The Story Behind The Song: Revisit ‘Paperback Writer’, The Beatles’ perfect ten
By 1966, The Beatles had well and truly asserted themselves on the musical landscape. In fact, to all intents and purposes, they were the musical landscape. Other pop groups were sharpening their claws but the truth of the matter is, in the mid-sixties, there was nobody bigger than the Fab Four.
That was largely thanks to John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s fruitful songwriting partnership. The duo forged the band’s career with a series of chart-topping songs about teenage love and dancefloor debauchery — it had seen Beatlemania sweep the world with the band already charting nine number one singles in Britain. It seemed the subject of love was cannon fodder for the quartet’s fans but not for McCartney’s Auntie Lil, who begged the singer to write a song about “something interesting” instead. That song was ‘Paperback Writer’, their perfect tenth number one.
Credited to the Lennon-McCartney partnership, Lennon would later admit that bar a few words and some inspiration that the song was entirely McCartney’s idea. “I think I might have helped with some of the lyrics. Yes, I did. But it was mainly Paul’s tune,” Lennon told Hit Parade in 1972, later confirming with Playboy that “‘Paperback Writer’ is son of ‘Day Tripper’, but it is Paul’s song.” While that is certainly true, we’d say a fair chunk of credit should also go to Macca’s Auntie Lil.
With four years of a tried and tested method working to perfection, many people were confused as to why The Beatles would deviate from their subject matter of chart-topping tales of love and lust. Aside from any artistic aspirations to change up the MO, McCartney suggested it was the familial nudge in the back from his Aunt that pushed him.
“The idea’s a bit different,” McCartney recalled. “Years ago, my Auntie Lil said to me, ‘Why do you always write songs about love all the time? Can’t you ever write about a horse or the summit conference or something interesting?’ So, I thought, ‘All right, Auntie Lil.’ And recently, we’ve not been writing all our songs about love.” One such song was ‘Paperback Writer’.
In 2007, McCartney confirmed that the song was inspired when he read the story of a struggling author in The Daily Mail, a paper often found in Lennon’s Weybridge home while the pair were writing. “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,” remembered the bassist. “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.”
He added: “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.’ 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.”
During the same conversation with Barry Miles for Many Years from Now, Macca also shared that despite their struggles he and Lennon shared a genuine warmth. “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.”
As well as using a new subject matter, and also trying to change up their lyrical structure by changing the lyrics into something a little more conceptual, Lennon and McCartney were keen to keep their melody backed by a single chord: “John and I would like to do songs with just one note like ‘Long Tall Sally.’ We got near it in ‘The Word.'” While the song does remain on G for most of the run time it does deviate for a few moments as it pauses on C, Macca and Lennon just falling short on this one.
It was an idea they tried to enact on a lot fo their output around this time. While some have pointed towards the band’s inclusion of Indian culture as the source of inspiration for the one-chord melodies, many have equally pointed to their newfound love of marijuana. ‘If I Needed Someone’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ are also good examples of this stylistic change.
The ideas didn’t stop when the band got to the studio either. The track, apart from some beautifully crafted echoey harmonies, sees the real joy come from Paul’s bass. Not his trusty Hofner but a Rickenbacker was Macca’s weapon of choice for this thundering bass line. Geoff Emerick, Abbey Road engineer, said of the song: “‘Paperback Writer’ was the first time the bass sound had been heard in all its excitement. For a start, Paul played a different bass, a Rickenbacker. Then we boosted it further by using a loudspeaker as a microphone. We positioned it directly in front of the bass speaker and the moving diaphragm of the second speaker made the electrical current.” It was the nous and guile of a band destined to take their creativity to the next level.
The harmonies on the single, which came with the B-side and much-beloved song ‘Rain’, may have harkened back to The Beatles that burst on to the scene but this new song had marked out the Fab Four as something far-removed from their boyband moniker.
This track put The Beatles in control of their own destiny as artists before everything else — the fact it went to number one means they were simply better at it then many people expected. So whether you put it down to Paul McCartney, The Beatles or Macca’s Auntie Lil, the decision to write ‘Paperback Writer’ will always be the best one the band ever made.