If you can draw a line in the sand, between early-era Beatles #1s and late-era Beatles #1s – if you really want to locate the moment when they stopped being ‘The Fab Four’ – then I’d say this is it.
Paperback Writer, by The Beatles (their 10th of seventeen #1s)
2 weeks, from 23rd June – 7th July 1966
There’s the echoey, layered intro – Paperback writer, writer, writer… A simple, harder than anything that’s gone before, riff. A filthy bassline. It’s not a clean line in the sand – it’s not as if The Beatles hadn’t been getting progressively heavier, cooler, druggier with every chart-topper since ‘I Feel Fine’ – but this does feel like a significant step away from their earlier days. 1966 would be the year of ‘Revolver’ and their last ever stadium concerts.
The biggest difference though, for me, comes in the lyrics. All their previous #1s have been boy-meets-girl, girl treats boy well or badly, pop songs (with the exception of ‘Help!’) ‘Paperback Writer’, however, is a song about a, well, a paperback writer, written by Paul McCartney after he was challenged to write a song about anything but ‘love’.
Dear sir or madam, Will you read my book, It took me years to write, Will you take a look…? It’s a song in the form of a letter – our very first epistolary chart topper? – from a wannabe pulp-fiction writer, presumably living in a cramped attic, to some unnamed publishers. It doesn’t, to be honest, sound like a very appealing read: a dirty story of a dirty man (whose) clinging wife doesn’t understand… And the unnamed writer doesn’t sound like much of an artiste: I need a job and so I wanna be a paperback writer…
It’s actually quite a funny record, satirical even. The hero of this trashy story also wants to be a paperback writer, while the book is already a thousand pages long, with more to come in a week… In the background, the other members of the band harmonise, in falsettos, over the French nursery rhyme ‘Frere Jacques’.
It’s also a short record, just over two minutes long, which sounds loveably rough and ready, as if it were knocked out in one take over a single afternoon. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s probably The Beatles’ heaviest chart-topper, and a song that’s always felt like a bit of an anomaly in their discography. Although, if you think the lyrics to ‘Paperback Writer’ are a big change of pace, their next #1 will be about an old woman who cleans churches…