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Rumors of Paul McCartney’s death began to circulate in 1969, a time when the strained relationships among the Beatles were becoming public knowledge. Written versions of this story first appeared in college newspapers in the fall of 1969, but the precise origin of the rumor is unknown. The story caught fire with the public when it was broadcast by a radio station in Detroit. Russell Gibb, a disc jockey for WKNR-FM, received a strange phone call from someone who identified himself only as Tom. The caller told Gibb that Paul McCartney had died in 1966 and was then replaced by a lookalike. The Beatles had subsequently left clues on their albums about this deception. The caller claimed that the cover photo of Abbey Road, the Beatles’ most recent release at the time, represented a funeral procession with John as the minister, Ringo the undertaker, Paul the corpse, and George the gravedigger. Other Beatles album covers also contained clues, the caller claimed, and a few Beatles songs contained clues about Paul’s death—including some that could only be deciphered when the records were played backwards! Gibb related the rumor of Paul’s death on the air, which brought a strong reaction from listeners and the story spread rapidly after that.
The rumor became so widespread that Life magazine sent a crew to Scotland to track Paul down and take a photo of him. Paul had taken refuge from the Beatles’ legal battles at his farm in Scotland and he was not at all happy to be confronted by reporters. When the crew from Life magazine appeared on his farm, Paul became angry and doused the photographer with a bucket of water as he took pictures. The reporters quickly left and Paul, realizing that the photos would cast him in a negative light, followed after them. In exchange for the film of his outburst, Paul agreed to let the Life crew do an interview. The resulting article, which went into some detail about the supposed clues to Paul’s “death”, appeared as the cover story for the November 7, 1969, issue.
About the same time, a fan magazine appeared that reinforced many of the stranger elements of the “Paul is dead” rumor. A sloppy account rushed to newsstands to take advantage of the public fascination with the story, Paul McCartney Dead: The Great Hoax went into some detail in presenting the story of Paul’s “death.”
The story was that Paul McCartney had died in a car accident at 5:00 a.m. on Wednesday, November 9, 1966. Paul McCartney Dead: The Great Hoax suggested that Paul had picked up a female hitchhiker on his way to visit friends. The woman became so excited when she realized who had picked her up that she threw her arms around Paul and caused him to lose control of the car. Both Paul and his passenger were killed when the car swerved off the road and hit a stone fence. And here’s where the story takes a turn toward the ludicrous—Paul was decapitated in the accident and the trauma to his head was so severe that even his dental records were useless in identifying the victim! Not wanting to lose potential record sales, record company executives suppressed the story of Paul’s death and brought in a lookalike to replace him. For some reason (this is the part where you have to suspend disbelief) the surviving Beatles agreed to go along with this scheme, but they left clues on all of their subsequent albums about Paul’s death and the imposter who took his place. Paul’s stand-in was a man named William Campbell, who had won a Paul McCartney lookalike contest. With a little plastic surgery, William Campbell had taken Paul’s place in photos of the group. The surgery had been successful except for a small scar above his lip. And, as luck would have it, William Campbell could also sing and just happened to be a songwriter with an exceptional ear for pop melodies. Of course, Paul wasn’t really dead, as he explained in a statement accompanying the Life article (and several years later to Chris Farley on “Saturday Night Live”),
Paul McCartney with Chris Far.ey on Saturday night Live
but that didn’t stop fans from poring over the Beatles’ albums for “clues” to Paul’s untimely demise. Many of the supposed clues to Paul’s death are simply vague references to death. Other clues are pictures of the Beatles that show Paul in a manner that is different from the other Beatles in some way, especially involving the colors red (blood) or black (death). Most of the “Paul is dead” clues are simply the product of an obsessive search for significance, but a few are genuinely chilling. The Beatles all denied that they had perpetrated a hoax and insisted that none of the “clues” about Paul’s supposed death had any significance whatsoever. According to Ringo, “It’s all a load of crap.” When asked if he had intentionally placed any of the clues, John denied it in similar terms, “No. That was bullshit, the whole thing was made up.” Lennon Remembers (New York: Popular Library, 1971), p. 97.
When Detroit DJ Russ Gibb spoke on the air about Paul McCartney’s rumored death, the story had already been circulating on college campuses for some time. Rolling Stone reported that someone had approached the magazine with a list of clues that Paul McCartney was dead in the fall of 1968. Rolling Stone dismissed the story at the time because “the trouble with his death cry was that too many people had seen Paul alive and it was the same old Paul…” But the rumor persisted and led at least a few inquisitive people to examine their Beatles albums and begin playing their records backwards.
Illinois University’s student newspaper, the Northern Star, ran an article in the September 23, 1969, edition entitled “Clues Hint at Possible Beatle Death”. The earliest piece, however, was by Tim Harper, whose article appeared in the college newspaper of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 17, 1969. Once the rumor became widespread Harper achieved some notoriety for being the first to put all of the clues together. The Des Moines Register reported that Harper had been paid for interviews in several states and that WLS-TV in Chicago had even chartered a private plane for him so that he could appear on their morning talk show. And he didn’t even own any of the Beatles’ albums! Des Moines Register (Oct. 23, 1969), p. 1. “It was just a joke,” he said. “I was the first one to put it all together. I knew when I wrote the story that it wasn’t true.” Chicago Sun-Times (Oct. 23, 1969), p. 3. Perhaps the article that did the most to propel the “Paul is dead” rumor was one written by a University of Michigan student named Frad LaBour. LaBour’s article appeared in the October 14, 1969, edition of the Michigan Daily, the University of Michigan’s newspaper, just two days after Tom’s call to Russ Gibb. Set with the task of writing a review of Abbey Road, LaBour wrote a tongue-in-cheek obituary of the Beatles. Even though it was not the first article about Paul’s rumored death, LaBour’s article in the was important because it fleshed out several aspects of the story. Many of the elements of the rumor that have been repeated countless times were products of LaBour’s imagination. He created the identity of Paul’s replacement, William Campbell, and he asserted the walrus was an image of death, stating “‘Walrus’ is greek for corpse.” Michigan Daily (Oct. 14, 1969), p.2, and reprinted in Andru Reeve’s book.
Actually rumors of Paul’s death were nothing new. A version of the “Paul is dead” rumor had existed in the UK at least as early as 1967. Paul had been involved in an accident in 1966 but he had sustained only minor injuries. Much like the rumors about Bob Dylan’s death followed his motorcycle accident, Paul was the subject of the same sort of speculation. J. Marks, writing in the New York Times, recounted that he and Linda Eastman, who had yet to meet Paul, had just finished working on a book together. Linda wondered aloud how she might meet Paul and then heard that Paul was dead and had been replaced by a double. Linda apparently was undeterred from meeting Paul and they were married within two years. When Linda and Paul married in March of 1969, J. Marks congratulated Paul with the message “Congratulations whoever you are!” New York Times, November 2, 1969, p. 13 (section II).
Andru Reeve points to a record by Terry Knight as being important in starting the rumor that Paul McCartney had died. Knight was a radio personality in Detroit who formed a band called The Pack and later began performing solo. In early 1969 Knight went to London hoping to join Apple records but the trip proved unsuccessful. Detroit Free Press (May 2, 1969), p. 5C. Knight found that the Beatles were fighting among themselves. Just after he returned to Detroit the Beatles hired Allen Klein to represent them against Paul’s wishes. As a result of his experiences with the Beatles, Knight recorded a song about Paul McCartney entitled “Saint Paul,” which was released in May of 1969. This song laments the Beatles’ troubles but clearly identifies with Paul McCartney. Knight evidently was aware that the Beatles were disintegrating, as in “You knew it all along/Something had gone wrong/They couldn’t hear your song” and “Sir Isaac Newton said it had to fall.” Those looking for evidence that Paul McCartney had died interpreted these lines as referring to Paul himself.
Yes, the whole “Paul is dead” rumor was absurd, so why did it create such a stir? It may have had something to do with the public’s growing awareness that all was not well with the Beatles. It explained why the Beatles had stopped touring (their final concert had been in San Francisco on August 29, 1966), why their music and appearance had changed so dramatically in the late-1960s, and why the Beatles seemed to be drifting apart. In his statement in Life magazine Paul declared that he wanted “to go on making good music. But the Beatle thing is over. It has been exploded by what we have done and partly by other people.”
Perhaps the antiestablishment sentiment of the time kept the rumor going. The rumor was initially told through alternative media at a time when mistrust for the “establishment” was high among young people. Deciphering the clues made fans feel as though they were in on the joke with the Beatles and, as a Chicago disk jockey put it,”The kids are enjoying the mysterious flavor of the rumor.” Chicago Sun-Times, October 21, 1969, p. 1.” According to Ralph L. Rosnow and Gary Alan Fine, who wrote Rumor and Gossip: The Social Psychology of Hearsay, the Life article only served to reinforce the belief in an elaborate ruse among those who accepted the conspiracy theory. The article created a “boomerang effect” that actually extended the life of the rumor. Rumor and Gossip: The Social Psychology of Hearsay (New York: Elsevier, 1976), p. 18.” The Life article even contributed to the rumor by publishing sonagrams of Paul singing “Hey Jude,” which would have been recorded after Paul’s death, with Paul’s voice from “Yesterday.” The magazine quoted Dr. Henry Truby of the University of Miami, who found them to be “suspiciously different.” “Could there have been more than one ‘McCartney’?”, the Life article asked. Life, November 7, 1969, p. 104. After Paul appeared on the cover of Life magazine, coverage of the “Paul is dead” rumor declined rapidly. References to it popped up occasionally since then, but the rumor had run its course after a few weeks. And then came the internet…