In 2014, responding to some stray thoughts that brought up memories of a small number of books that I had read more than once, borrowing and re-borrowing them from Didsbury Library, but which I hadn’t read again for at least twenty years, I began an occasional series about such books. Curious as to whether I might still find them appealing, for more reason than nostalgia for the times in which I enthused over them, I hunted the books down, finding them cheaply available on eBay and Amazon, thinking to blog about the experience.
The latest of these books is Mark Shipper’s Paperback Writer.
This 1978 novel is not a Didsbury Library book. Indeed, I never saw it anywhere in any library, though it was published in Britain in 1979: my original copy was the very first American import I ever owned, and was bought from the main bookstore in Nottingham (whose name I can no longer recall) that summer, some eight or nine months after reading a review in the New Musical Express that made me desperately want to read it: enough so that I paid the slightly-inflated cost of buying an import book, despite money being perennially tight when I was in my Articles.
As you may have guessed from the title, it’s about The Beatles. It’s about their history from 1961 in Hamburg through to their unsuccessful comeback album and tour (supporting Peter Frampton) in 1979. But as we all know, there was no such comeback, not in 1979 nor, after December 1980, would there ever be one.
Shipper was a rock writer, founder of the well-regarded American fanzine, Flash, and a writer for Phonograph Record Magazine, which doesn’t sound a very hip publication, but who gave him the ‘creative freedom’ to write Paperback Writer. After which, and one further book, he apparently dropped out of sight, and his continued existence was last noted in 2008.
The novel takes the known framework of the Beatles’ career and does interesting, nasty things to it. We’re forewarned by the sub-title, 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, but it’s the blurb to the author photo that says it best: “In an exclusive interview for this book, Ringo Starr tells the entire Beatles story to author Mark Shipper (right). Shipper then proceeds to lose his notes on the way home, forcing him to make up his own version of the story.”
I remember finding the book incredibly funny, exploding into raucous laughter at nearly all the jokes, though in time the laughter faded and, several years later, I moved the book on. Reading it again in 2016, I chuckled at a very early gag: the book’s first conceit was that the Beatles were a quartet of leather-jacketed Teddy Boys whilst Paul McCartney was a prim, well-dressed singer with a solo album out on a Liverpool-based able, leading to conflict and opposition between the two sides until they decide to join forces. McCartney joins the band in Hamburg, the scene being described by bartender Hans Daun – but the extract is thirty lines of untranslated German!
That one was still funny, though nowhere near as funny as the absurdity of it in 1979. As for the rest of the book, it’s heaped up and overspilling gags of all kind, it’s pointed fracturing of the Beatles story? Not a giggle, nor even a titter. I didn’t have to go deep into the book to recognise that there was no going back to the mindset with which I’d enjoyed this so thoroughly in the hot, lonely summer of that year.
To give an example of how Shipper bends the story, apart from the McCartney gag (complete with made-up cover for this extremely rare LP) already mentioned, in Shipper’s universe, Brian Epstein was not manager of a local record shop but, instead, a plumber. In that capacity, he’s called to the Cavern Club to fix blocked toilets whilst The Beatles are playing. In the Ladies, he finds a wild, debauched scene with underage teenage girls fixing each other up with heroin: if the Beatles inspire this kind of response, he wants in. And it’s better than plumbing.
This of course leads to running jokes about Epstein’s continuing negotiation skills being supplemented by fixing record company bosses’ grandmothers’ leaking taps.
Everywhere we turn, the book is salted with twists on the true sequence of events. Shipper salts the everyday story with future events: George Harrison’s religious beliefs play their part behind the scenes far earlier than expected, especially in the infamous incident when Lennon claimed the Beatles were now bigger than Jesus. Yoko is thrown into the story far earlier than she actually appears, as Mick Jagger’s girlfriend, leading to a completely different take upon why Lennon provided the Stones with ‘I wanna be your Man’ for their second single, and considerably different lyrics.
It’s a tangled mess of a tale, funny in its initial impact, but whereas Terry Pratchett can be repetitively funny, the same jokes causing laughter time and again, whenever a book is read anew, Shipper’s stuff doesn’t make it past the first moment of introduction.
Nevertheless, I continued to the end, to the totally fictitious section, about the comeback. This is the best part of the book because this is the part that’s allowed to get serious, underneath the continuing humour.
Shipper leads in with the preposterous notion that Linda McCartney was a great musician and got an offer to join Steely Dan. Paul thinks of this as a betrayal but her counter offer – lead billing, Linda McCartney and Wings – is met with flat refusal: Lennon would never let me live it down. That’s the key to it, broken up for nine years or not, Paul McCartney is still a Beatle. He always will be. They all will. Sooner or later, they’ll get back together, not just because their solo careers are either shit or meaningless, but because each of them has only three other people in the world who understands what is was like, like it meant to go through the greatest phenomenon of all time.
It’s a moment when Shipper dives deep below the banality of what he’s doing, and identifies something about the most famous band of all time that we all of us never considered.
The joke is, naturally, that the comeback is a disaster. Individually, Lennon, McCartney and Harrison can’t write decent songs any more (Starr never could) and together the magic doesn’t come back. The album, the comeback, commands the highest advances in history – until anyone hears the music. And suddenly the Beatles can only get a gig if they agree to support… Peter Frampton. With the Sex Pistols as co-second lead.
Even live, the band can’t get anywhere until they do the really old oldies, those first songs, the ‘She Loves You’s and ‘I want to hold your hand’s. The embarrassing ones, the ones they hate for over exposure.
It’s Lennon, aptly, who defines it: they’re Bill Haley. Bill Haley’s the prisoner of ‘Rock Around The Clock’. He can’t play anything else because nobody wants to hear anything else. For years,the fans wanted the Beatles back, but it wasn’t really the Beatles they wanted to return, it was their own pasts, to each and every one of which the Beatles had been the soundtrack. It didn’t matter how stupid it was to listen to a forty year old man going on about wanting to hold a girl’s hand, it took them back to when holding her hand was a significant step forward. The Beatles were prisoners of everybody’s past, not just in Shipper’s horrifying perceptions, but in real life too.
Would it have been so had a Beatles reunion come in real life? We’ll never know. Already, when this book was written, the window of opportunity in which that might have happened had narrowed far more tightly than anyone of us would have imagined before that dark December morning and the news that broke over our breakfast tables. But in those closing chapters, Shipper gets into our heads and hearts in a way that makes me wonder, and wonder hard.
Only in this area does the book survive, does it become worth reading. The humour”s banal and it hasn’t traveled well down the decades, not least in that in 1979, it was still transgressive to have the Beatles dismissed as a joke. Or is it my sense of humour that’s changed over nearly forty years? I’ve evidence to prove that it hasn’t, but who really knows?
So this is going back in the resell pile, whilst I ponder what would it have been like if they’d come together again, and really played that concert of all the oldies and I had the chance to see and hear myself…