Paperback Writer

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Paperback Writer was performed during The Beatles' last tour in 1966. It was the penultimate song played at their final concert on 29 August, at San Francisco's Candlestick Park.

We were just a little dance-hall band and we never really thought of augmenting ourselves. We thought, 'Well, we can't. We'll do it to the best of our ability until the point where we can't really do it, and then we'll miss it out.' So around this time we were starting to miss out a lot of record tracks on live shows.

Paperback Writer, for instance, was all double-tracked, and it sounded pretty crummy on stage. So what we did with it, in the American tour at least, was get to the point where it was particularly bad, and then we'd do our 'Elvis legs' and wave to the crowds, and they'd all scream and it would cover that. As Paul has said, the screaming did cover a lot of worrying moments.

George Harrison
Anthology

In the studio

Paperback Writer is most notable for its heavy bass line, played by Paul McCartney on a Rickenbacker in place of his usual Hofner. Its recording caused some headaches for the Abbey Road technicians, who were subject to strict rules about how microphones and amplifiers should be used.

The song threw away the rulebook. A speaker was used as a microphone, positioned in front of the bass amp for extra boost. Then it was mastered using another Abbey Road invention - the Automated Transient Overload Control (ATOC), which allowed extra bass without risking the stylus jumping on playback.

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.
Geoff Emerick
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn

The Beatles began recording Paperback Writer in the evening of 13 April 1966, the day they also completed George Harrison's Love You To.

It took them two takes to record the rhythm track; afterwards they added a series of overdubs. These continued on the following day, on which the distinctive backing vocals and bass were recorded.

Paperback Writer had a heavier sound than some earlier work - and very good vocal work, too. I think that was just the way it worked out, that the rhythm was the most important part of their make-up by this time.
George Martin
Anthology

McCartney played the lead guitar on an Epiphone Casino, and Harrison used a Gibson SG Standard guitar. They also used these instruments for Rain and on much of Revolver.

Chart success

Paperback Writer was the first Beatles single since She Loves You not to debut at the top of the UK charts. Sales were the lowest for any release since Love Me Do.

It did, however, reach number one, both in the band's home country and in the United States, West Germany, Australia, New Zealand and Norway. In America it spent two weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100.

37 responses on “Paperback Writer

    1. kelly

      Help! was a single worldwide, definately predates Paperback Writer, and (at least in my humble interpretation) isn’t necessarily a comment on a romantic relationship. In fact John has commented that he felt a little lost, overweight, and searching for meaning around this time.

    2. Dennis O’Dell

      Just read this on Facebook – but its says here Lennon didn’t play Guitar?? –
      “John Lennon’s Gretsch 6120 guitar, the instrument the rock legend used when recording The Beatles’ 1966 classic “Paperback Writer,” will hit the auction block next month”

  1. Ken Carpenter

    according to a pic in Beatles Monthly, Paul played Casino guitar and George played Burns Nu-Sonic bass on the original rehearsels and maybe the early recordings

  2. Luke

    I saw that photo too. Im not too sure myself who play what between those two in the final cut. One thing i know is George played lead live, which is a given.

    1. Asaf

      George joined Paul by playing the guitar riff simultansly on the recording session. It can be heard well on inside – Revolver tracks. Nowdays, Paul and his bandmate are seen and heard playing together

  3. scott

    Great song, great lyrics–but almost impossible to play/sing live, on stage, with the visible instruments (and people) only. I watched all the live performances of this song, inclusively the famous one in Japan where George waves to the public to make some noise (to cover the false notes).

    The question (dilemma?) would be: what do we prefer? An “artefact” or the ‘natural thing’? More precisely: a) an awesome manufactured product that supposes lots of double-tracking and overdubs, that can be listened only on the record (or cd, or mp3, or whatever) and cannot possibly be performed live or b) a spontaneous, live and lively (‘un-cheating’) experience? The elaborate composition, or the ineffable, unique, non-repeatable experience?

      1. Joe Post author

        For a start there are five people in McCartney’s band, including a keyboard player who can flesh out the sound a little. Plus they’ve got quite a bit of performing experience under their collective belt!

        I saw them do Paperback Writer in Cardiff earlier this year. It was great to see Paul play it on the same Epiphone Casino he recorded it with all those years ago.

        1. Deadman

          Another thing to consider is that PA systems, sound-mixing, and the provision of foldback are immensely superior now, whereas The Beatles had woefully inadequate amplification and mixing. Being able to hear your own voice really helps your singing.

  4. Amphion

    What you’ve got to understand Scott, is that by the time The Beatles got to recording Paperback Writer, touring for them had become something of a joke. As Paul would say in early 1967, “Performing has gone right down for us… whats the point if nobody can hear us.” and that was the problem. Girls screaming louder than the engines on a Boing 707 (Remember them). Also, as The Beatles were forfront of the evolution not only of pop/rock music,but they were the pioneers of many musical techniques and studio innovations which would come to fruition on ‘Pepper’ only so many months after Paperback Writer. They had access for the first time of four-track. I can go and buy a four track tape machine today. (In fact I have one), but back in 1966, a four track was quite the new thing, and The Beatles were happy to try new things which is what kept them ahead of the game.

  5. Day Tripper

    @scott

    You’re right. Their live performance of Paperback Writer was lousy.

    I like this song, but they have written much better songs than paperback writer.

  6. brian

    I love the guitar riff and the huge pulsating bass on this song. Also on the fadeout, there’s a moment where the guitar sounds almost scorching. Very cool!

  7. Jon S

    Paperback writer has always been one of my favorite Beatles songs. Since all I’ve ever had was the stereo version it was a song which was mainly a great vocals song and had a great guitar hook secondary. Until I bought the remastered mono box set last year. Paperback writer in mono is mainly a guitar song with great vocals secondary. The change is so dramatic it’s shocking. I never knew the mono version like that existed and I’ve got an extensive Beatles collection. The first heavy metal song ever. It flows so much better in mono it seems shorter than the stereo version but is 5 seconds longer. The vocals are better in stereo but all of that switching back and forth of channels breaks it up a bit. The price of the mono box set was worth it just for Paperback writer in mono.

      1. Jon S

        I’m happy someone else could here the difference between the stereo and mono versions. Lennon used to say that the mono versions were better than their stereo counterparts. I guess that’s what he was talking about.

  8. 2much4mymirror

    I believe Paul himself stated in his Barry Miles autobiography that John helped in the writing of this. He claimed 30% credit for “Rain” and gave John 30% of this.

  9. Beruang

    What kind of newspaper is/was The Daily Mail? Was it a trashy tabloid, equivalent in the States to The National Enquirer or The Star? Or was it respectable journalism, more along the lines of the NY Times or Washington Post?

    It makes a difference to the meaning of the song. If the son is working at a trashy newspaper but aspires to write trashy novels, then it’s a comment on the limited vision of the author, and perhaps on trashiness in culture in general. But, if the son is working at a high-brow paper and rejects it for a career in pop culture, then that’s an anti-authoritarian comment.

    I guess a third interpretation is possible. (Heck, a million interpretations are possible.) The author of the letter could just be ignorant / foolish, and not recognize that stepping down from the Mail to paperbacks would be an incongruous move. He does, after all, make an earlier blunder in referring to “a novel by a man named Lear” — not realizing that Lear never wrote novels, and naively assuming that an editor would not have heard of one of England’s most famous authors.

    1. Joe Post author

      You can read about the Daily Mail here. In the 1960s it was a broadsheet; nowadays it’s a very right-wing tabloid, not as trashy as the News of the World or the Sun, but not far off. It quite often publishes anti-immigration and homophobic screeds aimed at a conservative middle Englander mindset.

      The Beatles seemed to read it fairly regularly – John Lennon wrote A Day In The Life while reading a copy. I wouldn’t pay too much attention to the DM, though, with regards to the meaning of Paperback Writer. Many journalists will work for whoever wishes to employ them, regardless of whether they agree with the newspaper’s editorial agenda. Anyway, it’s only the job of the son of the book’s protagonist – hardly central to the song. I suspect McCartney just wrote down whatever came into his head regardless of a deeper meaning.

      1. Beruang

        Thanks! That helps a lot.

        I’m new on this site, so maybe I should state my prejudices up front. I studied poetry in college and after, and so I enjoy examining Beatles lyrics—not for their meaning, but for the effect they have. Certainly there are many other valid ways of enjoying the Beatles, and I do not pretend that my interpretations are the only ones possible.

        That being said, I have never found the argument “that’s the first thing that came to mind” to hold much water. The question, in “Paperback Writer” as in any poem, is *why* did that particular phrase come to mind? What effect does it have on the song? I mean, it would not have taken any more time or effort to write “his son is working for the Sunday Times,” but that would have altered the meaning. Even if we just shrug and say, “they wrote whatever felt right,” we still must ask, well, why does “Daily Mail” feel right here?

        The answer, I believe, lies with the son. The protagonist of the song wants to be a paperback writer, and he has written a paperback novel in which one of the main characters also wants to be a paperback writer. Thus, the fictional son is to some degree autobiographical. The fact that the author has placed his stand-in at a tabloid paper rather than at a tony one says something. You note that the Beatles all read the Mail; perhaps they saw it, and paperback novels, as more honest, more authentic expressions of culture than respectable, highbrow publications. (I gather from the Wikipedia entry that it was the paper of their socioeconomic class.) Or maybe they read it ironically, enjoying it for its trashiness. That would certainly fit with the ignorance / naiveté about Edward Lear.

        You might say I’m over-thinking things, but I would counter that, like so many of their lyrics, this one stands up to and rewards closer scrutiny.

        1. Alan Vaughan

          Just think of the Daily Mail as the most natural expression of a daily newspaper at the time. It represents, if anything, a normal or typical newspaper. For me, it represents, in the song, a regular, social norm of a job while the writer aspires to breaking out in a more self-driven, bigger and more creative way. “Another Day” reprises that day job kind of feel, one with which I perceive McCartney had a particular fascination, as he analysed their kind of life against lives most of us have.

          1. Martin

            Hi, I agree it is partly a class thing. The Sunday Times would not reflect the origins and aspirations of the character in the “story”. But I suggest that the other factor is that on those notes the assonant open vowels in Daily Mail just sing soooo much better than Sunday Times.

  10. robert

    I would bet Joe has it right – “his son is working for the daily mail – it’s a steady job but he wants to be a paperback writer” the words just helped push the story forward.

  11. Marty Sugar

    I would make the suggestion that the Daily Mail was iconic, or maintained enough popularity for the verse to have mass appeal (without detracting from the story), in any era regardless of its editorial/political stance. After all, years later The Smiths (read: Morrissey) were singing about it too.

  12. wborys

    wow, talking about experimental technology- In Geoff Emerick’s book, he describes how he and Paul recorded the unique bass sound- instead of a microphone in front of the amp, he placed another loudspeaker, and the vibrating cone generated the electrical signal. Fed through the right EQ equipment, it produced the prodigious bass roar. I think this was used on ‘Rain’ also. Totally amazing how these folk (and studio gurus) created the music.

    1. Dennis O’Dell

      How can they say he played this guitar when it says here he didn’t play one?

      “John Lennon’s Gretsch 6120 guitar, the instrument the rock legend used when recording The Beatles’ 1966 classic “Paperback Writer,” will hit the auction block next month”

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