Friday, 23 July 2010

Paperback Writer

‘Rain’, the B-side of this single, has been so often discussed as an overlooked gem of the Beatles’ back catalogue that it surely no longer counts as an overlooked gem. Excellent as it is, I feel like doing an extra post to shine some light on the A-side, which is one of The Beatles’ less renowned hits but a favourite of mine.

The main context in which ‘Paperback Writer’ is usually mentioned is that it was the first Beatles single not to be a love song. That was a significant watershed for the group, but there are other aspects to its lyric which are at least as important. Its concerns are urban and twentysomething, rather than teenage. The reference to ‘working for the Daily Mail’ makes this perhaps the first Beatles song to be set in a specific location – London – and even if that reference wasn’t there, the song is clearly influenced by what McCartney saw about him at that time. Previous Beatles songs had tended towards the generic, a good example being ‘In My Life’ which began as a journey through locations Lennon had known as a child, but which had all its specific references stripped out.

Furthermore, although McCartney had written many songs where he had adopted a character, this was the first time he’d done so overtly. When he’d invented situations for his earlier love songs these fictions had fed into his persona within the group. With ‘Paperback Writer’, however, nobody was supposed to think that he actually wanted to be a paperback writer: the character is entirely distinct from Paul McCartney. This was the first song the Beatles released in that style – which, aptly enough considering its subject matter, has been dubbed ‘novelistic’ songwriting – and it marked the growing divergence between McCartney and Lennon. Lennon never quite trusted this sort of songwriting, feeling it dishonest (which was rather literal-minded of him), and would instead go down a solipsistic route of writing largely about himself. (This is partly why much of his solo work is a bit tedious.)

Yet, speaking as someone who does want to be a paperback writer, I think McCartney nails his character perfectly here and as a result the song has much to say. The form and content match beautifully: the flashy boldness of the music represents the character’s confidence and ambition as well as the upwardly mobile spirit of the era, whilst the breathless, slightly wheedling manner of McCartney’s vocal balances this with a touch of gauche enthusiasm and desperation to succeed (which, come to think of it, is probably something McCartney identified with even if the situation was alien to him). The way that the opening lines ‘push’ the words ‘it took me yeeears to write’, pleading with the letter’s recipient, is one of the most effective pieces of phrasing in The Beatles’ output. There’s room for humour, too, in the manuscript running to a mind-boggling ‘thousand pages, give or take a few’ (and it still isn’t finished), and in the heavy implication that the author’s work is a thinly-veiled roman á clef about his father. A superb group performance is dominated by McCartney’s deft bass work (his opening riff sounds near-impossible to play) and Starr’s typewriter-imitating drums.

As a brilliantly-constructed song which contrives to sound knocked-off, ‘Paperback Writer’ is entirely characteristic of McCartney – and it was the first McCartney-led Beatles single since ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ two years earlier (he and Lennon having shared the limelight on ‘We Can Work It Out’). During 1966 a turnaround occurred in the balance of power, shifting from a situation where Lennon usually got his way to a situation where McCartney was taking the lead on creative decisions. Which (oddly, considering the modern critical lionisation of Lennon) produced The Beatles’ most celebrated period.


  1. I vividly remember bouncing around to Paperback writer in a club (possibly even London University Union) with Mark Clapham and a load of girls from halls on the day his NA was commissioned.

  2. Have blogged about Revolver over at