“Paul Is Dead” – How It Started, Where It Went

Paul McCartney circa 1968/9 courtesy of Getty Images

On the evening of November 9, 1966, Paul McCartney left EMI Studio tired, sad, and dejected. He got into his 1966 Aston-Martin DB6. On his way home, he picked up a hitchhiker named Rita. He took her home (and nearly made it). She tried to make out with him, which caused him to wreck his car. His head was sheared off his body.

The remaining Beatles, fearing that public reaction would adversely affect the fortunes of the group, agreed to keep the matter secret. They hit upon the idea of hiring a double to replace Paul and turned to the winner of a look-alike contest, an orphan from Edinburgh named William Campbell. Campbell not only looked like Paul but was very musical.  Then, they decided to bury clues in the songs and album covers.

Jane Asher, Paul’s fiancée, was paid to keep quiet; the fake Paul married Linda Eastman. The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, was also against the hoax. A few months later, he was dead of an overdose.

Believe it or not, in the autumn of 1969, people all across the United States and beyond were completely obsessed with this “Paul is dead” story. Long before social media, the conspiracy theory spread like wildfire. Some believed it completely. Some thought it was a hoax – perhaps one the Beatles had designed themselves. Everyone dissected their Beatles albums, scrutinizing the cover art and lyrics, and playing songs forwards, backward, and at different speeds.

There are many hypotheses about how the hysteria began. There had been rumors about Beatle deaths in the past, including an automobile accident in 1966 that resulted in some press stories that hinted McCartney may have been killed.

Yet the most likely source of the 1969 “Paul Is Dead” hoax point to Terry Knight, a Canadian musician who would later go on to manage Grand Funk. Back in 1968, he was trying to get a record contract with the newly formed Apple Records. While visiting Apple in London, he got invited to a Beatles recording session for the “White Album” at Abbey Road Studios. It happened to be August 23, 1968, the day that Ringo temporarily quit the band, so Knight witnessed firsthand some of the growing tensions in the band.

On his flight back to the States, Knight channeled his sadness about the possibility of a Beatles break-up into a song called “St. Paul.” The song’s lyrics referred to McCartney trying to hold the band together while the band fractured around him.

You knew it all along

Something had gone wrong

They couldn’t hear your song

of sadness in the air

While they were crying out, “beware”

Your flowers & long hair

While you & Sgt. Pepper

saw the writing on the wall

Hey, Saint Paul!

The song was released by Capitol in the summer of 1969 and became a regional hit in Knight’s adoptive hometown of Detroit.

We don’t know who it was who connected this song to McCartney’s supposed “death” or the Beatles cover-up. However, we do know that a young couple shared the incredible “story” with Dartanyan Brown, a reporter for the Iowa college paper, the Drake Times-Delphic.

The unknown couple told Brown that there was a freshly-cut grave on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. They talked about the walrus on the cover of Magical Mystery Tour which was a Viking symbol of death, and that the Beatles had clearly laid out that “the Walrus was Paul” in their song “Glass Onion.” They played the ending of “Strawberry Fields Forever” to hear Lennon say “I Buried Paul,” and they played the White Album’s “Revolution 9” backward so that Brown could hear the lines, “Turn Me On, Dead Man.”

These and other clues might have seemed far-fetched to Brown, but he referred the story to an editor at the Times-Delphic who published the first story on the “Paul Is Dead” rumor on September 17, 1969. From this story came several others in midwest college newspapers. Soon, the story was being discussed on local radio stations, including Detroit’s WKNR where DJ Russ Gibbs spent hours of air time discussing clues in the Beatles album covers and lyrics, and playing songs on the air backward and at different speeds.

Over at the University of Michigan, sophomore Fred LaBour was assigned to write a review on the recently released Abbey Road for the University of Michigan newspaper, the Michigan Daily. Driving back from visiting relatives, LaBour tuned to WKNR and heard Gibbs engaging with callers passionately discussing the clues that pointed to McCartney’s death. Being somewhat of a jokester, LaBour decided to turn his Abbey Road review into a detailed analysis of Paul’s “death” and the “Paul Is Dead” clues.

The article, McCartney Dead; New Evidence Brought to Light, appeared on page 2 of the Michigan Daily on October 14, 1969, and soon sold old several press runs. In the review/article, LaBour added his own set of outrageous, made-up clues to the controversy. They included claims about the McCartney “imposter” (LaBour was the one who first mentioned the name William Campbell), McCartney’s sexuality (he was a closet homosexual), Brian Epstein’s death (he would not go along with the hoax and mysteriously died), the Beatles’ abandoned follow-up to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (the album Smile which they gave to Brian Wilson to finish), and the Beatles plan to create a religious cult based around McCartney’s death and resurrection.

According to LaBour, the new Abbey Road album art was full of mysterious imagery – from McCartney’s bare feet (a sign that he was dead) to the car with the “28IF” license plate (Paul’s age when he died). The article was also peppered (ahem!) with many new “clues” that spanned the covers, music, and lyrics of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour, Yellow Submarine, and the White Album.

Once LaBour’s article appeared, the spread of the rumor grew exponentially with newspapers, radio stations, and even major TV networks covering the story. There were call-in shows, audio documentaries, and magazines dedicated to McCartney’s “death.” Despite continual denials from Apple and the Beatles, reporters hounded anyone connected with the Beatles, while some DJs even flew to London to investigate the story further. All the time, the hoax continued to grow as thousands of people wore out their Beatles records searching for new clues to add to the mystery.

The funny thing was that the majority of “clues” were easy to explain. The walrus is not a symbol for death, and Lennon doesn’t sing “I buried Paul” at the end of “Strawberry Fields.” Alternative photos taken for Beatles album covers easily prove most of the album cover clues were unintentional. Meanwhile, LaBour was freely admitting that he had made up his entire article. Nevertheless, the rumor would not be stopped.

Throughout all of this, McCartney kept a low profile, hunkered down at his country house in Scotland. At first, he found the whole thing amusing (not to mention that it was having an extremely positive effect on Beatles record sales). But as the story grew in intensity, McCartney’s amusement turned to growing anger which reached a boiling point when Life Magazine trekked to McCartney’s Scotland farm to get photos and an interview. After throwing a barrel of water at one of the cameramen, McCartney calmed down and granted the reporters an interview.

That interview was published in the November 7 issue of Life Magazine.  By that point, most people had come to their senses and realized that McCartney was indeed alive. The story then shifted to whether or not the Beatles had created the hoax on purpose and for what reason. This was explored in an hour-long TV special hosted by famed attorney F. Lee Bailey who used a mock courtroom set up to grill many of the leading players in the “Paul Is Dead” rumor, as well as some friends and associates of the Beatles, such as Peter Asher. Bailey concluded by stating that Paul may or may not be dead, but that had the Beatles wanted to shut down the rumor, they could have. And yet suspiciously, they hadn’t.

Today, the “Paul is Dead” rumor serves as a fascinating postscript to the Beatles story, as well as a case study in how the most outlandish rumors can spread among seemingly intelligent people until they become “facts.”

There’s lots more to the Paul Is Dead story, including hundreds of unbelievable “clues.” You can learn more by watching the two hour Fab Four Master Class on the Paul is Dead saga, featuring Beatles experts Scott Freiman and Kenneth Womack

-Scott Freiman

Photo: Getty Images

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12 comments on ““Paul Is Dead” – How It Started, Where It Went

  1. Andru J. Reeve

    Hi, Scott… Big fan of your lectures (own all of your DVDs). Just wanted to make one small correction to your otherwise concise overview. The name of the deejay in Detroit was Russ GIBB, not “Gibbs”. I wrote a book about this: TURN ME ON, DEAD MAN: The Beatles and the “Paul-Is-Dead” Hoax. But I’m fairly certain you’ve read it. Looking forward to your next project.

  2. Mark Bergin

    Well, one thing you got wrong relates to Terry Knight. Terry Knight (actually Terry Knapp) was born, raised and graduated high school in Lapeer, MI. Terry was a 1962 or 63 graduate of Lapeer High School and a good friend and fellow drummer of my brother. He was the frontman of “Terry Knight and the Pack” and did manage Grand Funk (a band from Flint, 20 miles to the west of Lapeer). Terry was murdered a number of years back by his daughter’s scumbag boyfriend.

  3. One Paul had blue eyes the other had brown

  4. Eddie Villanova

    . . . . and of course 28IF refers to the age Paul would have been IF he had lived; not the age he died. And even that is not accurate. Paul was 27 when Abbey Road was released in Sept ’69.

    • All true, Eddie. Paul was indeed 27 when the album came out. Of course, as I’m sure you’ve seen, the ‘Paul is Dead’ goons, unwilling to admit their clue doesn’t hold water, always compensate for that by saying “Yeah well in some countries you’re considered age 1 at birth so in that sense Paul would have been 28 at the time, blah blah.”

      Yes, in some countries. Not the one Paul was born…Not the one Paul lives in…Not the one where the photo was taken….but some countries.

  5. Jonas Clonce

    The notion that 1. A person looks like Paul and 2. plays a bass left handed and 3. can write Beatle type songs and 4. can sing exactly like Paul and 5. NOT BE Paul is……………. stupid

    • Well, some will tell you that after Revolver the quality of Paul’s output took a turn for the worse. Although I consider “For No One” a high point in Paul’s oeuvre, I believe construing it as evidence is a post hoc fallacy, or perhaps a sign that Paul was collaborating more with Linda Eastman than he was with John.

    • Marc 0'Polo

      Check out Junior Campbell of the band Marmalade.

  6. I remember. I’d been recently billeted at an all-male boarding school and corresponding with a girl back home, anxiously trying to turn our friendship into a romance. I never took the rumors seriously, but looking for clues was a lot of fun and it gave us something clever to write about for a couple weeks. Maybe it even gave me the impetus to purchase a copy of Abbey Road. Curiously, no one seemed to be that into the Beatles’ music to be able to distinguish between a John song and a Paul song, or we would have seen through it right off.

    I still encounter people who insist it was true. Usually, crusty old boomers, generally male, who will also tell you of a few other conspiracies they believe in if you give them a chance.

  7. Todd Evans

    The original story that appeared in Drake University’s Times-Delphic was researched and written by Tim Harper. Bill Monroe at the Iowa State (University) Daily took Tim’s original article and did a deeper dive.

  8. Richard S Hoffman

    I remember being so frightened by hearing a program about the “Paul is Dead” clues that I stopped listening to any radio station that could potentially play any Beatles’ song (and most of the time I listened to middle-of-the-road WNEW in New York, which rarely played any rock but inexplicably played “Come Together” quite often in 1969. Though I returned to the Beatles about six months later (and listen almost daily), this moment jump-started my burgeoning interest in classical music (at the time, NY had a plethora of classical music stations–not just WQXR, but WNCN and WNBC-FM, and–part time–WNYC, WBAI, WKCR, WFUV, and others).

    What I’ve never understood about this whole story is that if it were true, the Beatles’ reason for supplanting the “dead” Paul with a lookalike/soundalike (itself a glaring improbability) was to hide the fact of his demise makes the whole “clues” thing ridiculous. Why would they go to all the trouble to advertise what they were trying to hide? A publicity-fueled hoax engineered by them is more plausible, but didn’t they have their hands full with other projects?

  9. Can’t wait for the writeup on Klaatu…

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