Paperback Writer, by Mark Shipper
October, 1980 Ace Books
(Original private press edition 1977)
This is another one I read twenty-some years ago when I was on a Beatles kick, around the time I first read The Last Days Of John Lennon. This one I didn’t enjoy nearly as much, though; it was lauded by all the industry reviews of the day as the “best rock novel” ever, but I found it mostly tedious and annoying, not to mention the finale bittersweet because it was all about a Beatles reunion that never happened – and never would happen.
The book has always been rather hard to find, whether in the original small-press 1977 trade paperback edition or this Ace Books mass market edition from October 1980 (two months before Lennon’s murder), but it’s another instance in which I stumbled across a copy for cheap. Several years ago I found a mint condition copy at a Dallas Half Price Books for half off the cover price. I dutifully bought it, but didn’t plan to read it again. But recently I decided to give Paperback Writer another shot, and this time it resonated with me a lot more; in fact, I’m not sure if I even read the whole thing back in ’97. I think I just skipped forward to the reunion stuff. This time though I read the full monty and, while it’s certainly no Death Rock, it’s still a mostly-entertaining spoof of the now-sacred Beatles story, taking no prisoners in its acidic tone.
Which is not to say this is a dark comedy masterpiece along the lines of Boy Wonder. Indeed, Shipper’s humor is much more of the “groaner” variety, and isn’t subtle in the least. We’re talking “Plastic Bono Band” sort of unsubtle, ie the group John and Yoko start with Sonny and Cher in this spoofy retelling of the Beatles saga, rather than the real-life Plastic Ono Band. And for that matter, the ill-fated John-Sonny friendship, which is only started because Sonny gives John a reason to scream (this being during his primal scream years, and an otherwise-content John can find nothing else to scream about other than Sonny’s awful singing), is centered around Sonny’s hoarding of a long-discontinued brand of toothpaste.
I mention John Lennon so many times already because he is the protagonist of the tale, with George Harrison and Ringo Starr getting supporting status and Paul McCartney basically a glorified cameo. It becomes clear early on that Shipper is no fan of Paul’s, and it also becomes clear that Shipper was hoping John Lennon himself would read the book. Practically the entire thing is written from John’s point of view, and the absurd skewering of Beatles myths seems to be designed to catch John’s sense of humor. One wonders if Lennon indeed was aware of the book. John also doesn’t come off as poorly as the other Beatles: George is presented as a holier-than-though killjoy, Ringo an empty-headed fool who just wants to improve his skill at billiards, and Paul is a bossy, ego-driven opportunist.
But while I didn’t find the book as laugh out loud funny as others, I did appreciate how it so savagely spoofs the Beatles story. I mean their story has only become even more sacred forty-some years after this Ace publication, thus Shipper’s satire seems particularly irreverent and totally lives up to his declaration in the intro that Paperback Writer intends to capture the fun, punkish spirit of early rock, in which nothing was taken too seriously. In this regard all the familiar events of the Beatles history are taken out of proportion, or out of context: for example, Paul we are informed is already a celebrity in 1961, with his own recording career, and John is pushed by George, drummer Pete Best, and bassist Stu Sutcliffe to recruit Paul, as the Beatles need “a pretty face.”
Shortly after this Brian Epstein witnesses a Beatles gig and decides to give up his lucrative career as a plumber to manage them. Epstein being a plumber is a recurring gag that runs through the novel, as does his increasing reliance upon screenwriter Colin Owen, who charges ridiculous fees for ridiculous opinions. (For example, twenty thousand pounds to come up with the title for a movie that documents the Beatles’s 1966 concert at Shea Stadium…and after a few days of pondering Owen declares the movie should be titled “The Beatles At Shea Stadium.”) We know from the start that this isn’t a book the Beatles scholar should refer to; Epstein pushes the boys (now minus Stu, who dies off page, and Pete Best, who is perfunctorily replaced with Ringo) to record a demo…which features “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” alongside stuff like “Twist And Shout.”
Here we also see that Shipper’s humor is zany; Epstein barges into EMI and tries to talk up the demo to producer George Martin, wanting to record it on cassette tape…only to be informed by Martin that cassettes haven’t been invented yet. The rampant footnotes throughout the novel serve up more zany humor, for example a comment like “This Beatles single still stands up today” receives the footnote “Particularly when it is leaned against a wall,” and the like. As I say, it’s lowbrow humor for sure, and only late in the novel (which runs longer than you’d expect, at 254 pages) does Shipper start to get a little more high-brow. In the first half of the book his focus is more on taking various stages of the Beatles myth and poking fun at them.
I appreciated that Shipper wasn’t too hung up on any one Beatles era; he rushes through all of them, with maybe a little more spotlight here on the early days of their budding fame. Even here John Lennon is the main protagonist; at a club he sees a rival band performing, and it is of course the Rolling Stones, but John’s eye is more on the “mature-looking Oriental woman” at Mick Jagger’s side. Yes, it’s none other than Yoko, though Shipper doesn’t tell us her name for a few chapters; in one of the more acidic of his in-jokes he has that Mick is the one who met Yoko at her famous art happening, not John, after which she was forever by Mick’s side. But John, despite being bluntly turned down by Yoko, pines for her to such an extent that he even agrees to write a song for the struggling Stones (“I Wanna Be Your Man,” of course).
Oh and I should mention, even though the Yoko meeting is much earlier than in reality, John is also already married when he meets his soul-mate, a tidbit Shipper just casually drops. The Beatles don’t have any children in this book and Yoko and Linda McCartney are the only two women who are ever mentioned; we learn Ringo’s married in the late ‘70s section of the book, but his wife isn’t even named. For that matter, when John finally does end up with Yoko, it too happens off-page and we meet up with the duo as they’re headed for their famous bed-in. I guess stuff like this is indication that Paperback Writer is just a satire, a spoof, and one shouldn’t look for actual “novel-type stuff” in it. But it seems like a big miss that Shipper doesn’t even bother showing us how John and Yoko finally get together, particularly given that John’s unreturned love for her serves up several running gags in the first quarter of the novel.
But don’t get me wrong, some of the goofy stuff really is funny. Like the movie A Hard Day’s Night, which here is a serious dramatic effort, starring Ringo, with no music. This is the first appearance of screenwriter Colin Wilson, and the movie is his brainchild; it features Ringo in a library for the entire runtime, occasionally asking librarians (played by the other Beatles) for such and such a book. We even get a fake industry review of the film – the novel is filled with captioned photos and review excerpts, all of which add to the pseudo-nonfiction vibe of the book. Only the captions are all goofy (like the TWA plane the Beatles flew on their first trip to America being one of the hottest Beatlemania collectables these days), and most of the “reviews” just repeat what Shipper’s already written in the narrative. (Save for a long pseudo-Rolling Stone review of their ’79 comeback album, Get Back, which successfully spoofs the famous RS house style.)
The “bigger than Jesus” incident is summarily satirized, but here George quits the band due to the ungodliness of John’s comment; he only comes back if he can have at least two of his own songs on each Beatles album. The spoofery continues with the album Help!, which here isn’t a movie soundtrack – in this novel the Beatles only ever made one movie, which was a flop – but an album comprised of music written by other musicians. This is because the Beatles were too exhausted to write their own material and sent out ads in music magazines for “help.” Humorously, one of the tracks on this album is written by a young Jim Morrison: “Peace Frog.” The famous India trip is summarily trotted out and spoofed, with John bullying folk singer Donovan and Beach Boy Mike Love buddying up with the Beatles.
Sgt. Pepper’s gets the most spotlight of all the Beatles albums, which makes sense, as at the time of Paperback Writer’s publication it was still considered one of the greatest rock albums of all time. (As if! Hell it isn’t even the best Beatles album – not by a long shot.) John, on location for a bit part in How I Won The War, learns that officers in the British army are given special pepper and salt, and he mentions this to Paul. Months later Paul is still thinking about it, and wants to do an entire album protesting this elitism. The best part of this section is the material about the “Dronees,” ie the hardcore fans who listen to the famous inner groove tone on side 2 of Sgt. Pepper’s that was only audible on manual turntables – which Shipper informs us will play into eternity, or at least until the turntable breaks. An entire cult springs up around this, with activists listening to the tone for days, weeks, and in one notable instance, years.
Otherwise Shipper skips entire albums, not to mention songs – curiously, the song “Paperback Writer” itself isn’t even mentioned – and from Sgt. Pepper’s we go straight into the White Album, which turns out to be the last album the Beatles release as a group. Due to increasing in-fighting during recording of that album, with each Beatle using the others as his veritable backing band instead of collaborating as in the old days, the four are ready to split. This is exacerbated by their desire to get a new manager after Brian Epstein’s passing. John and the others want Allan Klein, and Paul wants the father of his new girlfriend, Linda Eastman. They break up over this, years earlier than in reality, and the ensuing cobbled-together album is titled The Beatles Break Up. It’s sort of an amalgamation of Abbey Road and Let It Be, with Phil Spector performing production duties on it; he strikes up a friendship with John, occasionally doling out career advice in between interminable reflections on his early career.
Post-breakup Shipper gets even more fictitious in his mock history. As mentioned John and Yoko hook up with Sonny and Cher and form the Plastic Bono Band, and this part actually gets a long portion of the narrative. George, much as in real life, uses up the majority of his song ideas with a triple-album release and spirals into a freefall afterwards, struggling to complete albums. The humor is scathing when it comes to Ringo and Paul; for the former, Shipper has him becoming the biggest success of the post-Beatles, with a succession of top ten hits (unless I missed the joke, they’re all songs Ringo merely drummed on in real life, not songs he wrote or sang); for the latter, Paul is roundly mocked as a shell of his former self, turning out albums that no one listens to or buys. Here Paperback Writer really shows its age, as McCartney’s early albums, especially his first self-titled release, have become very well respected. McCartney basically prefigures the lo-fi movement of the ‘90s, some of it sounding eerily like Beck. But then, this could just be Shipper’s own bias; as stated, he clearly has no love for Paul.
As the ‘70s progress, with John again taking up most of the narrative as he briefly becomes involved in revolutionary politics, the fortunes of the Beatles continue to wane. To the point that Linda carries out an intervention on Paul; shortly before their latest Wings tour is to begin, Linda first drops the bombshell that Steely Dan has asked her to join them. (More contemporary bias here with Linda’s musicianship constantly mocked, though in reverse fashion; Shipper often informs us how stellar a keyboard player and singer she is.) She’ll only go on the Wings tour if Paul credits her name above his! This though is her wakeup call; she wants Paul to admit he has been considering returning to the Beatles all along. He sees the light, and calls up the others…more anticlimactic stuff here with John himself already having decided to get back with the others. His musical career too has plummeted…no Imagine exists in this novel, and John’s totally lost his creative edge.
Curiously, we’re given the actual date the Beatles get back together: February 5, 1979. This was actually the future, so far as Shipper’s original ’77 publication was concerned. The reunion occurs at Ringo’s Los Angeles mansion and here, finally, Shipper is free to write an actual sort of novel, now that he doesn’t have to concern himself with detailing various “Beatle moments” to spoof. There’s a nice bit where the first day is just the friends getting back together, ie John, Paul, George and Ringo goofing off, as in the old days, and how this is the actual reunion for the Beatles themselves, not the “Beatles reunion” the fans have clammored for. But after this it’s down to the business of writing music for a new album. Only problem is, they’re all fresh out of ideas.
Many contemporary reviews claimed that this reunion section was likely an accurate prediction of what a Beatles reunion would be like – how the four would be unable to capture their early magic, how the ensuing album might be below expectations, a la the Byrds’s ridiculed (but unsung, dammit!) ’73 reunion LP. What these reviewers failed to mention was that in Shipper’s world the Beatles are at a creative nadir when they reunite in 1979. In reality, John Lennon was about to come out of his brief retirement with a wealth of new material, and Paul was about to again predict the musical future with McCartney II.
In Paperback Writer, John and Paul have to sit and labor over new music; this leads to a very effective scene where Paul tells John to stop worrying over rock perfection. The drive they had as kids in Hamburg is gone, will never return, because they achieved their dreams. Now there’s nothing left but to please themselves. Paul states that he’s known all along his solo songs are no good (again, this is Shipper talking – I love the majority of Paul’s solo output); “Silly Love Songs” in particular is mentioned as a song Paul wrote just to please himself, to feed his own creative drive. John is inspired by this…and then sits down to write a song about Gilligan’s Island. This sequence comes the closest of anything in Paperback Writer to capturing the acidic whit of Boy Wonder, and it’s a shame the rest of the novel isn’t up to the level.
We don’t get much detail on what the new songs sound like; in fact, Shipper never describes the actual music of the Beatles throughout the book, just mentioning the occasional lyrics. We do learn that George Harrison delivers “Disco Jesus,” which caters to his religious impulses as well as the hot new disco trend, and that John has one called “Please Freeze Me,” which is about his desire to be cryogenically preserved upon death. I found this very peculiar, and proof that Shipper knew his Beatles…it would appear that John’s fixation with death was noted even before his murder, or at least that Shipper noted it. Seriously, the guy was often mentioning death or dying, from his Beatles work to his solo output…even in interviews on the day of his actual death…and whether by accident or design Shipper managed to work this into his fictitious Beatles reunion album.
The album is titled Get Back and it’s produced by Phil Spector; it’s released in July of 1979, just in time for a national tour the Beatles have planned. It is a massive critical and commercial flop. Shipper doesn’t dwell too much on the Beatles’s disappointment over this; Paul just gives John another pep talk, reminding him of the discussion from a few months back in which he told John that feeding the creative drive is all that matters, and who cares what the critic or the fans think. However things get even worse – the album’s such a bomb that concert promoters will only take the Beatles if they take second billing to Peter Frampton. The Beatles even have to fight to get co-billing with…the Sex Pistols. We only get to see their first show, which takes place of course in Shea Stadium; the Beatles lose the crowd until they play the oldies, ie their very earliest hits.
John’s the one who sums it all up for us, as the Beatles recuperate backstage; their time as idols is long over. There follows another memorable moment, again played for laughs but having deeper connotations, when all four Beatles spring for cover at the rumble of what they think is an earthquake. However it’s just the fans out there reacting to the entrance of Peter Frampton. John here says let Frampton enjoy his moment, as it won’t last, either. And further, the fans haven’t reacted well to the Beatles reunion because they never really wanted the Beatles to reunite…they just wanted to go back to their youth, and looked to the Beatles as the symbol of their youth. The novel ends here, with the Beatles declaring that they’ll finish out their tour of America, but that’s it – the Beatles are officially over for good.
All of this is more so a commentary on the expectations Shipper and his generation placed on the Beatles, not so much what an actual reunion would’ve been like. Despite Shipper’s intentions to skewer all reunion expectations, it’s absurd to think that these four would together deliver something as miserable as Get Back is described. And I was born like over four years after the group broke up, thus I personally don’t in any way see them as the embodiment of my younger years – I just see them as the defining rock band of their era – so Shipper’s plot rings hollow forty-plus years on. People will probably still be playing the Beatles when mankind migrates to other planets.
It must’ve made for a bittersweet experience for the fans who read this book shortly after the Ace publication. Lennon’s murder casts a depressing shadow over the events of the final quarter, as obviously we’ll never know what a Beatles reunion would’ve really been like. I also wonder if Lennon’s murder is a reason the book so quickly dropped off the radar, receiving this Ace mass market edition and nothing further. More people should be aware of it, though, if nothing but for the irreverent mocking of the Beatles myth. But I still wouldn’t say it’s the greatest rock novel, and not even close.
Shipper too seems to have disappeared; he didn’t publish any more novels. In February 2007 Blog To Comm ran a feature on Shipper’s ‘70s rock fanzine Flash, and Shipper himself left a comment on the post, where he briefly mentions Paperback Writer, stating that he wrote it “to get known, [but] now I prefer not to be known.” If Shipper’s still around maybe he could reconsider, and at least epublish Paperback Writer so more people could have the opportunity to read it.