When was it recorded? Apr. 13-14, 1966
When was it first released, and on which album? Jun. 10, 166 as a single
Who wrote it? McCartney (with noteworthy contribution from Lennon)
Have I heard this song before? Yes
What my research dug up:
(I took a foray into “The Beatles” animated series this afternoon, and boy was that was interesting.)
“Paperback Writer” was the second song I ever learned to play on the guitar. You can hear why. According to the Beatles Bible, “‘Paperback Writer’ was an attempt by McCartney to write a song based on a single chord – possibly influenced by Indian music, but most likely a result of their marijuana use.”
As with a number of Paul’s songs, its genesis is a choose-your-own adventure story. Story #1 comes from “influential British DJ” Jimmy Savile (About.com). According to Savile, Paul’s aunt Lil asked him if he could “write a single that wasn’t about love.” Quoth Savile, “With that thought obviously still in his mind, he walked around the room and noticed that Ringo was reading a book. He took one look and announced that he would write a song about a book.”
According to Paul, he created the song after reading about an aspiring author in The Daily Mail.
“I’d had a thought for a song and somehow it was to do with the Daily Mail so there might have been an article in the Mail that morning about people writing paperbacks. Penguin paperbacks was what I really thought of, the archetypal paperback. I arrived at Weybridge and told John I had this idea of trying to write off to a publishers to become a paperback writer, and I said, ‘I think it should be written like a letter.’ I took a bit of paper out and I said it should be something like ‘Dear Sir or Madam, as the case may be…’ and I proceeded to write it just like a letter in front of him, occasionally rhyming it. And John, as I recall, just sat there and said, ‘Oh, that’s it,’ ‘Uhuh,’ ‘Yeah.’ I remember him, his amused smile, saying, ‘Yes, that’s it, that’ll do.’ Quite a nice moment: ‘Hmm, I’ve done right! I’ve done well!’ And then we went upstairs and put the melody to it. John and I sat down and finished it all up, but it was tilted towards me, the original idea was mine. I had no music, but it’s just a little bluesy song, not a lot of melody. Then I had the idea to do the harmonies and we arranged that in the studio.” — Paul McCartney (Barry Miles, Many Years From Now)
Worth note – the lyrics mention a man named Lear. According to Wikipedia, “This is a reference to the Victorian author and artist Edward Lear, who wrote nonsense poems and songs of which Lennon was very fond (though Lear never wrote novels).”
The Beatles recorded “Paperback Writer” between April 13 & 14. They did two takes of the rhythm track, with the second take used for the final version. Listen to the first take break down at the start of this video.
Now according to Wikipedia, the Beach Boys’ song “Sloop John B” was gaining popularity at the time. This and a preview of the “Pet Sounds” album led the Beatles to ‘emulate’ “the trademark Beach Boys harmonies” for “Paperback Writer” (Wikipedia). Most of these backing vocals (provided by John and George) are just the title of the French nursery rhyme “Frère Jacques.” I’m making the broad assumption everyone knows that song (Americans – it’s “Are You Sleeping, Brother John?”), but for reference here’s “Sloop John B.”
“Paperback Writer” also features a distinctive bass line.
“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 (Mark Lewisohn, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions)
To further boost the bass, engineers used new Abbey Road innovation the Automated Transient Overload Control. These technicians also got in trouble due to the studeiot’s “strict rules about how microphones and amplifiers should be used” (Beatles Bible). The opening guitar riff was amplified the old-fashioned way – George and John played at the same time of two separate guitars.
According to the Beatles Bible, “‘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.’” Regardless, “Paperback Writer” peaked at #1 in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, the US, the UK, and West Germany. The RIAA certified the single Gold.
The song also spawned a plethora of promotional videos, for which I’m thankful. Michael Lindsay-Hogg directed one color and two black & white performances on May 19 at Abbey Road studios. The colored one was “broadcast exclusively by The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS on 5 June” (Beatles Bible). You can see this version plus Ed and the Beatles’ introductions by following the link below.
The two black and white performances appeared on the final episode of “Thank Your Lucky Stars” and “Ready, Steady, Go!” According to the good people on YouTube, this is the clip from “Lucky Stars.”
On May 20, Lindsay-Hogg shot another colored version of “Paperback Writer” at the Chiswick House in west London. This clip was first shown “Top of the Pops” June 2. Quoth Wikipedia, “The session showed how difficult it was for the Beatles to even mime to their later material – they had difficulty in taking their performance seriously.”
“Paperback Writer” also has the distinction of being the second-to-last song the Beatles performed in their final touring concert (Candlestick Park on Aug. 29, 1966).