“I am alive and well and concerned about the rumours of my death. But if I were dead, I would be the last to know.” – Paul McCartney
Simply put, Paul McCartney isn’t dead. Ever since 1967, rumours of Macca’s death have been greatly exaggerated, and the singer has had to deal with a continuous fascination with the conspiracy theory that The Beatles lost one of their principal songwriters during the band’s creative peak in a tragic car accident ever since. The theory goes that, instead of grieving and dealing with the loss of a band member, the band went into hiding for a couple of days, meditated on the prospect of life without their boy next door, and decided that the only way to move forward was to replace him. The winner of a Paul McCartney lookalike contest (which nobody can date), Mr William Campbell (who nobody can trace), was then hired to take Paul’s place forever. As you may agree, McCartney summed it up when he said, “It is all bloody stupid.”
The ludicrous facets of the charade have never stopped the curiosity, though. Ever since The Beatles became the global superstars they were by 1965, Beatlemania had meant that every column inch that could be devoted to the band was done so with prolific effect. It’s something we still see to this day.
The facts are, The Beatles were and still are big business, and it is this notion which conspiracy theorists around the world have pointed to when surmising that the rumours are true, the clues are real, and Paul McCartney died on Wednesday, November 9th, 1966.
The story goes that McCartney stormed out of a songwriting session with The Beatles, working on their album and, ironically, McCartney’s masterpiece, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and got into his Austin Healey car. He floored it, went off into the night in a fit of rage and was killed in a car crash, some even saying he was gruesomely scalped during the crash. With the band floundering amid their pop peak, improbably, McCartney was then replaced by a lookalike called either William Shears Cambell (apparently referenced as Billy Shears on Sgt. Pepper) or William Sheppard (supposedly referenced in ‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill’). Luckily, he was a man who could not only look like Macca, but sing and write songs like him too — quite the find.
While McCartney was not in the country during this time, holidaying with then-girlfriend Jane Asher, there may have been some accidental muddling of facts that may have led to rumours starting to spread. McCartney was somewhat involved in two different car accidents which bookend the proposed accident. One saw the singer scar his lip, the reason why he grew a moustache in 1967, and the other involved his Mini Cooper but he wasn’t driving and he certainly wasn’t killed.
It did, however, prompt a Beatles newsletter, run by fans, to deny claims that Macca had died, written under the title heading ‘FALSE RUMOURS’, it reads: “The 7th January was very icy, with dangerous conditions on the M1 motorway, linking London with the Midlands, and towards the end of the day, a rumour swept London that Paul McCartney had been killed in a car crash on the M1. But, of course, there was absolutely no truth in it at all, as the Beatles’ Press Officer found out when he telephoned Paul’s St John’s Wood home and was answered by Paul himself.”
The first time the rumours of McCartney’s apparent death were given any real credibility in a public sphere was on Sept. 17th, 1969, when Tim Harper wrote a piece referencing the rumour in the Times-Delphic, a campus newspaper for Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Harper was quick to insist that the piece was purely for entertainment purposes and cited his source as a friend by the name of Dartanyan Brown. Brown himself was also more than happy to pass the buck along, later saying he had caught the word from a musician who had spent time on the West Coast.
Following this article, the rumour gained more traction and it was given an even larger audience when a caller by the name of ‘Tom’ called into Russ Gibb, a radio DJ on WKNR-FM in Michigan and asked to discuss the rumours of McCartney’s death. He pointed Gibb toward a song called ‘Revolution 9’ and told him to play it backwards. “I shoulda brushed the kid off,” recalled Gibb, “He said ‘play the record backwards’ I said ‘what!'” The notion was a strange one at the time but Gibb dutifully played it backwards and heard the words “number nine, number nine” turn into something different, “When I spun it backwards it said, ‘turn me on dead man, turn me on dead man’. I freaked.”
One person tuning in was Fred LaBour, a writer for the Michigan Daily who turned the radio call into an article using both the ‘information’ given and using his own imagination, including the name William Campbell: “I made the guy up,” LaBour happily admitted. “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.” The article ran under the headline ‘McCartney Dead; New Evidence Brought To Light’ on October 14th in 1969 as an obvious joke—but it still stoked the rumour mill into overdrive.
This is where most of the sensational content of this conspiracy theory is held—the clues. The idea is that while The Beatles were happy to cover up the death of their friend and bandmate to preserve the unstoppable success of the Fab Four, their conscience encouraged them to leave clues through their music. It has led to nearly every single song the band ever made from 1966 onwards being meticulously pawed over for clues. On top of that, as many people will tell you, if you’re looking for connections, more often than not you will find some.
The number of clues that the band supposedly left behind would suggest that if the rumour were to be true, they weren’t very concerned with keeping it concealed as suggested. We’ll run through all of them.
In the music, there are the opening words of ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ which state: “I was alone, I took a ride, I didn’t know what I would find there”. Next up, the line “he didn’t notice that the lights had changed” from ‘A Day in the Life’ and, on top of that, the opening line of ‘She’s Leaving Home’ which supposedly highlighted the moment of the accident, “Wednesday morning at 5 o’clock as the day begins”. Meanwhile, ‘Lady Madonna’ reflects on the suppression of the media with the line, “Wednesday morning papers didn’t come”.
The ‘clues’, as some conspiracy theorists call them, keep coming and at the end of their classic song ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, Lennon can be heard muttering the words “cranberry sauce”, which were interpreted as “I buried Paul”.
A few more notes came with the phrases ”bury my body” and “oh untimely death” which appeared at the end of ‘I Am The Walrus’, a snippet taken from a BBC production of King Lear completely randomly. The muttering continues, too. Near the end of their song ‘I’m So Tired’, John Lennon is heard saying “monsieur, monsieur, monsieur, how about another one?” When the song was played backwards, it was quickly heard as the now-iconic line: “Paul is dead, man, miss him, miss him”.
Of course, on ‘Revolution 9’, there is the aforementioned phrase “turn me on, dead man,” when played backwards, but it also includes the sound of a car crash and explosion. Other lines from songs outside of The Beatles have also added to the conspiracy, with Ringo’s song ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ apparently referring to the accident as well. ”I’m sorry that I doubted you, I was so unfair/ You were in a car crash, and you lost your hair,” the lyrics state.
The clues weren’t just centred on the music, either. Many people have speculated that McCartney’s ear shape has changed in countless images, with photographs from as late as 2009 being cited as evidence of the swap. If you stare at them for long enough, it can be quite an alluring assumption to jump too. After all, for a long time, the imagery of The Beatles had been just as vital as their music, and it appeared as though the Fab Four were keen to use their album covers to tell the story, too.
On Sgt. Pepper, the album cover consists of flowers which are supposed to symbolise McCartney’s left-handed bass; at the bottom of the image, the Hindu God Shiva, the destroyer, is pointing at Macca. Many thought the badge on McCartney’s arm read OPD standing for “officially pronounced dead”, but, really, it came from the Ontario Provincial Police Department. There are also apparent references to the time and date of McCartney’s alleged death, with the original pressing featuring a picture of the band with Harrison apparently pointing towards the previously mentioned lyrics “Wednesday morning at five o’clock.” Suppose you put a mirror down the centre of the Sgt. Pepper bass drum, you will get the phrase ‘I ONE X IX HE DIE’, which many have interpreted as “11 9 HE DIE”, a reference to the date of the accident.
With conspiracy theorists building an arsenal of information, nuances continued over to the Magical Mystery Tour record, which showed the word ‘Beatles’ written in stars which, if held up to a mirror, apparently gave you the number of a London mortuary. Many of the photos included in the booklet also saw McCartney without any shoes on, a signifier of the dead in many cultures—but more on that later. It’s in a still from the ‘I Am The Walrus’ sequence that this record gave most of its clues.
The image shows Ringo’s drum head apparently saying “Love the 3 Beatles,” while next to the kit are McCartney’s boots covered in what appear to be bloodstains. Building on that, another image of McCartney with a black flower in his lapel and one with him bearing a crack in his head also added fuel to the fire. Admittedly these are some serious coincidences.
The rumour mill clearly kicked up a notch after The Beatles album Abbey Road hit the shelves—and the album’s artwork didn’t disappoint. As well as the Volkswagen’s number plate in the image reading ‘LMW 28IF’, which somehow was turned into ‘Linda McCartney Weeps’ and references the age Macca would have been ‘IF’ he had lived—but he actually would have been 27.
For many, it’s bigger than that. For them, the shot represents a funeral procession, with John Lennon dressed all in white as the priest. Ringo Starr in a black suit acting as an undertaker, McCartney being barefoot, as many corpses would have been buried and still are, with George Harrison following behind as a gravedigger. Add to this that McCartney was also out of step with the group, walking with his eyes closed, and you can see how these things can get out of hand.
All of this culminated in a scene that one might expect to see on a comedy sketch programme. Paul McCartney was forced to give a press conference to deny that he was dead. Speaking with Chris Drake, he said: “If the conclusion you reach is that I’m dead, then you’re wrong,” he confirmed in somewhat surreal fashion, “because I’m alive and living in Scotland.”
Curious it may be, but an interview about the subject with Life magazine in November of 1969 did give Paul a chance to try his own spin on a classic Mark Twain quote when he replied to the rumours by saying: “Do I look dead? I am fit as a fiddle. I am alive and well and concerned about the rumours of my death. But if I were dead, I would be the last to know.”
George Harrison was equally disparaging of the idea, later stating: “The rumours are too stupid to bother denying.” That didn’t stop Lennon though who clearly saw the funnier side of things. Replying in 1969, he said, “It’s a lot of nonsense. Paul McCartney couldn’t die without the world knowing it. The same as he couldn’t get married without the world knowing it. It’s impossible—he can’t go on holiday without the world knowing it. It’s just insanity. But it’s a great plug for Abbey Road.“
In Lennon’s 1970 interview with Rolling Stone, the bespectacled Beatle was more firm when he beat down the rumours in his usual manner: “I don’t know where that started, that was barmy,” he said. “I don’t know, you know as much about it as me… No, that was bullshit, the whole thing was made up. We never went for anything like that. We put tit-tit-tit in ‘Girl’. It would be things like a beat missing or something like that, see if anyone noticed — I know we used to have a few things, but nothing that could be interpreted like that.”
Over five decades later, and the actual argument that anyone could replace McCartney at the time in their career seems null and void. Not only is it almost impossible to keep quiet—just think about the number of moving parts and culpable people involved—not only is it morally bankrupt to do, but even if he, Paul McCartney, died in 1966 and was replaced by William Campbell, you have to say, Campbell is a fine musician.
If, and that is a huge, massive, ginormous if, he was replaced, Campbell as McCartney presided over perhaps the band’s greatest period of musical creativity, acting as the artistic lynchpin for a group who only excelled from then onwards. Surely, by now, he would have earned the right to call himself whatever he wanted?
We needn’t worry. The rumours may be fun to throw around, the ‘clues’ in lyrics and LP covers are a piece of pop fandom always worth discussing, and the idea that the band would do such a thing provides a sense of danger to the group. But underneath it all, we all know that they aren’t true.
Paul is most certainly alive and well.