A Myth that Rocks: The Premature Death of Paul McCartney

A Myth that Rocks: The Premature Death of Paul

From the January-February issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

Did you know that Paul McCartney, the ex-Beatle, never actually left the band because . . . he died in 1966 and was then replaced by a lookalike? It sounds bizarre, and it is. The "Paul is dead" myth is one of the most popular myths set in the world of rock music and perhaps the most fun to follow up.

It all began on October 12, 1969, when Russ Gibb, a DJ for Detroit's underground station WKNR-FM, received a phone call by a man named "Tom," who claimed that some Beatles records contained hidden clues suggesting that Paul McCartney had actually died.

The evidence for a conspiracy revolved around the theory that Paul had been decapitated in an automobile wreck after he left Abbey Road studios in London, where the Beatles recorded their music. Paul had apparently left upset over an argument with the other Beatles, took his Aston Martin sportscar, and perished in a horrible accident that killed him.

This accident supposedly took place at 5 a.m. on November 9, 1966, and was caused by a hitchhiker named Rita who Paul had picked up along the road.

With Paul's death, however, a big problem arose: the Beatles were at the peak of their career and the loss of one of their members would mean the end of the show for them and for the industry behind them. Thus, somebody had the idea of never revealing Paul's death and hiring an impostor in his place, somebody who looked like him and could play music. Some sources claimed that the imposter was an actor named William Campbell, the winner of a Paul McCartney lookalike contest and, conveniently, an orphan from Edinburgh. Of course, it didn't hurt to assume that Campbell could write the same type of songs as McCartney and just happened to have the same voice.

The arrival of an impostor in November 1966, then, could have explained why the Beatles stopped touring that same year (it would have been too easy to spot a fake McCartney performance on stage) and started to grow moustaches (the face was almost identical, but not perfect: it needed some disguise).

However, this terrible secret generated in the remaining Beatles, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, a strong sense of guilt and induced them to insert many hints and clues to the truth in their songs and album covers.

I buried Paul

What had revealed the existence of a conspiracy to the mysterious "Tom" was the publication, two weeks before his telephone call, of the Beatles's latest album, titled Abbey Road. The album cover showed the four Beatles walking in a single file across the now-famous crosswalk at Abbey Road. This was thought to symbolize a funeral procession: John Lennon, dressed in white, represented the Church (and white is the traditional color of mourning in many Eastern cultures); Ringo, dressed in black, represented the undertaker. Paul was out of step with the other three Beatles, with his eyes closed and barefoot: in a number of societies, it appears that corpses are buried without their shoes; furthermore, Paul held a cigarette in his right hand, when everybody knew that the real McCartney was left-handed! George Harrison, last in line, was dressed in work clothes and, to many, represented the gravedigger.

On the street there is also a parked Volkswagen Beetle whose license plate shows an eerie message: "LMW 28IF," interpreted to mean that Paul would have been 28 if he had lived. The fact that Paul was actually 27 years old when Abbey Road was released doesn't seem to make much difference, for in far Eastern societies (the Beatles had quite a fascination with the Far East) an individual's birth included the time spent in the mother's womb. In that case, Paul would indeed have been 28.

These "revelations" quickly launched an unprecedented outbreak of hysteria in the pop world and in the media, as more and more "clues" were found in previous Beatles records.

First of all, the clue-diggers looked at Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the first album that the Beatles recorded after Paul's supposed demise. Released on June 1, 1967, the record was among the most influential in music history. The cover, another famous picture, showed the four Beatles dressed in band uniforms, gathered around a bass drum bearing the album title and with a crowd of cut-out people around them. It proved to be a goldmine for clue-diggers. Again, the spectators resembled the mourners at a funeral and the flowers in front of them not only spelled the word "Beatles," but also a set of yellow hyacinths formed the shape of a left-handed bass guitar, McCartney's instrument.

Paul had a right hand raised above his head: again, supposedly, in certain Far Eastern societies, this was a symbol of death. Also, while the other Beatles held bright, golden, band instruments, Paul held a black clarinet: another supposed symbol of mourning?

A doll wore a striped "Welcome the Rolling Stones" sweatshirt: on her leg there is a small model car, strongly resembling an Aston Martin that seems to be heading towards the word "Stones." Perhaps a hint of the accident?

If you then held a flat mirror perpendicular to the center of the words "Lonely Hearts" appearing on the bass drum this hidden message appeared: "I ONE IX HE ‡ DIE". "I ONE IX" is a direct reference to the supposed fatal crash day (11/9/66), "HE" refers to Paul, as the diamond that points directly to McCartney confirms, "DIE".

In the open album jacket, the Beatles appear still in the Sgt. Pepper's uniforms and McCartney wore an arm patch that read "OPD": an abbreviation for "Officially Pronounced Dead"?

This was also the first album in history that included the lyrics to the songs appearing in the record, and they were published on the back cover, along with a picture of the four Beatles in their outfits. Strangely, Paul is the only one turning his back to the camera, and also strange is the fact that George's thumb points to the opening lines of "She's Leaving Home." The lyric states: "Wednesday morning at five o'clock as the day begins," another reference to the day and time of Paul's fatal accident?

In another song of the album, "A Day in the Life," John sings "He blew his mind out in a car," and in another, "Good Morning, Good Morning," he starts by singing: "Nothing to do to save his life" (and was the title a play on the words "morning" and "mourning"?) And what about "Lovely Rita"? Was the song a reference to the girl that caused Paul's death? Could be, since in it McCartney (or the imposter) sings: "Took her home and nearly made it."

More clues were also found in subsequent albums. The Magical Mystery Tour cover showed the Beatles dressed in animal costumes. In the center was a black walrus and, in certain Scandinavian countries, a walrus is considered a harbinger of death. Was the imposter dressed in the walrus skin? Apparently not, for John Lennon sings in the album the song titled "I am the Walrus." But on the album cover, as if scribbled later, the complete title appears to be: "I am the Walrus (‘No You're Not!' Said Little Nicola)." So who was the walrus?

In a later Beatles release (titled simply The Beatles, the record became better known as the White Album because the cover was plain white), in a song titled "Glass Onion," Lennon sings: "Well here's another clue for you all, the walrus was Paul"!

On the booklet included in Magical Mystery Tour, the clues abounded: Paul is shoeless in some pictures, is the only one to wear a black flower on his lapel while the others are red, has a hand above his head in various pictures, and he even sits behind a sign stating "I Was."

Near the end of the song "Strawberry Fields Forever," upon careful listening, a faint voice stated something like "I buried Paul."

You could also turn the Magical Mystery Tour album jacket upside-down and look at its reflection in the mirror: the title, detailed as stars, became the digits to a phone number. The rumor further explained that if the numbers were dialed, the listener would get the true details of Paul McCartney's death.

On the White Album, if you listened to a strange murmuring following the song "I'm So Tired," you couldn't make out what it said. But, should you decide to play the record backwards the words became something like: "Paul is dead now, miss him, miss him, miss him." Nothing compared to the chilling revelations of "Revolution No. 9," where, after reversing the song, you could hear a voice saying: "Turn me on dead man," and then the sound of a terrible collision, the sounds of crackling flames and a voice screaming "Let me out! Let me out!" A recreation of Paul's terrible accident?

"My death? An exaggeration"

It seems unimaginable that the American public would believe such an unfounded rumor. However, this same generation had been raised on the idea that there may have been a conspiracy to kill President John F. Kennedy and that the Warren Commission had actually worked to hide this fact from the public. Would it be so impossible, then, to believe that Paul McCartney's death may have been hidden from the public?

The rumors became so noisy that Paul McCartney himself had to reassure his fans that he was still alive. In an exclusive interview with Life magazine (November 7, 1969) he stated, paraphrasing Mark Twain, that "Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated. However, if I was dead, I'm sure I'd be the last to know." He also offered a number of explanations for the mysterious clues.

The OPD patch he wore on Sgt. Pepper's actually meant "Ontario Police Department"; he wore a black flower in Magical Mystery Tour because they had run out of red ones; it was John wearing the walrus outfit and, on Abbey Road, he was barefoot only because it was a hot day.

Other "clues" had similar simpler explanations: John did not say "I buried Paul" at the end of "Strawberry Fields" but, as can be clearly heard now on a clearer take of the song in Anthology 3, he says "cranberry sauce."

However, while it is true that most clues can be easily attributed to coincidence and wishful thinking, there are little things that must have been put there by the Beatles for some purpose, like the various "walrus" claims, the backward messages, and some other hints in the album covers. It may just be, as John Lennon said, that they only wanted to have a laugh at the expense of those critics reading cryptic messages in everything they did.

What is sadly true is the fact that Charles Manson and his "family" also believed that there were hidden messages in Beatles songs hinting at the Armageddon. He thought that the Fab Four were actually angels sent by God to reveal the secrets of the approaching apocalypse and that, in order to start the end of the world, they needed Manson's help. This is the tragically absurd reasoning he gave for the murder of Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of film director Roman Polanski, and the guests she was hosting at their house in Hollywood.

According to R. Gary Patterson, author of the well-researched "The Walrus Was Paul" (New York: Fireside, 1996), "Perhaps the Beatles became concerned that if they admitted to planting clues they could very well be charged in some sort of conspiracy that would indirectly link them to the Manson murders. Perhaps it would be much safer to give up the hoax and deny it ever happened. This way, the Beatles would be safe from any lawsuit implicating the band members."

Perhaps. In a lighter vein, however, the rumor also helped to further boost the sale of the Beatles catalog and inspired a lot of cartoons and comedy skits, like one that was presented on The Ed Sullivan Show on Februrary 23, 1970, involving two angels in heaven:

Angel One: Is there any truth to the rumor that Paul McCartney is still alive?

Angel Two: I doubt it. Where do you think we get those groovy harp arrangements?   

Massimo Polidoro is an investigator of the paranormal, author, lecturer, and co-founder and head of CICAP, the Italian skeptics group. His Web site is www.massimopolidoro.com. This article appears in the January-February issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine and is republished here by agreement with LiveScience.com.