In an era rife with conspiracies, rumors and urban myths, the one that took something of a dubious prize was the one that got started with a report that Paul McCartney was dead, the result of a car accident in late 1966 and the elaborate cover-up which conspiracists claimed was being foisted on the world in the name of record sales.
On 17 September 1969, Tim Harper, an editor of the Drake Times-Delphic, the student newspaper of Drake University, published an article entitled “Is Beatle Paul McCartney Dead?”, referring to a rumor being circulated on campus that cited clues from recent Beatles albums, including a message, interpreted as “turn me on, dead man”, heard when “Revolution 9” (from the White Album) is played backwards. In wire reports published as early as 10 October, the Beatles’ press officer, Derek Taylor, responded to the rumor, saying, “Recently we’ve been getting a flood of inquiries asking about reports that Paul is dead. We’ve been getting questions like that for years, of course, but in the past few weeks we’ve been getting them at the office and home night and day. I’m even getting telephone calls from disc jockeys and others in the United States.”
On 12 October 1969, a caller to Detroit radio station WKNR-FM told disc jockey Russ Gibb about the rumor and its clues. Gibb and other callers then discussed the rumor on the air for the next hour. Two days after the WKNR broadcast, The Michigan Daily published a satirical review of Abbey Road by University of Michigan student Fred LaBour under the headline “McCartney Dead; New Evidence Brought to Light”. It identified various clues to McCartney’s death on Beatles album covers, including new clues from the just-released LP Abbey Road. LaBour had invented many of the clues and was astonished when the story was picked up by newspapers across the United States. WKNR-FM further fueled the rumor with a special two-hour program on the subject, “The Beatle Plot”, which aired on 19 October 1969 (and in the years since on Detroit radio).
In the early morning hours of 21 October 1969, New York radio station WABC’s disc jockey Roby Yonge discussed the rumour on the air for over an hour before being pulled off the air for breaking format. At that time of night, WABC’s signal covered a wide listening area and could be heard in 38 states and, at times, in other countries. Later that day, the Beatles’ press office issued statements denying the rumor, which were widely reported by national and international media.
Various clues were used to suggest the following story: three years previously (on 9 November 1966), McCartney had an argument during a Beatles recording session and had angrily driven off in his car, which he crashed, and died as a result. To spare the public from grief, the Beatles replaced him with “William Campbell”, the winner of a McCartney look-alike contest.
Hundreds of supposed clues to McCartney’s death have been reported by fans and followers of the legend. These include messages perceived when listening to a song being played backwards and symbolic interpretations of both lyrics and album cover imagery.One often-cited example is the suggestion that the words “I buried Paul” are spoken by McCartney’s bandmate John Lennon in the final section of the song “Strawberry Fields Forever”. Lennon later said that the words were actually “cranberry sauce”. Another is the interpretation of the Abbey Road album cover as depicting a funeral procession, in which Lennon, dressed in white, symbolizes the heavenly figure; Ringo Starr, dressed in black, symbolizes the undertaker; George Harrison, in denim, symbolizes the gravedigger; and McCartney, barefoot and out of step with the others, symbolizes the corpse.
On 21 October 1969, the Beatles’ press office issued statements denying the rumor, deeming it “a load of old rubbish” and saying that “the story has been circulating for about two years—we get letters from all sorts of nuts but Paul is still very much with us”. Rumors started to decline when, on 7 November 1969, Life magazine published a contemporary interview with McCartney in which he said,
Perhaps the rumor started because I haven’t been much in the press lately. I have done enough press for a lifetime, and I don’t have anything to say these days. I am happy to be with my family and I will work when I work. I was switched on for ten years and I never switched off. Now I am switching off whenever I can. I would rather be a little less famous these days.
In November 1969, Capitol Records sales managers reported a significant increase in sales of Beatles catalogue albums, attributed to the rumour. Rocco Catena, Capitol’s vice president of national merchandising, estimated that “this is going to be the biggest month in history in terms of Beatles sales”. The albums Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour, which had been off the charts since February, both re-entered the Billboard Top LP chart, reaching number 101 and number 109, respectively.
Before the end of October 1969, several records were released on the subject, including “The Ballad of Paul” by the Mystery Tour, “Brother Paul” by Billy Shears and the All Americans, and “So Long Paul” by Werbley Finster, a pseudonym for José Feliciano.
Terry Knight, a singer on Capitol Records, had witnessed the Beatles’ White Album session during which drummer Ringo Starr had walked out and, in May 1969, released a song called “Saint Paul” about the impending breakup of the Beatles. The tune made its way to the Bubbling Under Hot 100 chart at number 114 in late June that year and was quickly forgotten until a few months later, when it was picked up by radio stations as a tribute to “the late” Paul McCartney.
Here is a program that was broadcast on WOR in New York on 30 November 1969, hosted by the celebrity lawyer F. Lee Bailey, in which Bailey cross-examined LaBour and other “witnesses” about the rumor, but he left it to the viewer to determine a conclusion. Before the recording, LaBour told Bailey that his article had been intended as a joke, and Bailey sighed and replied, “Well, we have an hour of television to do; you’re going to have to go along with this.”
In case you missed it the first time around, or are just curious as to what the hoax was all about and what the “clues” were, here is that broadcast from November 30, 1969.