“Paul is dead” is an urban legend and conspiracy theory alleging that Paul McCartney, of the English rock band the Beatles, died in November 1966 and was secretly replaced by a look-alike.
In September 1969, American college students published articles claiming that clues to McCartney’s supposed death could be found among the lyrics and artwork of the Beatles’ recordings. Clue-hunting proved infectious and, within a few weeks, had become an international phenomenon. Rumors declined after a contemporary interview with McCartney was published in Life magazine in November 1969.
References to the legend are still occasionally made in popular culture. McCartney himself poked fun at it with his 1993 live album, titling it Paul Is Live, with cover art parodying clues allegedly on the cover of the Beatles’ album Abbey Road.
In early 1967, a rumor circulated in London that Paul McCartney had been killed in a traffic accident while driving along the M1 motorway on 7 January. The rumor was acknowledged and rebutted in the February issue of The Beatles Book, a fanzine. According to a lecture titled “Who Buried Paul?”, presented by Brian Moriarty at the 1999 Game Developers Conference, it is not known whether the rumor of 1969 is related to this earlier episode. In late September 1969, the Beatles released the album Abbey Road as they were in the process of disbanding. Isolated from his bandmates in his opposition to their choice of business manager, Allen Klein, and distraught at John Lennon’s private announcement that he was leaving the group, McCartney retreated to his farm near Campbeltown in Scotland with his wife Linda and their daughters.
On 17 September 1969, Tim Harper, an editor of the Drake Times-Delphic, the student newspaper of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, published an article titled “Is Beatle Paul McCartney Dead?” The article addressed 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. According to music journalist Merrell Noden, this was the first published article on the “Paul is dead” theory. Harper later said that it had become the subject of discussion among students at the start of the new academic year, and he added: “A lot us, because of Vietnam and the so-called Establishment, were ready, willing and able to believe just about any sort of conspiracy.”
On 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 air for the next hour, during which Gibb offered further potential clues. Two days later, The Michigan Daily published a satirical review of Abbey Road by University of Michigan student Fred LaBour, who had listened to the exchange on Gibb’s show, under the headline “McCartney Dead; New Evidence Brought to Light”. It identified various clues to McCartney’s death on Beatles album covers, particularly on the Abbey Road sleeve. LaBour had invented many of the clues and was astonished when the story was picked up by newspapers across the United States. Noden writes that “Very soon, every college campus, every radio station, had a resident expert.” WKNR fueled the rumor further with its two-hour program The Beatle Plot, which first aired on 19 October.
The story was soon taken up by more mainstream radio stations in the New York area, WMCA and WABC, and by Bill Gavin on the US West Coast. In the early hours of 21 October, WABC disc jockey Roby Yonge discussed the rumor on-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 US states and, at times, in other countries. Although the Beatles’ press office denied the rumor, McCartney’s atypical withdrawal from public life contributed to its escalation. Vin Scelsa, a student broadcaster in 1969, later said that the escalation was indicative of the countercultural influence of Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, since: “Every song from them – starting about late 1966 – became a personal message, worthy of endless scrutiny… they were guidelines on how to live your life.”
WMCA despatched Alex Bennett to the Beatles’ Apple Corps headquarters in London on 23 October, further to his extended coverage of the “Paul is dead” theory. There, Ringo Starr told Bennett: “If people are gonna believe it, they’re gonna believe it. I can only say it’s not true.” In another interview at this time, Lennon said that the rumor was “insane” but good publicity for Abbey Road.
Before the end of October 1969, several record releases had exploited the phenomenon of McCartney’s alleged demise. These included “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. Another song was Terry Knight’s “Saint Paul”, which had been a minor hit in June that year and was subsequently adopted by radio stations as a tribute to “the late Paul McCartney”. In Canada, Polydor Records exploited the rumor in their artwork for Very Together, a repackaging of the Beatles’ pre-fame recordings with Tony Sheridan, using a cover that showed four candles, one of which had just been snuffed out.
Proponents of the theory maintained that, in November 1966, McCartney had an argument with his bandmates during a Beatles recording session and drove off angrily in his car, crashed, and was decapitated. To spare the public from grief, or simply as a joke, the surviving Beatles replaced him with the winner of a McCartney look-alike contest. This scenario was facilitated by the Beatles’ recent retirement from live performance and by their choosing to present themselves with a new image for their next album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
In LaBour’s telling, the stand-in was an “orphan from Edinburgh named William Campbell” whom the Beatles then trained to impersonate McCartney. Others contended that the man’s name was William Shears Campbell, later abbreviated to Billy Shears, and the replacement was instigated by Britain’s MI5 out of concern for the severe distress McCartney’s death would cause the Beatles’ audience. In this latter telling, the surviving Beatles were said to be wracked by guilt at their duplicity, and therefore left messages in their music and album artwork to communicate the truth to their fans.
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 frequently cited example is the suggestion that the words “I buried Paul” are spoken by Lennon in the final section of the song “Strawberry Fields Forever”, which the Beatles recorded in November and December 1966. Lennon later said that the words were actually “Cranberry sauce”.
A DJ put all those signs together: Paul with no shoes [on the cover of Abbey Road] … and the Volkswagen Beetle. Then there was Magical Mystery Tour, where we three had red roses and he had a black one. It was just madness … There was no way we could prove he was alive.
– Ringo Starr
Another example is the interpretation of the Abbey Road album cover as depicting a funeral procession. Lennon, dressed in white, is said to symbolize the heavenly figure; Starr, dressed in black, symbolizes the undertaker; George Harrison, in denim, represents the gravedigger; and McCartney, barefoot and out of step with the others, symbolizes the corpse. The number plate of the white Volkswagen Beetle in the photo was identified as further “evidence”, the characters “28IF” representing McCartney’s age “if” he had still been alive. That the left-handed McCartney holds a cigarette in his right hand was also said to support the idea that he was an imposter.