Paul is dead

Estimated reading time: 13 minutes, 16 seconds


The magazine report that rebutted the rumor.

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”. On 24 October, BBC Radio reporter Chris Drake was granted an interview with McCartney at his farm. McCartney said that the speculation was understandable, given that he normally did “an interview a week” to ensure he remained in the news. Part of the interview was first broadcast on Radio 4, on 26 October, and subsequently on WMCA in the US. According to author John Winn, McCartney had conceded to the interview “in hopes that people hearing his voice would see the light”, but the ploy failed.

McCartney was secretly filmed by a CBS News crew as he worked on his farm. As in his and Linda’s segment in the Beatles’ promotional clip for “Something”, which the couple filmed privately around this time, McCartney was unshaven and unusually scruffy-looking in his appearance. His next visitors were a reporter and photographer from Life magazine. Irate at the intrusion, he swore at the pair, threw a bucket of water over them and was captured on film attempting to hit the photographer. Fearing that the photos would damage his image, McCartney then approached the pair and agreed to pose for a photo with his family and answer the reporter’s questions, in exchange for the roll of film containing the offending pictures. In Winn’s description, the family portrait used for Life’s cover shows McCartney no longer “shabbily attired”, but “clean-shaven and casually but smartly dressed”.

Following the publication of the article and the photo, in the issue dated 7 November, the rumor started to decline. In the interview, McCartney was quoted as saying:

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 rumor. 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 and Magical Mystery Tour, which had been off the charts since February, both re-entered the Billboard Top LPs chart, reaching number 101 and number 109, respectively.

A television special dedicated to “Paul is dead” was broadcast on WOR in New York on 30 November. Set in a courtroom, it was hosted by the celebrity lawyer F. Lee Bailey, who cross-examined LaBour and other “witnesses”, including McCartney’s friend Peter Asher and Allen Klein, 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, to which Bailey sighed and replied, “Well, we have an hour of television to do; you’re going to have to go along with this.”

It was a bit weird meeting people shortly after that, because they’d be looking at the back of my ears, looking a bit through me. And it was weird doing the “I really am him” stuff.
– Paul McCartney

McCartney returned to London in December. Bolstered by Linda’s support, he began recording his debut solo album at his home in St John’s Wood. Titled McCartney, and recorded without his bandmates’ knowledge, it was “one of the best-kept secrets in rock history” until shortly before its release in April 1970, according to author Nicholas Schaffner, and led to the announcement of the Beatles’ break-up. Both Lennon and McCartney subsequently referred to the “Paul is dead” legend in their solo careers. In his 1971 song “How Do You Sleep?”, in which he attacked McCartney’s character, Lennon described the theorists as “freaks” who “were right when they said you was dead”. McCartney titled his 1993 live album Paul Is Live and presented it in a sleeve that parodied the Abbey Road cover and its clues.

LaBour later became notable as the bassist for the western swing group Riders in the Sky, which he cofounded in 1977. In 2008, he joked that his success as a musician had extended his fifteen minutes of fame for his part in the rumor to “seventeen minutes”. In 2015, he told The Detroit News that he is still periodically contacted by conspiracy theorists who have attempted to present him with supposed new developments on the McCartney rumors.

Analysis and legacy
Author Peter Doggett writes that, while the theory behind “Paul is dead” defied logic, its popularity was understandable in a climate where citizens were faced with conspiracy theories insisting that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 was in fact a coup d’état. Schaffner said that, given its origins as an item of gossip and intrigue generated by a select group in the “Beatles cult”, “Paul is dead” serves as “a genuine folk tale of the mass communications era”. He also described it as “the most monumental hoax since Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast persuaded thousands of panicky New Jerseyites that Martian invaders were in the vicinity”.

During the 1970s, the phenomenon became a topic of academic study in America in the fields of sociology, psychology and communications. Among sociological studies, Barbara Suczek recognized it as, in Schaffner’s description, a contemporary reading of the “archetypal myth wherein the beautiful youth dies and is resurrected as a god”. Psychologists Ralph Rosnow and Gary Fine attributed its popularity partly to the shared, vicarious experience of searching for clues without consequence for the participants. They also said that for a generation distrustful of the media following the Warren Commission’s report, it was able to thrive amid a climate informed by “The credibility gap of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, the widely circulated rumors after the Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy assassinations, as well as attacks on the leading media sources by the yippies and Spiro Agnew”. American social critic Camille Paglia locates the “Paul is dead” phenomenon to the Ancient Greek tradition symbolised by Adonis and Antinous, as represented in the cult of rock music’s “pretty, long-haired boys who mesmerize both sexes”, and she adds: “It’s no coincidence that it was Paul McCartney, the ‘cutest’ and most girlish of the Beatles, who inspired a false rumor that swept the world in 1969 that he was dead.”

“Paul is dead” has continued to inspire analysis into the 21st century, with published studies by Andru J. Reeve, Nick Kollerstrom and Brian Moriarty, among others, and exploitative works in the mediums of mockumentary and documentary film. Writing in 2016, Beatles biographer Steve Turner said, “the theory still has the power to flare back into life.” Similar rumours concerning other celebrities have been circulated, including the unsubstantiated allegation that Canadian singer Avril Lavigne died in 2003 and was replaced by a person named Melissa Vandella. In an article on the latter phenomenon, The Guardian described the 1969 McCartney hoax as “Possibly the best known example” of a celebrity being the focus of “a (completely unverified) cloning conspiracy theory”. In 2009, Time magazine included “Paul is dead” in its feature on ten of “the world’s most enduring conspiracy theories”.

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