“Paul is dead…” if you were born in the late 50s or early 60s as I was, you certainly remember the greatest music conspiracy theory of all time. But what was really behind the rumors of Beatle Paul McCartney’s death? Publicity stunt? Just a playful hoax by the Fab Four? Or could there be any truth to this over 50 year old controversy that, like Sir Paul himself – just refuses to die!
I was prompted to take a fresh look at the whole “Paul is Dead,” thing when I recently saw a Paul McCartney tribute show. The fellow doing Paul, Tony Kishman, was an incredible spot on recreation of Sir Paul. Tony has been “doing Paul” since the earliest days of Beatlemania on Broadway. During the show I saw, he looked and sounded so much like the former Beatle, that he lent credence to the idea that the person we all believe to BE Paul McCartney, could indeed have been an imposter for the last 50 years.
At least that is how the theory goes. According to the Paul is Dead mythology, the real Paul McCartney died in a horrible car wreck in 1966. This was the time when The Beatles were at the peak of their sky rocketing career. Fearing what news of Paul’s death could have done to their careers and record company profits, “The Lads” orchestrated the greatest hoax in musical history, and replaced the real Paul with a virtual double named William Shears. (Yes, THAT “Billy Shears” from Sgt. Peppers, but more on that later.)
“He Blew His Mind Out In a Car”
As the theory goes, in the early morning of November 9, 1966, Paul lost control of his car on an icy road, skidded off the road, hit a pole and died instantly, in a near decapitation. Shears was a near spitting image of McCartney, who could even sing, talk and act like him, some proponents of the theory say, John and Paul were aware of him, and knew him from winning a Paul McCartney look-a-like contest.
And so the story goes, the Beatles were able to continue on with their hit-making career undisturbed, by replacing Paul with Shears, and keep their big secret well hidden from the world. But, so the legend goes, they grew so guilty about covering up the death of their beloved friend and bandmate, that they started to “pepper” clues about the truth in their album jackets, and lyrics themselves.
The line in a “Day in the Life,” one of the hit tracks from the legendary album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, “He blew his mind out in a car…” is supposed to be a direct allusion to the auto accident. The name of Paul’s “character” in the Band is “Billy Shears” the same as the real name of the imposter who replaced him.
The cover of that album released in 1967, is supposedly a big clue itself, with theorists asserting that the image of a whole cadre of the band’s heroes is not just a gathering, but a funeral. They point to the freshly dug earth in the foreground, the younger Beatles all dressed in black, and to a patch of yellow flowers prominently displayed in the front, forming the shape of a left-handed bass guitar — a memorial to McCartney? Fans who believed in the theory started looking for hints in the band’s other songs and albums as well, and found more than a few!
Perhaps one of the best-known is their 1968 track “Revolution #9,” which, if played backward, has one part that sounds a lot like a violent car crash and a voice that can be made out to be saying, “He hit a pole! Better get him to see a surgeon.”
According to a recent write up about the conspiracy in Rolling Stone, the supposed audio clues didn’t stop there. Play “I’m So Tired” backwards, and you get a recorded phrase that sounds kind of like, “Paul is dead, miss him, miss him.” Slow down “Strawberry Fields Forever” and you can hear John saying, “I buried Paul.” In interviews, however, Lennon claims what he was actually saying was “cranberry sauce.” With the help of more recent digital technologies, (much to the surprise of this reporter, who was freaked out when he heard this as a kid!) this has proven to be true!
Then there’s the famous cover for Abbey Road, in which all four bandmates are crossing the street toward their studio. At first glance, the image looks harmless. “Paul is Deaders,” however, are convinced that the album is a huge confirmation that McCartney is, in fact, dead. In the picture, John is wearing all white, just like a priest; Ringo’s all dressed in black like a pallbearer; and George is bringing up the rear in a blue-jean getup, the gravedigger of the group.
And Paul? The supposedly deceased Beatle walks out of step and shoeless across the road, theorists say, because he’s dead, and there is a tradition in the UK of burying the dead without shoes.
Yet another example that theorists point to is the significance of the black walrus that appears on the cover of their 1967 album Magical Mystery Tour. According to these theorists, the black walrus symbolizes death in certain Scandinavian cultures, and McCartney was undoubtedly in that animal costume.
And in a truly bizarre coincidence – or was it? – on a later Beatles release, the White Album, Lennon sings on one track, “Glass Onion,” “Well here’s another clue for you all – the walrus was Paul!”
And that is hardly the end of the clues of Paul’s alleged death buried in Beatles albums or song lyrics, there are others all through their catalogue.
Paul Sets the Record Straight?
As for Paul – or is it “Billy”? – he has said the rumors don’t really bother him. “To the people’s minds who prefer to think of them as rumors, then I’m not going to interfere,” he told Life Magazine in 1969. “I’m not going to spoil their fantasy, but if I were dead, I would probably be the last to know.”
As for the clues? According to John Lennon, (who was well known for his sense of humor) the “boys were just having a go,” with all the critics that were reading too much into their music.
Sir Paul, I believe is still alive and well, and still packing stadiums to cheering crowds in his 70s. However there is one eerie and unfortunate truth about “hidden messages” and deathly symbolism in Beatles songs.
It wasn’t rumors of Paul’s death that Charles Manson and his “family” believed that were cryptically hidden in Beatles songs, but messages from God hinting at the coming apocalypse – that Manson called “Helter Skelter,” after the Beatles song of the same name.
Manson thought that the Fab Four were actually angels sent by God to reveal the secrets of the approaching Armageddon, and that, in order to start the end of the world, they needed Manson’s help.
This is the tragically absurd reasoning he gave during his trial for the murder of Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of film director Roman Polanski, and the guests she was hosting at their house in Hollywood in August of 1969.