The oddly endearing and enduring belief that Paul McCartney was killed at the start of 1967 and replaced with a lookalike.
With our current batch of conspiracy theories increasingly leading to violence, murder and fuckwits protesting outside hospitals where people are dying, it’s nice to look back on the good old days, when a conspiracy theory was just harmless fun, the stuff of the amateur investigator, the oddball crank and teenagers with nothing better to do than believe that their favourite pop star had died and been replaced by a duplicate.
The ‘Paul McCartney is Dead’ story seems to be the first pop music conspiracy theory – there would be others about stars from previous eras, but they only began to emerge in the 1970s, the decade of paranoia. This is a theory that could only ever emerge in the era when pop became rock, singles gave way to albums and what had been throwaway music started to be taken very seriously. Up until the second half of the 1960s, albums were often seen as nothing but a collection of hits and filler, sleeves little more than a photo of the artists, artfully posed if you were lucky. Scant effort was put into pop music LPs, the idea being that singles – those three-minute bursts of affordable pleasure – were what the kids wanted. But by 1967, the idea of the album as an artistic statement in its own right was coming to the fore, pushed in large part by the Beatles Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Conceptual themes, conceptual covers. And with those covers and narratives came the opportunity to pour over every aspect of an album, every little piece of hidden art and veiled reference.
The ‘Paul is Dead’ rumours actually preceded Sgt Pepper by a few months. It’s unsure just how it started, but the spread of the story is remarkable in a pre-internet age. The claims are pretty detailed, if bizarre – Paul McCartney had been killed in a car crash while driving along the M1 on January 7th 1967. The crash came after an argument with his bandmates, and McCartney was decapitated in the accident. In order to keep the fans from being distraught and to maintain the cash cow that was The Beatles, the band drafted in a duplicate who had been found in a Paul McCartney lookalike contest, using their recent retirement from live performance to help cover up the truth. Some especially dramatic versions of the story have MI5 behind the replacement, forcing the band to do so in order to maintain the national spirit. This doppelganger was identified as a Scottish orphan called ‘William Campbell’ or, post-Sgt Pepper, ‘Billy Shears’ or ‘William Campbell Shears’, and he was apparently so good that not only did he look exactly like McCartney, he also sounded like him. Having pulled off the con of the decade, the Beatles then somehow felt the urge to drop clues and hints about it throughout their remaining work, possibly out of guilt for fooling their devoted fans. This included the line “the Walrus was Paul” on Glass Onion and the words “turn me on, dead man” that could be heard if you played Revolution 9 backwards – both tracks from the band’s White Album. As evidence goes, this left something to be desired; had the album shown a photo of a dead walrus – ideally in a crashed car – on the cover, then fair enough.
Further ‘evidence’ was found in the fact that on the back cover of Sgt Pepper, McCartney is facing the opposite direction from his bandmates; the cover of Magical Mystery Tour, which has one band member in a different coloured outfit from everyone else; the ‘fact’ that you could hear the words “I buried Paul” if you played Strawberry Fields Forever backwards (the words are actually “cranberry sauce”); and most famously, the cover of Abbey Road, where a bare-footed McCartney is shown out of step with his bandmates, just one of several clues on that photograph.
Of course, by the time that Abbey Road, McCartney was out of step with his bandmates – the only member of the band to object to the notorious Allen Klein becoming their business manager (and how time would prove him right on that one), upset at John Lennon’s decision to leave the band and simply wanting to get off the Beatles rollercoaster and enjoy some private life. It was the Beatles who were dead, not Paul.
As stupid stories go, this one stubbornly refused to disappear. American journalists would bombard the Beatles press office asking if the story was true (the story never gained much traction in Britain), and then in October 1969, the rumour became the subject of discussion on Detroit radio station WKNR-FM. Two days later, The Michigan Daily ran a satirical report by Fred LaBour, which explored the rumours and threw in several made-up ‘clues’. Of course, as we all know, satire can quickly be taken as fact. Other radio stations across America took up the story, which gathered its own steam as things progressed, suggestions becoming fact, denial becoming evidence. Even though he had addressed the rumours as early as 1967, McCartney’s silence – which was down to him having withdrawn to Scottish isolation in the wake of the Beatles breaking up – seemed to just provide more proof – silence is violence, as the saying now goes.
By the end of 1969, John Lennon had been blamed for the rumours starting – well, you have to blame someone, and to this day it’s unclear just where the story began – and a plethora of novelty records on the subject had been released by eager opportunists. By 1970, the story had begun to fizzle out, especially when McCartney released his debut solo album – though, like any good conspiracy story, it has never quite gone away. There are people who will doggedly believe anything, even as every bit of their evidence is chipped away at. The conspiracy is more interesting than the truth, after all.
It’s understandable that a story like this would gain credence – the Beatles were the biggest band in the world, essentially the inventors of rock music as we know it and attracted obsessive fans, from screaming teenyboppers to the sort of people who would spend days pouring over every aspect of an album cover in search of some enlightenment. There is nothing quite as attractive as the idea that you know something that others don’t – the satisfaction of solving mysteries that others cannot. Given the visual complexity of the Sgt Pepper cover, the ambiguity of many Beatles songs and the increasing sense that nothing was quite as it seems in the late 1960s – an era of Vietnam, student revolution, Charles Manson and rock stars dying in mysterious circumstances – it’s easy to see why people might have bought into this story. It speaks of deceit, mystery, paranoia and a desperate attempt to get the truth out there through a series of cryptic clues that The Man would overlook but which the kids would understand.
McCartney, of course, was not dead. His interest in and support of the counter-culture of the 1960s certainly was, and his musical ambition was arguably on its last legs, but the man himself has remained in rude health. Unless you think that the fact that none of his work since the end of the Sixties has been as revolutionary and progressive as his work with the Beatles is the best evidence that he was replaced with a lookalike and soundalike who had none of his songwriting talent, of course…
Here’s a radio investigation courtesy of the 365 Days Project.
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