On Paperback Writer

It sometimes surprises me, given the cultural signifance of the Beatles, that there’s not more fiction devoted to the Beatles than there is. There’s a few novels — Liverpool Fantasy stands out — and some short stories, like Ian MacLeod’s “Snodgrass” and Stephen Baxter’s “The Twelfth Album.” Curiously, all of these novels are alternate histories — Liverpool Fantasy and “Snodgrass” are about worlds where the Beatles broke up (in varying degrees) early in their career, while “The Twelfth Album” is about a world where the Beatles made one more album in 1970.

Then there’s the book I just discovered, Mark Shipper’s Paperback Writer.

Written in the mid-70s, Paperback Writer bills itself as “The life and times of the Beatles, the spurious chronicle of their rise to stardom, their triumphs & disasters, plus the amazing story of their ultimate reunion.”

Shipper’s story begins in 1961, when the Beatles — then a four-piece consisting of John Lennon, George Harrison, Stu Sutcliffe, and Pete Best — admit to their ranks one Paul McCartney, a popular Liverpool troubadour who’s already cut a best-selling album. The new Beatles go to Hamburg, become a rock’n’roll sensation, see one member – Stu – leave, and see another kicked out when their plumber-cum-manager Brian Epstein fixes Parlophone producer George Martin’s sink and gets a record contract. And when they need a new drummer, the Beatles pick up Ringo Starr from Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, a move that Ringo is happy to make, because he’s not happy with Rory Storm’s use of wind machines — to simulate a hurricane — on stage, as the wind has led to Starr suffering from several bouts of pneumonia.

The Beatles’ story covers their first album, We’re Gonna Change The Face of Pop Music Forever, to turning down Freddy Mercury’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” through their moody, Bergman-esque film, A Hard Day’s Night (in which the four Beatles spend a day in a library, looking for books on Camus), to the anti-British Army record Sgt. Pepper (because the British Army had pepper labelled Sergeants Only, and the Beatles wanted to bring attention to that), to George Harrison’s devout Christianity leading him to leave the group after John’s “We’re bigger than Jesus,” to their inevitable break-up (with an album called, unsurprisingly, The Beatles Break-Up).

It’s not a serious retelling of the Beatles story, obviously. ;)

In places, the book is a bit savage in its humor. The story of the 1970s is strangely surreal — the Plastic Bono Band, when John formed a new band with Sonny Bono and Cher, or Linda McCartney leaving Wings to join Steely Dan. Or the Bangledeshi benefit concert to help George Harrison.

At the same time, the Beatles sound like the Beatles. When the Beatles are in a room together after they’ve come back together in 1979, the conversation they have, as random as it is, sounds like the kind of conversation they would have had. The speech patterns, so familiar from A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, come out on the printed page. It sounds authentic.

In the back of my mind, reading Paperback Writer, I kept comparing the story here to the Beatles’ history that I know. And Shipper’s story is wildly off the mark in places. I have no idea, for example, who Colin Owen is meant to represent in the Beatles’ story, and he’s a major character in the novel. Some of the things that Shipper misses — in particular, the drug use — probably weren’t as widely known thirty years ago when he wrote the book. Yet, there’s never any doubt that Shipper was a fan, that he had followed the Beatles and their careers, and he was telling the story he wanted to tell.

And what is that story?

The point of Paperback Writer is that the Beatles were of an era. And that era had passed. The Beatles, in Shipper’s book, come back together. They’ve done everything else, but it’s not the same, and so they gravitate back together, put together a new album, and go out on tour — a tour headlined by Peter Frampton, of all people. Yet, the reunion is a collosal thud. The album garners terrible reviews. The tour can’t sell tickets. The Beatles can’t go home again.

When Shipper wrote the novel — it was published in 1978 — the possibility of a Beatles reunion was very real, albeit unlikely. I’m not certain if Shipper wrote the book as a cautionary tale as to what might happen if they did reunite, yet it seems likely. Discovering the Beatles as I did in the mid-80s, after John Lennon had been killed, a reunion wasn’t really something I either wanted or expected, though I did greatly enjoy “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” some ten years later. But what Beatlemania was had died away by then, and the Beatles had nothing left to prove. I don’t know why McCartney, Harrison, Starr, and Jeff Lynne worked on the two songs, except because they could. It certainly wasn’t expected of them. Which makes for a contrast with Shipper’s scenario that he couldn’t have anticipated, where the Beatles come back together because it is expected. Only, the reality can’t live up to it.

Having, the saying goes, is not so great a thing as wanting.

It’s an odd book, an amusing book, and even a downright funny book in places. Paperback Writer is a fun romp through Beatles history, mean in places, but with genuine affection for the Beatles. Rock criticism, masked as a novel, basically.

Paperback Writer has been out-of-print for nearly three decades, but it’s worth tracking down. It reads fast, goes down smooth, and the illustrations are superb. :)

4 thoughts on “On Paperback Writer

  1. Colin Owen… You have to SAY it the English way and it gets a little clearer…
    Call-in Owe-in Each time you go Callin him you end up Owing him… Usually 10,000.00 pounds. Mr Shipper is the unquestioned master of the bad joke name.*

    * Actually a fan stopped him in a pub near Liverpool Towne Center and asked him a question once. He declined to answer.

  2. Many thanks for pointing me in the direction of Snodgrass – you attributed it to Ian McEwan in your piece above, which put me off the scent. I will enjoy rereading it.
    But re the query about Colin Owen in your piece above, despite Mark Shipper’s way with gag names elsewhere in the book, I had always assumed it meant Alun Owen, the Liverpool playwright who wrote Hard Day’s Night and had some TV and stage success. I assumed his name was half-disguised out of some sense of propriety on Shipper’s part, as unlike the Fabs the Owen character in the book is solely an excuse for jokes with no pretentions to being a heightened version of aspects of the real person.
    Re Nowhere Boy, a review by Philip French in the Guardian newspaper linked the film to That’ll Be the Day, scripted by Ray Connolly and costarring Ringo which was loosely based, French said, on John Lennon.
    review

  3. Tony, thanks for pointing out that I had the wrong name above for the author of “Snodgrass.” In a year and a half, I’d never noticed! :)

    It’s fixed now, and I’ve put in a link to the story.

    About Colin Owen, I too thought that it was supposed to be Alun Owen in some way.

    And I’m looking forward to Nowhere Boy when it makes its way over here. :)

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