"Paul Is Dead": Inside music's weirdest hoax
24 November 2019, 22:00 | Updated: 12 October 2020, 16:10
Over 50 years after rumours circulated that Paul McCartney had died and been replaced by a lookalike, Radio X looks at the strange story...
On 12 October 1969, a listener rang in to Russ Gibb's show on the radio station WKNR in Detroit with an intriguing piece of information. They claimed that if Gibb were to play The Beatles' avant-garde sound collage Revolution 9 backwards, they would hear the message "Turn me on dead man". It was supposefly a reference to Paul McCartney, who had reportedly died two years earlier and had been replaced by a look-alike.
Since then, the man who appeared to be "Beatle Paul" was an imposter - and the other three Beatles were trying to bring the scam to the attention of the world via a series of clues hidden within album artwork and buried deep within the grooves of their recent recordings.
"The whole thing just exploded," Gibb recalled. "The phones were ringing off the hook. People were calling with their own clues. It was non-stop."It was really a phenomenon. For a while, it seemed like it might really be true."
The "Paul Is Dead" rumour is one of the most curious examples of a conspiracy theory (or mass hysteria, depending on your point of view) to emerge from rock music. Like the old idea that metal bands hide subliminal messages on their songs, the idea that evil record companies are trying to pull a fast one on the innocent fans is an enduring fantasy.
But how did the rumour start and who was responsible?
The "Paul Is Dead" hoax had its roots in a rumour that first circulated in January 1967. The Beatles Book, the Fab Four's official fan magazine noted that 7 January of that year had seen some treacherous weather on the roads and went on to say: "Towards the end of the day, a rumour swept London that Paul McCartney had been killed in a car crash on the M1. But of course, there was absolutely no truth in it at all."
However, the story wouldn't go away. Two years later, on 17 September 1969, a student newspaper, the Drake Times-Delphic, published a story entitled: "Is Beatle Paul McCartney Dead?". The feature was written by 19-year-old Tim Harper, who claimed he didn't even own a Beatles record, but had gathered information on the conspiracy from other students.
"Lately on campus, there has been much conjecturing on the present state of Beatle Paul McCartney. An amazing series of photos and lyrics on the group's albums point to a distinct possibility that McCartney may indeed be insane, freaked out or even dead.
Harper went on to list some of the giveaway "clues" that "proved" that the bassist had passed away:
- On the sleeve of Sgt Pepper, a mysterious hand is held over the head of McCartney, which "many believe is an ancient death symbol of either the Greeks or the American Indians".
A left handed guitar lies on the "grave" at the group's feet. Does it spell out the word "PAUL?"
On the back cover of Sgt Pepper, McCartney has his back to the camera and George Harrison's thumb is pointing to the lyric "Wednesday morning at five o'clock" - apparently the time that Paul met his maker.
On the gatefold photo in the centre of the Sgt Pepper album, Paul is wearing a BLACK armband
The piece also claims that if a fan rings a "certain English phone number" at 5am on any Wednesday and claims they know the secret to the mystery, they will WIN the Beatles' private island in the Mediterranean.
Wow. It's important to put the rumour into context. 1969 was the year that the "counter-culture" really hit its stride. The month before the story was published, hundreds of thousands of young people had gathered at Woodstock to preach peace in response to the ongoing war in Vietnam. Around the same time, the Isle Of Wight festival was taking place in the UK. Mistrust of the establishment was rife and in the pre-internet days, confirming news was always a slow process.
The rumours continued into October 1969, leading Apple Records press officer Derek Taylor to convey a statement from Paul himself on the 10th: "I am alive and well".
It didn't help. Two days later, Russ Gibb received that fatefull call from a listener, who explained the "clues" at length and prompted more discussion. This, in turn, prompted the reviewer Fred LaBour to write a review of The Beatles' new album Abbey Road for The Michigan Daily on 14 October, which was quite fanciful and more than a little satirical. Accusing McCartney of losing his songwriting mojo, he titled the review: "McCartney Dead: New Evidence Brought To Light"
LaBour nailed some of the key facts in the "Paul Is Dead" rumour - having made a lot of them up himself. They were:
- Paul died in a car accident after leaving a Beatles session in November 1966 while preparing the band's new album "Smile" and ended up decapitated by the smash.
- The details of Paul's horrific demise was the be kept from the public, but that John Lennon had decided to let the truth out via a series of cryptic clues on The Beatles' recordings and album covers.
- A man called William Campbell would be drafted in to "play" Paul on future Beatles records. He was given plastic surgery, but you can see what the real Campbell in a photo on the poster given away with the White Album.
The colour photo of Paul shows scars on his upper lip, where the surgery was done (actually from a motorbike accident he'd had in the Spring of 1966. If you watch the video for Paperback Writer, you can see his knackered teeth).
Alongside this, there are numerous clues on Beatles album covers and tracks to reveal the truth, including...
- On the black armband seen on the Sgt Pepper cover are the letters "O.P.D." - which means "Officially Pronounced Dead" (it actually is a badge from the "Ontario Provincial Police".
- At the end of Strawberry Fields Forever, John Lennon cried "I buried Paul" (he actually says "Cranberry sauce").
- If you play the ending of I'm So Tired backwards, you hear the muttered words "Paul is Dead man, miss him, miss him, miss him".
- On the cover of Abbey Road, Paul is wearing no shoes as he is a corpse, while John represents God, Ringo is the undertaker and George is a gravedigger. The article also claims that the four have just walked out of a "cemetery" (it's a residential block in real life).
- "Octopus's Garden" is "British Navy slang" for a graveyard.
The article ends with the tongue-in-cheek insistence that "The Beatles are building a mighty church, and when you emerge from it, you will be laughing, for Paul is the Sun Of God."
The editor of the paper notes that "Mr LaBour says it's all true."
Despite this deliberately ridiculous feature, the rumour kept circulating and extra "clues" were found:
- The license plate of the Volkswagen Beetle on the cover of Abbey Road says "28IF" meaning Paul would have been 28 IF he'd survived - he'd actually just turned 27 in June 1969.
- There's a shadow that looks like a skull on the back cover of Abbey Road. Or, if you like, there are dots on the wall that appear to spell out "3" as in "3 BEATLES", yeah?
- If you turn the cover of Magical Mystery Tour upside down, the letters BEATLES spell out the number 5371438 - which is the London number that will allow you to win The Beatles' Mediterranean island.
- Also on the Magical Mystery Tour cover, three Beatles wear red roses on their suits, while Paul's is BLACK.
- If you play the "Number Nine..." bit from Revolution 9 on the White Album backwards, you can clearly hear "TURN ME ON, DEAD MAN"
The truth behind the Paul Is Dead rumour
Of course Paul McCartney didn't die in 1966 - he was booked to play Glastonbury in 2020 and has fathered four children and is step-dad to a fifth! But it was true that in the autumn of 1969, it appeared that he'd "disappeared".
In fact, unknown to the world at large, The Beatles had secretly split. Just before the release of Abbey Road on 26 September 1969, John Lennon had performed a live show in Toronto with Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton and others. This was the catalyst for him to call time on The Beatles. However, due to contract negotiations with their label EMI, it was all kept quiet.
For McCartney, it meant he had to start thinking about his own future. He retreated to his farm in Scotland with new wife Linda, stepdaughter Heather and new baby Mary and kept his head down. He later admitted he went through a period of depression over the end of The Beatles, but was soon back writing his first solo album.
Life magazine caught up with Macca in November 1969 and asked him to put the "Paul is Dead" rumours to rest. The weary ex-Beatle had his photo taken with hid family on the Scottish farm and told the reporter: "I have done enough press for a lifetime, and I don't have anything to say these days. I am happy to be with my family and I will work when I work."
In later years, McCartney had fun with the rumour - his 1993 concert album Paul Is Live featured a cover that seemed to take the piss out of the whole hoax. He explained in June 2019: "I know all the rumours… because I was being asked about them! There would literally be someone ringing up to ask, ‘Are you dead?’ I said, ‘Well, no. I’m answering this phone call!’ And the reply would be, ‘Well, I can’t be sure it’s you’. So, then you actually do get a bit paranoid about yourself."
And Paul's explanation for the whole conspiracy theory? "People may have taken too many drugs and started looking for answers in all the wrong places!"