Although The Beatles didn’t set off for India until 1968, the influence of the nation’s music was already having a profound impact on the group in 1966. Harrison had become acquainted with a Sitar he’d found on the set of Help! in 1965 and decided to utilise his newfound skills on the Rubber Soul track ‘Norwegian Wood’. But Harrison wasn’t the only one developing an interest in the long drones of Indian classical. Some believe that The Beatles’ 1966 track ‘Paperback Writer’ – penned by Paul McCartney – was written to evoke the long drones beneath Indian ragas.
McCartney wrote ‘Paperback Writer’ around a single chord. With its motoric beat, Mixolydian central riff and dense bass drones, the track is distinctly psychedelic in flavour, echoing the heady pulse of West Coast jangle pop. It bears the mark of its sonic predecessor ‘Day Tripper’, which features the same blissed-out tones and some of The Beatles’ first overt references to LSD. Some have argued that the group’s heavy use of marijuana during this period inspired them to write so many songs of a similarly cerebral nature, including ‘The Word’, ‘If I Needed Someone’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’.
McCartney’s initial one-chord approach was, according to Lennon, an enforced restriction designed to inspire creativity. “John and I would like to do songs with just one note like ‘Long Tall Sally’,” he said, “We got near it in ‘The Word'”. Depending on who you talk to, McCartney either wrote ‘Paperback Writer’ after helping some friends set up the Indica Bookshop (in the basement was the Indica Gallery or on the way to Lennon’s house in Weybridge after reading a newspaper article about an aspiring author.
Recalling the journey, McCartney said: “You knew, the minute you got there, 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. Penguin paperbacks was what I really thought of, the archetypal paperback.”
After arriving in Weybridge, Paul sat down with John and got to work. “John and I had this idea of trying to write off to a publisher to become a paperback writer,” McCartney recounts in Many Years From Now. “And I said, ‘I think it should be written like a letter.’ 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.”
The naive optimism at the heart of ‘Paperback Writer’ perfectly reflects the national mood of the day. There was a sense that anyone could be anything if their dreams were big enough. The Beatles were themselves living proof of that sentiment, and they seem to celebrate that in this single, offering up delightfully childish harmonies, fuzz-laden bass lines and echo-swaddled vocals with a swagger in their collective step.
Listen to The Beatles’ ‘Paperback Writer’ below.