Paperback Writer – The art, science and luck that created a Beatle classic

May 30, 1966 was a watershed in Beatle history: The first song in the Lennon/McCartney cannon that didn’t focus on romance. As Paul McCartney tells the story, an aunt challenged him to “write about something other than love.” Paul loved the challenge and went to John Lennon’s place to take a shot at it. He happened upon an article in the Daily Mail that talked about the challenges of an aspiring author (Wikipedia thinks it might have been Martin Amis)  and the lyrics for what became Paperback Writer began to flow.

In Barry Miles’ book, Many Years From Now, McCartney remembers, “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 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.”

Paperback Writer was the first project to be completed at Abbey Road for what would become the transformational Revolver LP. To give you a sense for how fast the turnaround was in those days, the tune was recorded on April 13/14, 1966 with the basic track completed in just two takes.

Beatle researchers point out that it was the first time Paul used his new Rickenbacker 4001 bass on a Beatle track (even though it’s the ubiquitous Hofner Bass that you see in the music video). The Rick had a sharper sound than McCartney’s Hofner.

The Revolver sessions also mark the beginning of studio engineer, Geoff Emerick‘s association with the band. Author Ian MacDonald describes the then 19 year old Emerick as an “English audio experimentalist” in the tradition of fellow British record producer Joe Meek. Meek is remembered for his heavy use of reverb, distortion and electronica, producing, among other records, Have I the Right? for the Honeycombs (1964), and the instrumental Telstar, the one hit wonder for the Tornados (1962).

McCartney’s bass line was defined even more clearly by Emerick’s use of loudspeaker as a microphone in concert with an EMI innovation called ATOC, “Automatic Transient Overload Control”.

Mastering engineer, Tony Clark, told Rolling Stone that ATOC, “..was this huge box with flashing lights and what looked like the eye of a Cyclops staring at you.” The net effect boosted the bass line without making the needles on record players jump, one of the first advances in processing that has become standard fare today.

Emerick pioneered another recording innovation on Paperback Writer, removing the front skin of Ringo’s bass drum and stuffing it with sweaters and placing a microphone within an inch of the drum. That drew a reprimand from EMI. The record company feared the sound pressure would damage the expensive device. When the tune became a hit, they reversed themselves and microphone proximity has become standard fare for recording drum kits ever since.

On the flip side is another solid track that would have been an A side for any other band. John Lennon wrote Rain after the group arrived Australia in poor weather one year earlier. The Rain sessions took place right after Paperback Writer was recorded. George Martin and Geoff Emerick get credit for slowing down the four track tape machine, while the band recorded the song at a faster tempo. When played back at normal speed, the track takes on an entirely different feel.

There is confusion about whether John Lennon or producer George Martin came up with the idea. John claimed he stumbled upon the notion of playing part of his vocal track backwards after mistakenly loading the tape upside down when he took it home. Whomever had the inspiration, it would be the first time reverse playback was used on a pop song, with Lennon implementing the idea later on in the Revolver sessions as part of Tomorrow Never Knows.

Ringo Starr, remembers his own performance on Rain as a high point, telling Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield, “I think it’s the best out of all the records I’ve ever made.”

At first, promotion for the single in Britain used the now notorious Robert Whitaker photograph that briefly adorned the Yesterday and Today LP, depicting the Beatles draped with joints of raw meat and decapitated baby dolls. Sharp eyes will notice that the US 45 sleeve has pictures of George Harrison and John Lennon reversed, making them appear to be playing left handed.

Paperback Writer became the Beatles’ 13th Number One with Rain peaking at Number 23 on the Billboard charts in July of 1966. Todd Rundgren created a nearly note for note cover on his Faithful LP, which includes recreations of hits by the Beach Boys (“Good Vibrations”) and Jimi Hendrix (“If Six Was Nine”).

The final irony: Although both tracks were recorded during what became known as The Revolver Sessions, neither tune ended up on the album. They were later released as part of the Hey Jude collection in the US.

Here’s the video.