originally published January 27, 2014
It was a cold November night in 1966 – or maybe it was January of ‘67, depending on whose account you choose to believe – when a car crash fatality forever changed the course of popular music.
Or did it?
Okay, there’s no real mystery here. The reality is that there was no car crash, or if there was, the bass player and co-creative force of the greatest band in the history of recorded music was most certainly not decapitated. But there was a time when legitimate news outlets needed to point this out to an apprehensive world. And not only was there no fatal wreck, but that band didn’t surgically alter a look-alike to carry on in the artist’s place, fooling throngs of adulating fans for the ensuing 40+ years.
It was a hoax. Perhaps the most entertaining hoax our media has seen outside of a work of fiction, because the so-called evidence supporting it as truth had been seeping into the public’s eyes and ears all this time and no one had noticed. Photos and music that had not only become fully integrated with popular culture, but had come to define the very zeitgeist of the era. Album covers that were iconic upon arrival, songs that hundreds of millions could sing by heart.
And even once the dust of speculation had been billowed away by a cool gust of truth, that evidence remains as a perpetual quirk.
On September 17, 1969, the above article appeared in the student newspaper at Drake University in Iowa. It speculates that Paul McCartney was indeed dead, that the Beatles had cleverly sprinkled clues throughout their music and album packaging, and states that these concerns were spreading rampantly around the campus gossip vine. Three and a half weeks later, Detroit radio DJ Russ Gibb was discussing the rumor over an hour’s worth of airtime, his listeners calling in to pick apart the clues. This continued at various American stations for another couple of weeks before Derek Taylor, press officer for the Beatles and their Apple Records label, issued a statement that insisted that the Paul McCartney in the band today was the same guy who’d been in the band three years earlier.
The whole thing was a little weird. And it was a complete joke. When famed lawyer F. Lee Bailey was about to do an hour-long TV speculation show about the rumor, his main source, University of Michigan student Fred LaBour, confided that none of it was true. Bailey, who was probably thinking of the ten thousand better ways he could be spending his time at that moment, told him to just go along with it.
Musicians began recording tribute songs to the fallen Beatle: a group named Mystery Tour recorded “The Ballad of Paul”, while Billy Shears and the All Americans released “Brother Paul”. Even Jose Feliciano (under the pseudonym Werbley Finster) put out a song called “So Long Paul.” It was a strange time to be a Beatles fan, and even a stranger time to be Paul McCartney. Or it would have been, had he noticed. The November 7, 1969 edition of Life Magazine finally pried him out of his seclusion so that Paul himself could plunk down a vote for his continued existence.
This was the main reason the Paul-Is-Dead rumor was allowed to bubble over for two months: while newspapers were publishing stories about orphan William Campbell winning a McCartney look-alike contest, then getting his voice altered to sound like the star so that the band could continue, the actual Paul McCartney was secluded in his Scottish farmhouse with his wife, Linda, and their two girls. The band was on the verge of breaking up, and he was pouring his days onto his four-track machine, playing all the instruments for what would become McCartney, his first solo album. Had he been in London to respond immediately to this weirdness, it might not have festered.
So why would anyone buy into this? Gullibility? Quality 60’s-era drugs? A bit of both, mainly – but the reality is, it’s fun to speculate. I suspect an overwhelming majority remained unswayed by this little rumor. But once you start digging into the clues, it’s easy to see how an imagination could get poked into motion. The above photo is from the front cover of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, which would have been the first post-McCartney release. Holding a mirror to the kick drum reveals the hidden message ‘1 ONE 1 X HE DIE’. The ‘1’s represent November, when the crash allegedly occurred. The ‘X’ is Paul being crossed out, and the diamond in between ‘HE’ and ‘DIE’ points right at Paul. Heck, look at the entire album cover:
Those yellow flowers might be a guitar shape, but if you bend your mind a little it might be letters that spell ‘PAUL?’. The statue of the four-armed Hindu goddess Kali in the bottom center is pointing up at Paul, with two hands aimed at the ground. And doesn’t the entire thing look like a funeral to begin with?
That hand over Paul’s head – raised hands are apparently a religious symbol of death. Forget that comedian Issy Bonn just happened to be in that pose – it’s a clue, man. Another photo on the back cover features the three other Beatles facing forward while Paul is backward. Seems like a logical conclusion that the guy must be dead, right?
Then there’s Abbey Road:
The cover signifies the funeral procession: John as the priest or aspiring messiah, Ringo as the undertaker, Paul as the body (barefoot – apparently people are buried barefoot… right? Oh, and he’s holding a cigarette in his right hand, even though Paul is a lefty), and George as the gravedigger. Then there’s the license plate on the white VW Beetle:
LMW28IF – that stands for ‘Lennon-McCartney Would (have been) 28 IF (Paul was still alive). Creepy, hey? Except that Paul would have been 29 when that photo was taken, and the ‘I’ is actually a number ‘1’.
That’s okay, there are plenty of clues in the music.
Listen close to the very end of “Strawberry Fields Forever” – John clearly says “I buried Paul.” Except that he doesn’t – he says “Cranberry sauce.” Why? John was a little strange, that’s why. What about when John sings “He blew his mind out in a car” in “A Day In The Life”? That was either about Guinness beer heir Tara Browne, who had died in a car crash in December of 1966 or else it was simply about a guy too stoned to notice when the traffic lights changed.
There are clues all over their music, far too many for me to list here. The big ones can be found when you play their music backwards – the crescendo of “Paul is dead, miss him miss him miss him” on side 2 of the White Album and the way that “number nine” – which is uttered several times throughout the sound montage of “Revolution 9” – sounds like “turn me on, dead man” backwards. I’ve heard both of these, and sure, they kind of sound like it. But as with any backmasking, you’ve got to stretch your ears to hear it.
And in the end, the Paul McCartney I finally got to see in concert in November of 2012 is most certainly the same guy who rocked the walls of Liverpool’s Cavern club into a pulsating sweat some fifty years earlier. But as far as phony hoaxes go, this one still gives me a laugh.