How Paul McCartney was inspired to write the song 42 years ago
by Barry Miles
April 11, 2008
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
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
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.
At the time, 1966, he said in an interview that his Auntie Lil had
jokingly complained to him: "'Why can't you ever write about a horse
or the summit conference or something interesting?' So I thought:
'All right, Auntie Lil. I'll show you'." A more recent claim came
from the DJ Jimmy Savile, who says he was reading a book backstage
when John Lennon asked McCartney what they should write about next.
McCartney's reply was: 'Why not write about that book Jimmy is
reading?' More significantly, McCartney once remarked that he liked
the way the phrase "paperback writer" sounded, and wanted to build a
song around it. His songs often had such small beginnings: Temporary
Secretary was another.
He told me that he had the idea for Paperback Writer while driving
out to John Lennon's house in Weybridge in the stockbroker belt for a
songwriting session. McCartney: "You knew the minute you got there
you'd have a cup of tea and you'd sit and write, so it was always
good if you had a theme. 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."
By the time McCartney arrived in Weybridge he had the song's
structure in his head. McCartney: "I 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, yes.' You know, if it ain't
broke don't fix 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. 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." It was the first Beatles single that was not a love song.
McCartney had suggested that Lennon launch his second book, A
Spaniard in the Works, at Indica bookshop but his PR people thought
the premises were too small. McCartney had set up an arrangement with
Indica that any books, art books in particular, or magazines that I
thought were interesting should be sent to all four of the Beatles. I
tended to get in paperbacks because they were cheap and our clientele
was young and often impoverished. I had imported American paperback
copies of a number of popular titles that were not yet published in
Britain: these included Henry Miller's Sexus and Hubert Selby's Last
Exit to Brooklyn, that was out in paperback in the States long before
being published here.
In the song lyrics Paperback Writer is "a dirty story of a dirty man"
so maybe he had Miller or Selby at the back of his mind. It is
strange to think back to a time when paperbacks were actually a new
thing and not regarded as proper books; Faber coyly called theirs
"paper-covered editions". Paperback Writer recognised that they had
become part of our lives, worthy of a song.