April 11, 2008
Creation of the Beatles song Paperback Writer
How Paul McCartney was inspired to write the song 42 years ago
by Barry Miles
PAPERBACK WRITER was written by Paul McCartney in the early spring of 1966. “Penguin paperbacks was what I really thought of, the archetypal paperback,” McCartney reflected when I asked what his inspiration was. Penguin was almost a generic term for paperbacks in the early Sixties: they had such market dominance that people used the word to mean any paperbound book.
There was a shop on Charing Cross Road that sold nothing but Penguins, and a few doors away, Better Books also sold their complete catalogue, taking up half a room. In the days before hardback publishers had their own paperback lines, Penguin was able to publish George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolfe, Aldous Huxley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, virtually every major author. Everyone knew their colour coding: orange spine for fiction; blue for the non-fiction Pelican line; green for crime, black for classics. Germano Facetti had already introduced illustrations to the covers, but the typography and layout was still strictly standardised.
The kind of Penguin that McCartney was thinking of was The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks, published in 1963. The working-class novels of the late Fifties and early Sixties had an immediate relevance to a group of youths down from Liverpool. McCartney: “We would be staying in Gower Street. It was like ‘digs'. You could read The L-Shaped Room and totally associate. ‘This is what I'm doing! This is about me.' It's true. It was an exact parallel; young professionals in a rooming house.” In the days before they stopped touring, and before they moved to London, the Beatles clocked up enormous numbers of hours in vans and buses, going from concert to concert, TV studio to recording studio. Cassette tape recorders were not yet in use, so they passed the time with books and magazines, unless a pirate radio station was within range.
When he wrote Paperback Writer, McCartney had been living in an attic room in his girlfriend's parent's large townhouse on Wimpole Street for almost two years. His girlfriend, Jane Asher, and her brother, Peter, then in Peter and Gordon, were both well- read and had large collections of books. The influence of living in an upper-middle class artistic household on McCartney was immense: he attended first nights, art openings, concerts of experimental music, all of which fed into his musical compositions. By this time he was collecting his own library.
In the autumn of 1965, my partner John Dunbar and I opened Indica Books and Gallery in Mason's Yard, off Duke Street St James's in Piccadilly. The third partner in the enterprise was Peter Asher and through him, one of the helpers who filled in holes in the wall, painted and put up shelves, was McCartney. Before we opened, I assembled the stock of the bookshop in the basement of the Ashers' house in Wimpole Street. Some days when I went in I would find a note from McCartney saying that he had taken some books: one listed Peace Eye Poems by Ed Sanders, Drugs and the Mind by De Ropp, Gandhi on non-violence and a book of poems by the Finnish poet Anselm Hollo. He had eclectic taste.