I READ THE NEWS TODAY: The “Paul Is Dead” Incident
It’s probably the greatest singular urban legend and conspiracy theory in pop music history. The “Paul Is Dead” myth generated a massive wave of rumor and discussion in 1969, and although it died off almost as quickly as it began, the speculation it generated has still lasted through the years.
The Paul Is Dead legend finds its origins in an article written in the Drake University student newspaper Drake Times-Delphic on September 17, 1969 by Tim Harper, which outlined a series of clues found in the Beatles’ music that suggest Paul was “insane, freaked out, even dead.” Harper later said, “I didn’t own a Beatles record. I talked to others who might know about the rumor, or something about the Beatles.” his story originated from reports heard from Times-Delphic Editor Dartanyan Brown.
The article catapulted Harper into fame, if only briefly.
“Maury Leavitt, another editor at the TD, took me in hand and said we could make some money by selling interviews to radio stations. I said ‘OK.’ He lined up dozens of interviews with radio stations around the country, $10 for five minutes on the phone with Tim Harper. It was surreal…Maury and I were flown down to Chicago on a chartered plane to appear on a talk show, and by the time we came back everything had died down.” – Tim Harper
ON October 12, 1969, a DJ named Russ Gibb of WKNR in Detroit, Michigan, aired a call from an Eastern Michigan University student named Tom Zarski. Tom claimed that when the beginning of the song “Revolution 9” is played backwards, a voice says, “Turn me on, dead man.” He also told Gibb that at the very end of “Strawberry Fields Forever”, a muffled voice says, “I buried Paul.” Gibb played both on the air and the phone lines went crazy.
Following the phone call, a University of Michigan student named Fred LaBour wrote a satrical review of Abbey Road titled “McCartney Dead; New Evidence Brought to Light” for The Michigan Daily in which he listed several additional “clues” found in Beatles album covers and music pointing to the idea that Paul was, indeed, dead, including the name of his replacement – William Campbell, a.k.a. Billy Shears. In reality, most of the items he listed were of his own invention.
I made the guy up. It was originally going to be Glenn Campbell, with two Ns, and then I said ‘that’s too close, nobody’ll buy that’. So I made it William Campbell. – Fred LaBour
WKNR followed up with a 2 hour show titled “The Beatle Plot” on October 19. On October 21, Roby Yonge of WABC in New York devoted an hour to the subject before he was removed from the air for breaking format. WABC’s signal was so strong at the time that it could be heard in 38 states and several other countries, and subsequently radio programs and newspapers around the United States picked up the story and it spread like wildfire.
Beatles Press Officer Derek Taylor initially didn’t think much of the rumor (or rumors in general).
“Ahh, they’re always trying to start one of those. It’s happened before. The calls will stop coming in a few days.” – Derek Taylor
But the calls only intensified, and Taylor had to keep issuing denials.
“The Paul McCartney who wrote ‘And I Love Her’ still loves you, and is still alive, and has a lot to write. There are a thousand songs unwritten and much to do.” – Derek Taylor
“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.” – Derek Taylor
Taylor’s frustration with the continuous and increasing inquiries showed in an internal Apple memo:
“We’ll start our own rumor that the public is dead from the neck up, and they’ve been using a stand-in facsimile of a brain for the past three and a half years.” – Derek Taylor
WMCA in New York sent DJ Alex Bennett to Apple Corps headquarters in London on October 23 where he sought comments on the “Paul Is Dead” mania.
“If people are gonna believe it, they’re gonna believe it. I can only say it’s not true.” – Ringo Starr, to Alex Bennett regarding the “Paul Is Dead” reports
The rumors were compounded by the fact that Paul was laying low and not immediately available for comment, reacting in sadness and frustration by the appointment of Allen Klein to handle Apple Corps’ affairs and John’s private announcement that he was leaving the band. He and Linda had also welcomed daughter Mary in August. Additionally, a CBS Film crew managed to secretly record him working on his farm, unshaven and looking somewhat disheveled, and he had a run in with with a Life reporter in which he was photographed trying to attack them. In exchange for the camera film, Paul granted Life an interview and some photos, in which he was clean-shaven. That interview appeared in their November 7 issue, in which he discussed the rumors of his death.
“Perhaps the rumour 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.” – Paul McCartney in Life, November 7
He also discussed the issue in a 1974 Rolling Stone interview.
“They said, ‘Look, what are you going to do about it? It’s a big thing breaking in America. You’re dead.’ And so I said, leave it, just let them say it. It’ll probably be the best publicity we’ve ever had, and I won’t have to do a thing except stay alive. So I managed to stay alive through it.” – Paul McCartney, 1974
John was asked about it again on WKNR during promotion for the Plastic Ono Band single Cold Turkey.
“It’s the most stupid rumor I’ve ever heard. It sounds like the same guy who blew up my Christ remark. They said I was wearing a white religious suit. I mean, did Humphrey Bogart wear a white religious suit? All I’ve got is a nice Humphrey Bogart suit.” – John Lennon, WKNR, October 26
John’s incredulous reaction to the rumors reached a peak in his 1971 track “How Do You Sleep?” The song was written after Paul made some inflammatory remarks in a 1970 Rolling Stone interview and contained a number of very thinly-veiled attacks on Paul, including the line “Those freaks was right when they said you was dead.”
Dozens of “clues” have been “uncovered” by fans to support the “Paul Is Dead” theory. Here are a few – some are a stretch and some are just clearly incorrectly transcribed. And none of the several supposed “symbols of death” are based on any sort of reality.
From Yesterday And Today
The “trunk cover” edition of the album (which replaced the infamous “butcher cover”) depicts Paul in his casket, with the remaining Beatles somber because he has died.
Near the top is a photo of Paul screaming (in the accident he lost his hair and teeth and was decapitated).
Paul is facing to the side on the cover, showing non-conformity with the other living Beatles, who are all facing forward.
On Taxman the background voices say “Paul” after George sings the lines “if you drive a car” and “if you get too cold”. It sounds like this: “if you drive a car PAAAAUUUL” and “if you get too cold PAAAAUUUL.”
The line “I was alone, I took a ride…suddenly I see you” in Got To Get You Into My Life refer to the accident scene, “you” being “Lovely Rita”.
From Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
On Fixing A Hole the line “see the people standing there, they disagree” can be heard as “silly Beatle standing there, they disagree”, which speaks of William Campbell, and the line “silly people run around…” can be heard as “silly Beatle run around…”, which is talking about Campbell trying to adjust to his new role as Beatle bassist.
“Standing by a parking meter/when I caught a glimpse of Rita” in Lovely Rita refer to the accident, in which he lost control of his car because he was distracted by the beautiful Rita.
The lines “nothing to do to save his life”, “you’re on your own/you’re in the street”, “people running ’round/it’s five o’clock (the time of the accident)”, and “watching the skirts you start to flirt, now you’re in gear” in Good Morning, Good Morning all refer to the accident and the scene thereafter.
If you listen to the line “nobody was really sure if he was from the house of lords” from A Day In The Life, it sounds more like “nobody was really sure if he was from the house of Paul”, meaning that since he was decapitated and had no hair or teeth they didn’t know where he was from.
The whole album cover is a funeral scene. The headstone is the stone statue to the right of the drum. In front of that is a yellow floral display which, when looked at carefully, can be read as “paul?” or simply the letter “P” for “Paul.” Note the younger Ringo is sad, as if he had lost a friend.
To the right of the stone statue is a statue of a girl who is looking down and to the right at a flaming car. This is “Lovely Rita the meter maid,” who saw Paul’s accident and the flaming car. The reason Paul was in the accident was because he was looking at “Lovely Rita”.
Paul himself is seen with a hand over his head, which is an Eastern blessing for the deceased.
Paul holds a cor anglais, at the end of which is a small hook, representing the reaper’s scythe.
The four-armed doll at the bottom of the cover points with one arm to Paul and is holding a floral bouquet.
On the record version, the inside photo spread of the band shows Paul with a patch on his left arm which reads “O.P.D.” or, “Officially Pronounced Dead.” Other sources say that it stands for “Ontario Provincial Police,” where William Campbell was an officer when he won the infamous look-alike contest
On the back cover of the record version, Paul is facing backwards, symbolizing his non-conformance with the living.
On the back cover of the record version, George points to the line, “Wednesday morning at five o’clock,” the day and time of the accident:
The record sleeve for the first printing of the album came in psychedelic red colors, which are soaked with Paul’s blood:
And for perhaps the most elaborate ruse and biggest stretch of them all, when a mirror is put up to the drum on the cover in the middle and horizontally, it reads, “1 ONE 1 X = HE DIE (arrow pointing to Paul).” The “1 ONE 1” refers to the three remaining Beatles; the “X” to Paul. This photo makes it easier to see…
From Magical Mystery Tour
At the end of I Am The Walrus the voices of the older men speaking say “bury me…bury my body” and “Paul you’re darn near death…rest you.”
In Hello Goodbye the line “you say goodbye/I say hello” is William Campbell speaking about Paul.
At the end of All You Need Is Love John sings “yes he’s dead” and chants “we loved you yeah yeah yeah.”
The word “BEATLES” on the cover spelled out in stars becomes a phone number when viewed upside-down. The number is alternately reported as 537-1438 or 231-7438 and the number of a mortuary or a “Paul Is Dead” hotline which, when called, announced cryptically, “You’re getting closer…”
In the movie and in a picture in the booklet to the record version, it shows Paul at a desk with a sticker on it that reads, “I WAS”:
On page 12 of the booklet in the record version, Paul is not wearing any shoes; they are to the left and covered in blood. Tire tracks are seen leading up to Paul.
From The Beatles
A “Glass Onion” is a coffin with a glass window in it so people can look inside. John also sings “the walrus was Paul.” Myth states that in some cultures, the walrus is a sign of death.
At the very end of I’m So Tired is some incoherent mumbling from John. When played backwards, this becomes “Paul’s dead man, miss him, miss him.”
During Revolution 9 various bits of chatter and noise can be heard discussing and representing Paul’s death, including “his voice was low and his eyes were high and his eyes were closed”, “Paul died”, “my fingers are broken and so is my hair. I’m not in the mood for wearing clothing”, “maybe even dead”, and a clip where a car crashes and catches on fire. “Paul” can be heard screaming “Get me out.” Finally, the voice repeating “number nine, number nine” at the beginning, when played backward, says the infamous phrase “Turn me on, dead man, turn me on, dead man.”
From Yellow Submarine
On the front of the cover Paul has a hand above his head, again, the Eastern blessing for the dead just as was seen on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cover.
The yellow submarine on the cover is underground, beneath the remaining Beatles. This is Paul’s coffin.
From Abbey Road
The line “one and one and one make three” in Come Together refers to the remaining Beatles.
The abrupt stop at the end of I Want You (She’s So Heavy) symbolizes the sudden death of Paul. At the end of the song, the heavy instrumental bar stops suddenly, representing the end of Paul’s life.
The cover is symbolic of a funeral procession; John is dressed as the preacher, Ringo as the pallbearer, Paul as the corpse, and George as the grave digger.
Paul is walking with his eyes closed, like a dead man.
Paul is walking out of step with the other Beatles. He leads with his right foot, the others with their left, symbolizing non-conformity with the living.
Also, Paul is walking with a cigarette in his right hand, while the real Paul is left-handed. Cigarettes were also known as “coffin nails.”
The Volkswagen Beetle has a license plate which reads, “28IF.” In other words, Paul would have been 28 when Abbey Road was released, if he had lived.
To the left of the “Beatles” sign are eight circles. When the circles are connected they form the number three – there only remain “3 BEATLES.”
On the back cover, the word “Beatles” has a crack running down the letter “S,” symbolizing a break in the band (Paul’s death).
The line “Wednesday morning papers didn’t come” in Lady Madonna refers to a strange incident where an unknown England newspaper reportedly recalled the Wednesday morning paper (remember, Paul “died” on a Wednesday) which reported the real-life accident Paul was in.
Toward the end of You Know My Name (Look Up The Number) a ringing sound is heard and a phone number is recited. This is supposedly the “Paul Is Dead” hotline from the Magical Mystery Tour cover which told fans “you’re getting closer”
From Anthology 3
The photo piece of Paul from the Rubber Soul cover is ripped at the neck, symbolizing his decapitation:
Paul has some fun with it
Almost from the beginning, Paul has alternated between amused and coy and has even had some fun with it.
Paul’s live 1993 album Paul Is Live spoofs the rumors directly in the title, but the cover – a send-up of Abbey Road – appears to deliberately and carefully reference a number of the supposed “clues”found there.
The most notable spoof has to be the Volkswagon license place, which read “28IF” on Abbey Road but reads “51IS” – Paul IS 51.
Paul himself is wearing shoes, is stepping with his left foot, and his holding his dog’s leash with his left hand – correct, as he actually is left handed.
In 2018, Paul discussed the “Paul Is Dead” phenomenon with James Corden during an episode of Carpool Karaoke.
As you can see, major jumps through huge hoops were made to support the theory that Paul was dead and replaced with a lookalike. As ridiculous and far-fetched as these “clues” are, they continue to provide another dimension of entertainment for fans scrutinizing some of the most recognizable and ground-breaking music and album covers in pop music history!