The “Paperback Writer” single is one of the odd cases where the flipside of a record proves more influential than the hit. “Rain,” the B-side in question, is credited as a watershed in The Beatles’ transformation into studio experimentalists, though it’s less notable as a song than as a Whitman’s Sampler of tape effects: sped-up lead vocals, slowed-down rhythm track, a fade-out followed by a fade-in and, most strikingly, John Lennon’s voice run backwards in the coda. In comparison, “Paperback Writer” could easily be overlooked as one more of the band’s riff-driven rockers – “son of ‘Day Tripper,'” as Lennon himself later called it.* But while “Paperback Writer” may have been more immediate and commercial than its flip, it too foreshadows Revolver’s sonic exploration and eclecticism. The song dispenses with the band’s trademark sticky choruses and distinctive chord progressions, instead locking on to a single G7 chord for nearly the entire verse. (Paul McCartney cites Little Richard as inspiration, but it also brings to mind the drone of raga-influenced Revolver tracks “Love You To” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.”) McCartney’s infatuation with Stax and Motown (cf. “Got to Get You Into My Life”**) inspired the boosted sound of his ever-melodic bass guitar; it would remain essentially a co-lead instrument from Revolver on. The distorted guitar riff, pushier and thornier than “Day Tripper”’s groove, points toward psychedelic rock, as does the trippy vocal echo on the harmonies at the end of the verse: a prêt–à–porter take on “Rain”’s avant-gardisms.
The lyrics of “Paperback Writer” also hint at the expanded subject matter The Beatles were beginning to explore. The name-checking of Edward Lear in the verse and “Frère Jacques” in the backing harmonies preview “Yellow Submarine” and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’s fixation with willful nonsense and childlike whimsy. More directly, the song itself is an early example of the type of character vignette McCartney would develop with “Eleanor Rigby” and “For No One,” but with those songs’ pathos swapped for a satirical take on the drive for fame. The narrator has ambition and self-confidence to spare, assuring his anonymous contact that his thousand-plus-page behemoth will be an instant bestseller and breathlessly pleading for a break. Whether he’s got the talent is another question. For all his attempts to dress his manuscript up in the trappings of a salable pulp paperback (“it’s a dirty story of a dirty man”), it’s clear that it’s in fact a dense autobiographical roman à clef, penned by a writer whose overearnest proposals to change his novel aren’t exactly proof of artistic integrity. (That he claims it’s based on a novel by Edward Lear, who never actually wrote a novel, seems in keeping with both his eagerness to say the right things and his all-around cluelessness.) While such a depiction of a struggling wannabe could seem mean-spirited coming from a band at the pinnacle of both creativity and fame, the song treats the aspiring novelist with a measure of affection and good humor. He may be naïve but he’s also sincere, and it’s hard not to root for his unlikely novel to be accepted. (Note that the only time the song changes chords is on the phrase “paperback writer,” as if acknowledging that’s the only way out of his rut.) Perhaps The Beatles even recognized something familiar in the story: the tale of a creative young man trying to pack a thousand pages’ worth of ideas and personal expression into a typically disposable, commercial piece of pop culture. 8
*From David Sheff’s All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Of course, it’s worth remembering that Lennon was the primary author of “Day Tripper” while McCartney wrote “Paperback Writer,” and that McCartney won the A-side of both singles.
**In which, incidentally, McCartney reprises the “Paperback Writer” guitar riff.
Hit #1 on June 25, 1966 for 2 weeks; repeaked on July 9, 1966 for 1 week; total of 3 weeks at #1
162 of 1018 #1’s reviewed; 15.91% through the Hot 100