In the annals of Beatles singles, we have what we might think of as a game-starter in “Please Please Me,” a game-ender in something like “Let It Be,” and a host of game-changers, the most important of which is rarely discussed as one of the band’s top efforts.
And yet, “Paperback Writer” – “just a little bluesy song,” according to its modest/understating author, Paul McCartney – which was cut 50 years ago in mid-April 1966, and released May 30th of that year, is perhaps the single that best suggests how the Beatles were about to change things up in their most radical way yet.
Rubber Soul had just been released in December 1965, knocking the listening public on its collective ear, and still dominated the charts in the spring. This was a Beatles album unlike any other, one you couldn’t have been prepared for, clearly marking that a new era had begun. Mid-period Beatles was underway.
No one had thought to blend folk music with rhythm & blues, as the Beatles had just done, in essence adding an earthy groove to the wifty-wafty strains of cannabis set to music. A most organic sound, both of nature and the metropolis. But now that mid-period game was about to be kicked up another notch.
Revolver would be the full flowering of the Beatles’ next phase; but first, there was “Paperback Writer,” the cheeky tease of a song that cajoled you away from the world of Rubber Soul, and into a new galaxy.
Right from the get-go, there is something otherworldly about “Paperback Writer,” even though this is in essence a sonic short story about a would-be writer. Paul McCartney’s voice starts the song, before John Lennon and George Harrison add to a rich counterpoint, the title words cleaving into Cubist sound fragments. Harrison’s distorted guitar then kicks off a hot, scuzzy riff as some spartan bass drum thumps from Ringo Starr follow below, all of it further energized by five, rapid tumbling McCartney bass notes, and away we go into the verse.
A bass guitar had never sounded like this, and one can imagine the looks McCartney and engineer Geoff Emerick must have exchanged, as if they had just unlocked a whole new realm of potential for the instrument.
“‘Paperback Writer’ was the first time the bass sound had been heard in all its excitement,” Emerick remarks in Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions. “For a start, Paul played a different bass, a Rickenbacker. Then we boosted it further by using a loudspeaker as a microphone.”
It doesn’t hurt, either, that McCartney was the possessor of just about matchless bass chops at this point. Lennon, who was never particularly forthcoming with praise, remarked that McCartney “was one of the most innovative bass players that ever played bass.” And here, that innovation was worked into the framework of one kick-ass, churning, burning band.
“‘Paperback Writer’ had a heavier sound than some earlier work – and very good vocal work, too,” said producer George Martin. “I think that was just the way it worked out, that the rhythm was the most important part of their make-up by this time.”