The greatest hoax since Orson Welles ‘War of the Worlds’ panicked New York at Hallowe’en 1938 is 46 years old. It’s a rock and roll story that started as a gag, but was picked up by the proper newspapers and spread virally – as virally as you could get in 1969 and it concerns Paul McCartney. Being dead.
The story was this: after an all-night recording session at Abbey Road NW8 on Wednesday, November 9, 1966 Beatle Paul had a furious row with the others and stormed out of the studio into his car. He picked up a female hitchhiker but she became so excited when she realized who had picked her up that she threw her arms around Paul and caused him to lose control of the car. Both Paul and his passenger were killed when the car swerved off the road and hit a stone fence. Not wanting to their Golden Goose, record company executives suppressed the story of Paul’s death and brought in a lookalike to replace him, a man named William Campbell, who was an actor and who had won a Paul McCartney lookalike contest. With a little plastic surgery, Campbell had taken Paul’s place in photos of the group. The surgery had been successful except for a small scar above his lip. And, by an extraordinary stroke of luck, William Campbell just happened to be a songwriter with an exceptional ear for pop melodies. And for some reason, the surviving Beatles agreed to go along with the scheme. However as a protest, they decided to leave clues on their subsequent albums about Paul’s death and the imposter who took his place. Hunting for those clues proved infectious for obsessive types and within a few weeks had become an international phenomenon. In particular fans examined the most recent album Abbey Road, which was of course chock-a-block with them.
The entire album cover symbolises a funeral procession, they claimed. Lennon, dressed in white, symbolises the preacher, Ringo Starr, dressed in black, is the undertaker. George Harrison, in denim jeans and shirt, is the gravedigger and McCartney, barefoot and out of step with other members of the band, is of course the corpse. Paul is holding his cigarette in his right hand but hang on, Macca was the most famous left handed person in the whole world. and what’s that over George’s shoulder: a VW Beetle with the number plate LMW 28IF – the age (28) Paul would have been if he were still with us (actually he would have been 27).
When they’d exhausted ‘Abbey Road’, fans also went back through past albums, even those made before any of the alleged silly macabre nonsense had happened. Here a few of my favourites:
- On Sergeant Pepper cover if you put a mirror half way up the drum skin that says LONELY HEARTS you get I ONE IX arrow Die – the arrow points up to McCartney – IX being 9 and McCartney has 9 letters
- Paul’s Pepper uniform has an armband on his left arm which says OPD interpreted as London police jargon as Officially Pronounced Dead, although it’s actually the Ontario Police Dept
- On the ‘Pepper’ lyric sheet George is pointing at a line from She’s Leaving Home which says Wednesday morning at 9 o’clock, the time on Wed 9 November 1966 that Paul was supposed to have had his accident
- On their greatest hits set, A Collection of Beatles Oldies, the letters O and L in the word ‘Oldies’ are of course the letters immediately before P & M in the alphabet, so it could really read PM DIES – in the same way people think that HAL the evil computer in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is actually IBM shifted by 1 letter
- There was a rumour that the word ‘walrus’ as in ‘I Am The Walrus’ derives from Ancient Greek for corpse (it’s not – it’s Old Norse for ‘horse whale’). And whilst the Beatles and George Martin were finishing the recording of the song in September 1967, they decided to insert some random stuff direct from the radio so they tuned into the BBC Third Programme which was broadcasting William Shakespeare’s King Lear, (Act IV, Scene 6 to be precise) and included the lines ‘Upon the British party. O, untimely Death!’
- Funnier still is the attempt to explain John Lennon’s wacky lyric “I am the eggman, Goo goo ga joob.” as the last words of Humpty Dumpty as he lay dying after famously falling off that wall. Actually it’s just nonsense he made up under the influence
So how did it all happen? Well, on 17 September 1969, The Drake Times, the student newspaper of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, published an article entitled, “Is Beatle Paul McCartney Dead?”, based on a rumour the author had heard from a Californian student with too much time and marijuana on his hands that clues to McCartney’s death could be found among the lyrics and artwork of the Beatles’ recordings.
In a really slow analogue version of re-tweeting and Facebook-sharing, the University of Illinois’ student newspaper, the Northern Star, picked up the story and ran it as an article a weeklater on September 23, 1969, as did other college newspapers in that part of the country. One of these newspapers found its way to Detroit radio station WKNR FM and on 12 October, DJ Russ Gibb hosted a call in show about the rumour for the next hour, with the effect that hundreds of hysterical fans calling in to see if it was true.
Two days later the story appeared in the Michigan Daily, the University of Michigan’s newspaper, with a whole lot more completely made up detail. The author had actually been asked to write a review of the Beatles “Abbey Road” LP but was listening to WKNR-FM the night of Russ Gibb’s broadcast, and he thought it would be funny to submit an article based on the tosh he’d just heard. He created the identity of Paul’s replacement, William Campbell – he originally considered Glen Campbell but he thought that might be a little too obvious – and inserted new made-up clues from the album he was supposed to be reviewing. The author assumed everyone would think it as a spoof and was then astonished when the story was picked up by proper mainstream newspapers across the United States and even The Times in London in quick succession
In the absence of a statement from the Beatles record company Apple saying it was untrue, the rumour became so widespread that both the BBC and Life magazine sent reporters to Paul’s farm in Scotland and get photos. Paul had taken refuge from the Beatles’ legal battles at his farm in Scotland and he was not at all happy to be confronted by reporters. When the crew from Life magazine appeared on his farm, an angry Paul doused the photographer with a bucket of water as he took pictures.
The reporters quickly left and Paul, realizing that the photos would cast him in a negative light, followed after them. In exchange for the film of his outburst, Paul agreed to let the Life crew do an interview and take photos of him, his wife Linda, adopted daughter Heather and their new daughter Mary born at the end of August to prove it. Life printed the story as Paul Is Still With Us on 7 November 1969. Paul declared that the rumour probably started because he hadn’t been much in the press lately and didn’t have anything to say.
After the Life magazine article, coverage of the rumour declined rapidly, but there’s always an upside and in the weeks that the hoax ran all over the world, the sales of the records which held the secret clues increased significantly, leading some to suppose that the hoax itself was perpetrated by Apple to generate much needed cash. After all it was only a few months since John Lennon has said in an interview that “Apple is losing money. If it carries on like this, we’ll be broke in six months.”
Which is perhaps the key to why people believed it so readily? They were crazy times of great paranoia: Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther Kingt, Vietnam, Civil Rights, the Tate-LaBianca murders, where the Manson family murdered six people. And on top of that, people sensed that all was not well with the Beatles. They were still frighteningly successful and their last 3 albums – Abbey Road, Let It Be and The White Album – had all gone to No 1 in every available country (even the ropey ‘Yellow Submarine’ soundtrack album sold in the millions). and they’d had two Number One singles in ‘Get Back’ and ‘The Ballad of John & Yoko’
But they had stopped touring and had apparently been receiving fan mail since 1966 asking why their music got so weird. Well, drugs is why and by 1969 both John and George had been busted. And they were now all married, Paul being the last to fall when he married Linda Eastman at Marylebone Registry Office on 12 March 1969. And divorced too, Lennon having left his wife for a shrieking Japanese muse called Yoko Ono and had spent much of the year in beds or bags, apparently for peace.
The final straw was when they appointed Allen Klein, a New York showbiz accountant with a fearsome reputation – someone described him as ‘having all the charm of a broken lavatory seat’ – as manager. Paul however was not keen, preferring his new father-in-law, high powered New York entertainment lawyer Lee Eastman. This fundamental disagreement over Klein and the appointment of Eastman as legal advisers were the factors in the eventual break-up of the Beatles. Eastman & Eastman were appointed Apple’s legal advisers and Klein was their business manager. It all depended on co-operation which never happened – each side wanted the big prize and they hated each other.
By the end of the Summer of 1969 they were all sick of each other and wanted at least a break. John was under Yoko’s spell and doing his Peace Campaign thing, Ringo was in movies, George has stockpiled tons of songs the Beatles had rejected and wanted to do an album. They only ever met for business and last time they were all in the same room on 20 September it ended in acrimony and Lennon quitting. The same week someone decided in Iowa decided to start a little bit of student mischief…