Examining the Creation of ‘Paperback Writer’: The Flow of Ideas and Knowledge Between Contributing Creative Systems
Phillip McIntyre & Paul Thompson
I’ve been following both Phillip and Paul’s work for many years; it’s good to see them working together on another paper (here’s a previous one about the Mellotron). Add in the study of songwriters’ creative processes, and this was a must-see paper for me. (Though TBH they had me at Paperback Writer).
From a creative systems view nothing exists in isolation (McIntyre, Fulton & Paton 2016). Consequently, a system such as a system of recording can sometimes appear to operate independently with well-defined boundaries, but it still depends upon other systems (Skyttner 2006, p. 38). There are then multilayered systems within systems in which: ‘a system in one perspective is a subsystem in another. But the system view always treats systems as integrated wholes of their subsidiary components’ (Laszlo 1972, p. 14). This interconnectedness of systems has been illustrated by Arthur Koestler (1975) using the terms ‘holon’ and ‘holarchy’ in which a holon is an aspect of systems that is both a part of something at one scale and, at the same time and at another scale, is itself a whole system. A holarchy is the multilayered heirarchy of these holons. Inside this nested world, system within system, one system is no more or less important than the others operating above or below it. Not only are systems part of these vertically arranged holarchies but they are also often connected horizontally through complex networks of many other similar systems. For example, the system of audio engineering has deep connections horizontally to the system of producing and the system of musicianship. These holons are linked vertically to the broader system of popular record production and at a different scale to the system of western music. This paper explores the scalabilty of creative systems by examining the recording and production of the Beatles’ ‘Paperback Writer’ (1966). It examines Paperback Writer’s production at the various scales of creative action, exposing some of the creative processes on an individual level and the sharing of ideas and knowledge between the creative group within Studio Three of EMI’s Abbey Road studio. The flow of ideas back and forth between the various contributing vertically and horizontally interconnected systems is also studied to gain a more comprehensive perspective on the creative systems that contribute to the song’s production.
We now look at Paperback writer through a scalable systems lens [JB note – all Csikszentmihalyi-based systems require three elements – individual, field and domain. In songwriting, these are, respectively, the songwriter, the music market, and the repertoire].
[In each of the three-way Venn diagrams of field, domain and individual we see Paperback Writer in the centre.]
The history of Paperback Writer is outlined. The inspiration for the song was ‘let’s write a song about a book’ which McCartney adapted to the theme of a letter about a book (“Dear sir or madam…”). This theme became the ‘script’ for the song, which was written before the studio session. The existing lyric and melody then became the script for the studio arrangement, and Phillip discusses the barre-chord origin of the riff, noting that it’s not the kind of riff you’d write on the piano. The affordances of the guitar make for a riff that is, in ergonomic terms at least, less complex than it sounds.
The systems model is next applied to the ‘Creative Collective’ – the band in the studio and the Abbey Road production team. The vocal, Phillip notes, sounds double-tracked but this is actually deliberate speaker spillage. The bass cabinet was mic’d with a speaker, which was turned into a transducer; Geoff Emerick had the idea and Abbey Road’s Ken Thompson did the electrical work to rewire the speaker as a microphone. These are examples of the contribution of the creative team to the sound of the recording.
We now move up a level to an ‘institutional’ systems model – that is, Abbey Road itself. It’s a culture of cups of tea, engineers in white coats, suits and ties in the boardroom, and gold discs on the wall. Phillip notes the relationship between the commercial imperatives of the business model and the studio creative process.
The ‘cultural’ system level is of course the 1960s music scene, and we hear references to the influence on McCartney’s bass playing (and ‘big’ bass sound) of contemporaries like James Jamerson and Carol Kaye. A number of contemporaneous records are cited, including Keep On Runnin’, Hold On I’m Coming, and Dedicated Follower of Fashion. The sociocultural milieu includes the 1960s fashion scene, the Vietnam war, and the ubiquity of the paperback book as a consumer product. Popular Music, Society and Culture are the systemic elements here.