Paperback Writer: The Life and Times of the Beatles, the Spurious Chronicle of Their Rise to Stardom, Their Triumphs and Disasters, Plus the Amazing Story of Their Ultimate Reunion (Mark Shipper, 1978)
Today, I'd like to shine a little light on one of the great lost rock & roll books of all time; Mark Shipper’s Paperback Writer, an off-the-wall satire of the Beatles group history and their reunion (which sadly never happened). Released just before Eric Idle's popular mockumentary, The Rutles, this book's biting satiric tone most probably made its publisher describe it as a novel in order to circumvent any legal action.
Sadly, this book is currently out of print but used paperback copies can be found on various sites such as Amazon for a reasonable price. When reading this cool book, keep in mind that Paperback Writer was written in 1978, well before the deaths of John Lennon and Linda McCartney (Shipper pokes fun at both of them).
Here's a synopsis from the Abandoned and Heartbroke blog: "Even before John Lennon's demise it seemed a new Beatles book was published about every two weeks, and Paperback Writer was in some ways a response to that glut. It is a blissfully funny parody; a fictionalized madhouse version of the Beatles story (the premise being that author Shipper interviewed Ringo Star, lost his notes on the way home and decided to make the whole thing up), and it skewers not only the stifling worship fans have laid on the band but the Beatles themselves. The last quarter of the novel has to do with a fictional Beatles reunion, and it's where Shipper's teeth start to sink in longer. Having failed on their own (especially John and Yoko's ill-fated team-up with Sonny and Cher, The Plastic Bono Band), the Fab Four reluctantly and under great pressure return to the recording studio to re-create their magic. Unfortunately, time has taken its toll, and the Beatles are reduced to a spate of uninspired and hilariously terrible songs, such as George's Disco Jesus and John's paen to Gilligan’s Island: 'Bob Denver, Jim Backus, each day they attack us, with laughter, fun and mirth.' Their much-anticipated tour is a disaster, as their new material meets with stony silence and righteous anger. Frustrated, the Beatles end their ban on older material, and the moment they hit the first chord of one of their early hits, the crowd goes wild, and all is forgiven. Later, exhilarated but puzzled, the band struggles to understand why fans wanted a reunion, when all they really wanted was the Beatles of old, exactly as they were. 'I guess,' McCartney said as he took his wife’s hand, 'it’s because you can’t live in someone’s past and live in their future, too.'"
Here's more info on the book from the rockcritics.com site: "This 'spurious' re-telling of the Fab Four’s story (it’s in fact classified as a novel) is both factually absurd and emotionally honest. For as silly and as nasty and as far-fetched as Shipper’s telling of the Beatles story gets, you never doubt for a second that he’s writing it from the inside–that is, as a huge fan of the group, as someone whose life was transported by their music, as someone who completely gets it. He chops away at so many pretensions that are part of the Beatles mythology, but it’s not a hatchet job–though it is vicious, in spots–and you feel throughout that he’s poking as much fun at himself and at other critics and at the rest of the Beatles audience as he is at the four members of the group themselves. I love how he twists details from the actual Beatles story way out of proportion–like the way A Hard Day’s Night is played as a Bergmanesque meditation with the lads spending the duration of the film in a library. Even with all of Shipper’s ersatz albums and historical mangling, the book is a very accurate critique of the Beatles’ real-life strengths and weaknesses, especially as the latter attribute manifested itself in much of their solo work. At the time I reviewed PW, John Lennon was of course still with us, which meant that a Beatles reunion was technically possible though highly unlikely. And I think some of us who wrote about music then really didn’t want to see that reunion happen, both because the Beatles would be hard-pressed to recapture their ’60s magic, and because the reunion would be taken as vindication by all the Classic-Rock businessmen, from RS’s Jann Wenner to Cincinnati’s WEBN-FM, which was playing tripe like the Eagles and Elton John and presenting them as the legit heirs of the Beatles. In 1978, I wanted the newer artists–the Ramones, Blondie, Elvis Costello et.al. –to take over the scene, and if that meant that the scattered Beatles should stay out of the way, so be it. I don’t think Mark Shipper was as dialectical about the punk revolt as I was, and yet the conclusion of his Paperback Writer is a bittersweet prediction of the inevitable disappointments inherent in a Beatles reunion. Beneath the radar flashes of his jokes, Shipper was warning all of us not to pin too many hopes on such a tenuous prospect."
Also, from the rockcritics site is this excerpt from an interview William Crain did with former Rolling Stone magazine journalist, John Morthland about Mark Shipper and Paperback Writer: "This is one of the things I've been thinking about since we talked last time and you asked me about really good writers early on that no one's heard of now. The thing is there were some, many I still can't remember the names of now, but a lot of them went on to other stuff as a conscious decision. And he was one of them; I believe he (Shipper) works at an Ad Agency. At that time, he did a certain amount of writing for the rock press, mainly for the sort of off the wall press like Creem and a magazine at that time called Phonograph Record Magazine that was a lot more wide open than something like Rolling Stone. And he wrote at places like that for some time but I don't think he ever aspired to be a professional writer. I could be wrong. When Paperback Writer came out there was absolutely nothing like it at the time, the idea that you could make up the whole history of a band was really great. I think it was eventually picked up by a publisher, but I know he published it himself first. And certainly, within the more rambunctious school of rock writers that book was really a legend, and really cool and just a great idea. And actually no one's really done it since, with another band. Lester Bangs started to do it with the Stones and he gave it up. I've read some of it and you know, it's hard once you've read Paperback Writer, it’s hard to read anything else like that, he did it first and he did it as good as it can be done. It's a really amazing piece of work."
Final thoughts: Mark Shipper's Paperback Writer is an essential rock & roll book because it's a madcap satire of Rock Mythology in so many ways. I've always considered that one of rock & roll's most essential qualities is humor and this book proves that in a most brilliant way.