I found myself, as I often do, looking over my vinyl collection of Beatles records the other day, in particularly pouring over the artwork of the later albums between Revolver and Abbey Road. It triggered my mind to wander and recall one of the weirdest episodes in Beatles history, maybe in fact rock n roll history that I had ever read about, which involved the slightly comical Paul is dead rumour. I probably honestly shouldn’t laugh about it. Paul is now almost 77 and I wish him continuing good health, especially since I am at present lovin’ every moment of his latest album Egypt Station.
I wasn’t even born when the big rumour of the 12th October 1969 had claimed that Paul McCartney was dead. The supposed ‘claim’ revolved around the theory that McCartney, apparently somewhat upset over an argument with the other three members of the band, stormed out of the Abbey Road Studios and on his way home was decapitated in a car accident on November 9th 1966.
The claim itself was originally made public by a radio caller to Russ Gibbs, DJ for Detroits underground station WKNR-FM. What happened next created an unprecedented outbreak of hysteria amongst Beatles fans throughout the world.
But lets just pause here for a moment. How on earth could the good folk of the sixties ever begin to entertain the idea that a Beatle, Paul McCartney, rock ‘n roll royalty, be dead? We would have to look back to the sixties, for clues to see that rock ‘n roll and American life in particular, were sometimes both susceptible to the same tragedies. Many fans were willing to believe in Paul’s supposed death because rock and roll tragedies had occurred sensationally before. Take the death of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, as an example, who all died in an awful plane crash!
When the Beatles stopped touring in 1966 you could forgive them for wanting to have a well deserved rest after a relentless schedule. They had given all they could to rock ‘n roll and now they just wanted to concentrate on making great music without the hassle of touring. Nonetheless, their withdrawal from the public eye fuelled the ‘Paul is dead’ rumour in some ways.
One of the best theories to surface after the WKNR-FM bombshell stated that after the alleged accident on the night of November 9th 1966, the Beatles replaced Paul with an imposter or look alike to keep the band going. Conspiracy theorists, of course, jumped on the band wagon, coming out with many more bizarre reactions. Before long, one thing led to another and fans were collecting ‘evidence’ of Paul’s demise. Dozens of pictures, stories, and even their lyrics were subsequently scrutinised for clues. You only have to look at their album covers and the clues they reputedly hid to wonder whether there is any truth to them. I am not going to go over all the ‘evidence’ but here are two to think about.
This British import ↑ above was released shortly before St.Pepper. It contains a ‘clue’ to Paul’s tragic accident. If you notice carefully that the figure’s shadowy face is in the same location as Paul’s, and, if you again look closely, you can see a car that appears to be running off the road into the figures head. While the Abbey Road cover ↓ below indicates the alleged funeral procession that apparently started the death clue hysteria.
Publicly, The Beatles and Paul were less than impressed. In an interview with Life Magazine, Paul McCartney did his best to clear up the ghoulish rumour that he wasn’t dead and in fact very much still alive. “The rumour of my death has been greatly exaggerated. However, if I was dead, I’m sure I’d be the last to know. In 1970, John Lennon also unequivocally told Rolling Stones magazine that the whole ‘Paul is dead’ saga was “bullshit”. He also added that “I don’t know where that started….the whole thing was made up. We wouldn’t do anything like that.”
If anything it all makes for a fascinating conspiracy theory. To this day, and correct me if I am wrong, The Beatles have stated that the whole search for the death clues was merely a coincidence. Or was it? In 1995, Paul talking about ‘Free as a Bird’ and other Beatles songs said,“We used to make a game of putting little clues in all our music back then…”
Happy listening, and oh yeah, Paul was the Walrus!
*This article was originally published in July 2013. It has been updated here with a new introduction and some additional quotes.