leap to number one of the rock era.  It debuted on the Hot 100 at number 28 during the week of June 11th, 1966, moved to 15 and then broad-jumped to number one on June 25th, becoming The Beatles’ 12th chart-topper in America”.

The group promoted the single with cover art that saw them draped with joints of meat and baby dolls being there. It was a misjudged and peculiar approach to artwork and, quite rightly, was not approved and taken to heart when it was released. The original image is still available but other covers were used because the rather upsetting composition did not sit well with many fans, critics and parents.


  IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles going in a darker direction in 1966/PHOTO CREDIT: Robert Whitaker

There is a school of thought that suggests Paperback Writer paved the way for The Beatles’ biggest album, Revolver. They were experimenting more and pushing the studio; new elements were coming into the mix and confidence was growing. This article from Rolling Stone looks at the impact of Paperback Writer and how it helped open some doors on Revolver:

“Revolver would be the full flowering of the Beatles’ next phase; but first, there was “Paperback Writer,” the cheeky tease of a song that cajoled you away from the world of Rubber Soul, and into a new galaxy.

Right from the get-go, there is something otherworldly about “Paperback Writer,” even though this is in essence a sonic short story about a would-be writer. Paul McCartney’s voice starts the song, before John Lennon and George Harrison add to a rich counterpoint, the title words cleaving into Cubist sound fragments. Harrison’s distorted guitar then kicks off a hot, scuzzy riff as some spartan bass drum thumps from Ringo Starr follow below, all of it further energized by five, rapid tumbling McCartney bass notes, and away we go into the verse”...


IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

It was a bridge between their simpler and more accessible work and something more ambitious and experimental. A few months after Paperback Writer was released, Revolver was unleashed into the world (5th August, 1966).

There’s a lot going on here, and yet, it all blends perfectly. With “Paperback Writer,” the Beatles almost seemed to beckon the listener out of the galaxy. Or at least beyond anything quotidian. It was time to start looking way up. And they even had the sense to put the invite in epistolary form for you”.

Wherever you rank Paperback Writer in the cannon of Beatles classics – it often cracks the top-twenty – its influence and magic cannot be denied. It is thirty-eight years since John Lennon died and, although he was not overly-hot when it was released; one suspects he had this begrudging respect for McCartney’s gem and knew it was a great thing. Some fifty-two years after its release, there is no denting the appeal and brilliance of Paperback Writer. You can pop it on and, like all good Pop songs, have it lodged in the mind – something you will be singing for ages! Many Pop artists have penned songs that have endured for years but none make the same sort of impression as...


 IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles filming the video for Paperback Writer/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

THE majestic and monumental Paperback Writer!