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
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