Oct 05

THE BEATLES – “Paperback Writer”

Popular25 comments • 4,758 views

#217, 25th June 1966

An awful lot of comedy records have got to number one. Not many funny records have. This is one of them, as with every line the dreadfulness of this slush pile nightmare is more obvious. “It’s a thousand pages, give or take a few / I’ll be writing more in a week or two / I can make it longer if you like the style”: the band’s chirpy, wide-eyed delivery has a sitcom writer’s cruelty, and at 2’20” the record doesn’t kill the laughs by outstaying its welcome.

You could extend the metaphor to creativity in general, and the Beatles’ experience of their own imitators may have lent an edge to their cynicism, but I prefer “Paperback Writer” simply as a sharp, light jab. There’s a sneer in the harmonies and a briskness in the bassline that makes “Paperback Writer” feel almost throwaway – meta-hackwork, if you like – but it’s so vigorous and venomous, and pretty too, that it’s one of my very favourite Beatles songs.



  1. 1
    Alan Connor on 17 Oct 2005 #

    Oh, right. It’s not a double-‘A’ side. Right.

    Resurrection Watch: 10CC had a crack at this. likewise The Shadows, Herb Pederson, some guy called Paul McCartney, and — of course — Kris Kristofferson. As with other Beatles songs, soundtrack and advertising use is thin thin thin. Likewise, a fairly popular choice on those Beatles Hits Go… [Latin] / [Moog] etc albums. And somehow, part of a Jive Bunny & the Mastermixers medley.

    One of my favourites from the Red and Blue albums as a wean, probably because there’s not only a story, but a a story where you have to fill in lots of gaps yourself. and one of my favourites as a nominal adult, for reasons I’d find harder to explain.

    The meta-hackwork idea fits pretty well with the piss-taking “Frere Jacques”es in the backing vox. Goes to show how reliable my ears are. I’d listened to the song over and over again, was told about the Frere Jacques, didn’t believe it for a moment, and then went back.

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    Ian on 17 Oct 2005 #


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    Marcello on 18 Oct 2005 #

    probably one of my least favourite beatles songs, a smug pseudo-mod trifle with perhaps the most overrated b-side in pop history.

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    Joe Williams on 18 Oct 2005 #

    One of my favourite Beatles songs too. I suspect the lyrics are partly about the Beatles themselves, specifically the expectation that they would keep churning out the material, which of course they weren’t interested in doing. Especially at this time when they were going through their period of greatest change.

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    Anonymous on 18 Oct 2005 #

    Doctor Mod says,

    “Paperback Writer” and its b-side “Rain” are a watershed in the Beatles career–for better or worse, depending on one’s preferences. In the multi-volumed Beatles Anthology CD, there’s a clip of the group performing PW in Japan–bloody awful, and they knew it. By this time they’d started their audio experimentation–the vocals are multi-tracked, in quadruplicate, if I remember correctly–and thus they could no longer reproduce the sounds of their recordings live. This, along with the stress of constant touring for nearly five years, ended their live performances, with the exception of those before a limited audience at the end of their collaboration (e.g., “Hey Jude” and “Get Back”).

    I had recently been considering writing a book chapter on British pop satire from the 1960s to the 1990s. Strange, but I’d somehow imagined that the Beatles were among the great rock satirists, but upon looking for examples I realized that satire wasn’t really their strongest suit. The Kinks and the Rolling Stones were far more adept when it came to it. This is probably one of the more notable examples of Beatles satire, surprisingly written by McCartney. (If one wants “Beatles” satire, one should look to Lennon’s solo albums. And yes, yes, I know–one could offer any number of examples, particularly from the White Album, but from a literary point of view, the satire is generally too obvious, too overdone, or not sufficiently sustained.)

    This is pretty good satire, though, and probably the most intelligent lyric McCartney ever wrote, inasmuch as it evinces his awareness of a world outside of the emotions–or, for that matter, himself.

    Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this recording, though, is not simply the fact that this is such a radical departure from the group’s previous singles, both lyrically and musically, but that it actually sold so well. I’m not sure that my fellow fifteen-year-olds completely fathomed its meaning, but we were intrigued all the same. (I didn’t hurt that it had a great beat–who says Ringo Starr was not an incredible and innovative drummer?) Still, I don’t think that anyone but the Beatles could have taken such a song to the top of the charts, and I’d argue that it’s compelling evidence of the extent to which they were near-absolute arbiters of style and taste at that time.

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    Anonymous on 18 Oct 2005 #

    Doctor Mod says,

    Now as to “Frere Jacques”:

    Alan, I thought you’d lost your mind this time–but I pulled out the Past Masters 2 CD, put on the headphones, and nearly fell on the floor laughing! I never really knew what that business was–and it’s so absolutely incongrous that who’d imagine it–but it’s as clear as a bell on the remastered disc.

    Listening to it again (after a VERY long time), I now appreciate what a howl the vocals–if not the lyrics–actually are. While the Beatles all had distinct voices, there are moments when it sounds as if McCartney is actually doing an impersonation of Lennon, and the falsettos sound like a mad send-up of the Beach Boys. It’s amazing, too, how much they sound like the disco-era Bee Gees, who profited massively from that (often nerve-wracking) sound a full decade later.

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    Andrew Hickey on 19 Oct 2005 #

    The backing vocals are definitely the Beatles ‘doing’ the Beach Boys – and specifically Sloop John B, which charted a couple of weeks before this was recorded, and which had an a capella break (very unusual for the time).
    As for Beatles ‘satire’ (if that’s the right word) there’s quite a lot there, especially around this time – a lot of the songs from this period are similar to this. Norwegian Wood, Drive My Car, Taxman, Dr Robert…

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    Lena on 20 Oct 2005 #

    This song is meta, I’m sure, but there’s good & bad meta and this sounds too much like someone playing the idea of the Beatles, the way instant mashed potatoes are ‘like’ mashed potatoes; yeah, yeah, but not really. I don’t know, I just don’t find it very funny…

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    petesmith on 21 Nov 2005 #

    marcello – what did “rain” ever do to you? it totally deserves its rep! and “paperback writer,” while seemingly throwaway, does ride a pretty catchy riff, and actually rocks sort of hard.

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    Doctor Casino on 31 Dec 2008 #

    Got to be one of my favorite Beatle singles – leaps out of the speaker more than almost anything else they recorded. Just a great rocker, dense with hooks and McCartney’s voice is in top shape here. 8 or 9 is probably right, I mean, this thing won’t change the world or anything but damn is it COOL.

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    swanstep on 12 Dec 2009 #

    For me, this song was always encountered at the end of the The Beatles 1962-1966 (the red double album), sandwiched between ‘Girl’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’ (and without ‘Rain’, which I never even heard of until Oasis started banging on about it in the ’90s). In that very quiet, almost hushed setting ‘Paperback Writer’ sounded even more riotously rocking and flat out fun than it otherwise does. Great frickin’ song and record; one that both looks back to early primitivism and the Beatles Hamburg pre-history, but also forward with its developing studio and lyrical smarts to later,’I am the Walrus’-style glories.
    I guess I’m a typical Beatles fan in that in that, for me, the Beatles can do no wrong in the Rubber Soul/Revolver period. Essentially every song at the time is some kind of masterpiece that then sets an agenda for other bands to explore. That makes it hard to grade PW (although Tom’s 9 seems reasonable), since I just do tend to think of it as part of this all-good flowering of talent, that itself is one of pop’s pinnacles (sorry about the mixed metaphors).

    I hear bits of PW in the Byrds’s equally wonderful ‘So you want to be a rock and roll star’, and XTC’s splendid ‘Mayor of Simpleton’ is basically just PW, right? I’ll have to defer to people who were there at the time about whether PW is at bottom a Kinks knock-off. Even if it is tho’, in my view it’s the sort of knock-off that’s a real contribution to a genre and ongoing pop dialogue. (I love *its* knock-offs and influencees!) Finally, being able to rock anything this hard while being witty is quite an achievement and template. The Byrds and XTC among others rose to the challenge to produce something with this dual quality, and I dare say that that challenge is still open to young bands (Arctic Monkeys, c’mon down!) who want to show themselves both smarter and more muscular than their competition. PW is a terrific, on-going force for pop good. I’m sure of it!

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    thefatgit on 13 Dec 2009 #

    Love this. I’m unsure of the chronology, but this must have inspired “Last Train To Clarksville”. I heard from my folks that there was a Beatles vs Monkees thing going on in the late 60’s. I remember watching The Monkees on TV as a kid and liking the knockabout slapstick and catchy tunes.

    I know they were a construct. Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider put the band together after watching “A Hard Day’s Night” and the TV show was produced by Screen Gems with an army of writers and stylists to polish The Monkees’ image, each member having their own character traits. Nesmith being the introvert, Tork being the partyboy, Jones being the eyecandy and Dolenz being the oddball. A band formed by committee then. So it seems absurd that they could be compared with The Beatles, unless on a purely musical level. “Clarksville” came out in 66 also I think. So Rafelson and Schneider must have been studying the Fab Four quite closely at the time trying to cadge some neat hooks and pop nous for their Stateside project. PW seems the perfect start point for such a project.

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    crag on 14 Apr 2011 #


    Gareth Edwards, Rugby player(1973)

    Jimmy Saville, DJ (1985).

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    Billy Smart on 4 Dec 2011 #

    TOTPWatch. The Beatles performed Paperback Writer (and Rain) on Top Of The Pops on 16 June 1966. Also in the studio that week were; Herman’s Hermits, The Hollies and Gene Pitney. Pete Murray and Samantha Juste were the hosts. No copy survives.

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    Jimmy the Swede on 6 Mar 2012 #

    My latest novel, folks. It took me years to write, won’t you take a look?. As with the last one, it’s not for the faint-hearted or easily offended.



  16. 16
    Jimmy the Swede on 6 Mar 2012 #

    The Amazon link offers the kindle option. Sorry for being so bloody shameless!


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    lonepilgrim on 11 Sep 2012 #

    simultaneously a number 1 in the USA – as noted here.

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    lonepilgrim on 16 Sep 2012 #
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    lonepilgrim on 24 Oct 2012 #

    a stranger number 1 in the USA at the same time as this – as noted here.

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    hectorthebat on 27 Apr 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh & Kevin Stein (USA) – The 40 Best of the Top 40 Singles by Year (1981) 23
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 100 Greatest Beatles Songs (2010) 35
    Stephen Spignesi and Michael Lewis (USA) – The 100 Best Beatles Songs (2004) 23
    Elvis Costello – The Best Songs from the 500 Best Albums Ever (2000)
    Mojo (UK) – The 100 Greatest Singles of All Time (1997) 29
    Mojo (UK) – The 101 Greatest Tracks by The Beatles (2006) 37
    Mojo (UK) – The Ultimate Jukebox: 100 Singles You Must Own (2003) 10
    New Musical Express (UK) – The Top 100 Singles of All Time (1976) 68
    New Musical Express (UK) – The Top 100 Singles of All Time (2002) 12
    New Musical Express (UK) – The Top 150 Singles of All Time (1987) 43
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 708
    Q (UK) – The 1010 Songs You Must Own (2004)
    Q (UK) – The Ultimate Music Collection (2005)
    Uncut (UK) – The 50 Greatest Beatles Tracks (2001) 11
    Now & Then (Sweden) – The Beatles’ 50 Best Songs (1992) 15
    Berlin Media (Germany) – The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1998) 64
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)

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    Jimmy the Swede on 10 Oct 2014 #

    At long last, I’ve managed to get my next novel out. As usual, it’s left-field. I can’t really write anything else.

    Thanks for letting me cuckoo shamelessly in your nest, Tom. Regards J.


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    lonepilgrim on 5 Sep 2015 #

    IIRC ‘Paperback Writer’ was also used as the theme for ‘Read all about it’ a literary programme on TV in the 1970s presented by Melvyn Bragg. It would cost an arm and a leg to license a Beatles track now but with no sense of ‘Legacy’ music EMI didn’t seem to know what to do with the material and put it out on various cut-price compilations.
    I’ve always liked the song for its bright, cheerful pace and concision.

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    Patricia Jagger on 9 Apr 2021 #

    Another throwaway Beatles tune. 3/10.

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    Gareth Parker on 8 Jun 2021 #

    One of their more irritating singles in my view. I can’t abide the backing vocals. 2/10.

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