In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
There are a few stories about “Paperback Writer,” and I’d like to imagine that they’re all true. One story is that Paul McCartney’s aunt had dared him to write a song about something other than love: “Why can’t you ever write about a horse or the summit conference or something interesting?” Another story is that McCartney wrote it after reading a Daily Mail story on Martin Amis. Still another, really more theoretical, is that he wrote it partly as a shot at his bandmate John Lennon, who’d written a couple of books at that point.
Those stories are all great, and yet none of them quite prepares you for the amount of venom that’s right there in “Paperback Writer.” McCartney — who really had written pretty much exclusively love songs at that point — really goes after this poor bastard who’s trying to make a career as a novelist and who has no idea how to do it.
The whole song is structured as an unsolicited letter to a publisher, and it’s gut-wrenchingly pathetic right from the opening lines: “Dear sir or madam, will you read my book? / It took me years to write, will you take a look?” And it just gets worse from there: “It’s a thousand pages, give or take a few / I’ll be writing more in a week or two / I could make it longer if you like the style.”
McCartney, who wrote most of the song and who got a little help from Lennon, clearly has a whole lot of disdain for his own character, this person who feels entitled to ask strangers to make their way through his ridiculous opus. But maybe there’s some sympathy in there, too. Maybe it’s a song about how everyone wants to express something but not everyone has the talent to do it. Or maybe it’s some of that mercilessly awkward British comedy — an early cousin to David Brent’s hopeless musical ambitions on the UK version of The Office.
Whatever McCartney’s intentions were, though, he made them into a motherfuck of a pop song. There’s a lot going on on “Paperback Writer.” The Beatles layer up these beatific harmonies. The music drops away, and their voices sound like sunbeams bursting through the clouds, and then the song’s jaggedly bluesy riff comes bulldozing back in. The bass is turned up louder than on any previous Beatles song — John Lennon reportedly demanded to know why the bass on Beatles records was quieter than it was on one Wilson Pickett record — and it’s complicated and sinuous, snaking around and coming up with its own melodies. (In my friend Jack Hamilton’s book Just Around Midnight, there’s a great chapter about how McCartney and the Motown house bassist James Jamerson were influencing each other and pushing each other throughout this period.)
In the background, Lennon and George Harrison literally sing “Frere Jacques” in falsetto, as if they’re just doing whatever to keep themselves amused. And for reasons that may have had something to do with his tremendous weed intake around this time, McCartney was trying to write a whole song in one chord, though he didn’t quite get there.
So “Paperback Writer” stands as an example of the Beatles pushing themselves, finding place for all these goofy ideas, having fun with things that shouldn’t work. They’re singing about subject matter that frankly doesn’t make sense in a pop-song context, they’re playing around with the fundamentals of their own sound, and they’re singing kids’ songs in the background. And yet when “Paperback Writer” comes on the radio, you’re probably not thinking of any of that. Because the whole thing works as a frothy, catchy, propulsive two-minute jam. For all the conceptual ideas the Beatles were working with, they were still bringing the fucking hooks.
“Paperback Writer,” like a lot of the Beatles’ hits during this era, isn’t on any proper Beatles albums. It’s a standalone single. And with their standalone singles, Paul McCartney and John Lennon had a pretty amazing rivalry going. Both of them wanted to write the A-side, so with every single, one of them had to win, and one of them had to lose. “Rain,” Lennon’s “Paperback Writer” B-side, is probably my favorite Beatles song ever — a gooey and head-blown pop meditation that essentially predicts the Stone Roses. And yet the Beatles still picked right when they made “Paperback Writer” the A-side. That is saying something.
BONUS BEATS: Kris Kristofferson, a grizzled country icon who’s revered in my household both for being a truly great songwriter and for playing Whistler in the Blade movies, covered “Paperback Writer” on a Beatles tribute album in 1995. Here’s his version: