Why do members of the conspiracy theory lunatic fringe still insist that The Beatle died and was replaced by a double in 1966?
It’s crackers that in 2023 there are still people prepared to argue that Beatle Paul McCartney was killed in 1966 and was replaced by a double, but this appears to be the view of journalist James Delingpole who frequently makes this point to Toby Young in the podcast London Calling. James is, of course, wrong. Let’s look at some of the evidence that tells us that the James Paul McCartney who is about to tour Australia is the same person who was born in Walton, Liverpool, on 18 June 1942.
In Peter Jackson’s Get Back, a documentary fashioned from early 1969 footage of The Beatles recording what would become their last-to-be-released album Let It Be, we drop in for hours on end on candid conversations between the band members. They frequently talk about their joint past, stuff only the four of them could know, and they jam songs that they used to play in their early days. This includes One After 909, which John and Paul wrote when they were teenagers, with the group recording an unreleased version in March 1963.
One After 909 wasn’t the first time the group returned to an early song after 9 November 1966 (the apparent date of Paul’s death in a car crash). In December 1966, at the start of recording sessions for what would become Sgt Pepper, Paul brought When I’m Sixty-Four in for consideration; he and John completed it. It was a piano tune that Paul used to play in the Cavern Club as a breather between rockier songs or when the power went out. Ex-Cavern attendee and later co-manager Debbie Greenberg told me at Beatleweek in 2022 the exact date that Paul performed it at the Cavern for the last time (I forget it exactly, but I think it was 1962). So did Dead Paul somehow pass the tune and words on to New Paul? (New Paul who had been found and brought up to speed with impersonating him in less than three weeks.)
Elsewhere in Jackson’s Get Back, the group are chatting about touring back in 1964. They had been forced to get a stand-in drummer for an unwell Ringo on their Australasia tour, a chap called Jimmie Nichol, who, Paul remembers, was so distracted by all the pretty girls at the concerts that he kept losing his place in the songs. The others smile at their shared memory. (Nichol would also regularly use the phrase “Getting Better”, which inspired Paul’s 1967 song of that name.) There are dozens of these sorts of chats in Get Back. One of the takeaways from the film is how close, how together these four are – the “four-headed monster” as Mick Jagger called them. They’d been like that for years, uninterrupted.
Many others talk of how they operated as a unit. How they were almost telepathic with one another. Their relationship has been forensically documented by scores of biographers, most notably premier Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn, who has spent 40 years examining in granular detail their lives from the moment they were born. It is likely that he would know if Paul had expired in 1966.
Lewisohn himself makes an interesting comment on the September 1969 meeting that took place between John, George and Paul, when they were close to breaking up and that they recorded for an absent Ringo, which only came to light in 2019. Paul speaks rather bluntly to George, saying that until the recent likes of Here Comes The Sun and Something, it was he and John that had written most of their most popular songs. George angrily counters that a lot of people liked his earlier songs too. The point that Lewisohn makes is that it was because John, Paul and George had been close friends since 1957 that they could speak to one another like this. They had been teenagers together, they had been young men going through the maelstrom of Beatlemania together – and they formed an extraordinary bond with one another.
In the summer of 2023, Paul has just released a book Eyes Of The Storm that features photographs he took at the height of Beatlemania in 1963 and 1964, photographs he had mislaid for many years. In several interviews, he has discussed the photos. Is he making this all up, pretending that he was there when he wasn’t? Of course not. No more so than in the thousands of other interviews he’s given over the decades discussing every aspect of his long and remarkable life.
If it was meant to be a secret that Paul died, why did The Beatles put so many ‘clues’ in their songs and visuals – “I buried Paul” on Strawberry Fields Forever; Paul’s black rose contrasting with the other three’s red roses on the Your Mother Should Know film sequence; a hand above his cartoon avatar’s head on the Yellow Submarine album cover, apparently an Indian signifier of death; “The walrus was Paul” on Glass Onion, a John song which references his I Am The Walrus; all the clues on the Abbey Road album cover, and many others. Did they want to get found out?
We have Paul’s handwritten lyrics from across the whole Beatles era. The handwriting does not change. Musicologists can point to common compositional traits pre- and post- the supposed accident, despite the huge variety in Paul’s songwriting.
Perhaps it’s crazy that any of the above even needs to be written. We are not in the era of brain-fried-by-acid hippies of the late 1960s. One of the most famous people in the world could not be replaced by someone who looked exactly like him (if anything, it was John whose look radically changed in ’66!), sounded exactly like him, and had the same remarkable musical talent as him. Paul was intimately known by a huge number of people – his bandmates, girlfriend Jane Asher, manager Brian Epstein, producer George Martin, roadie Mal Evans, his dad Jim, his brother Mike, and many, many others. To expect all of these people to know and none of them ever speak out is clearly absurd. Just the other week, Ringo said that The Beatles “had a great laugh” about the conspiracy theory (ah, well he would say that, wouldn’t he?!, say the conspiracy theorists).
Also, where did the double come from? How was he found? What was his life beforehand? What about all the people who knew him? Are they all in on the conspiracy too?
Paul McCartney was one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century, possibly the greatest melodist of them all. He’s pop music’s only billionaire. In his heyday, his vocal range stretched from screaming rock and roll (I’m Down, Long Tall Sally, Oh! Darling) to gentle ballads (Michelle, Here, There And Everywhere, I Will) and everything in between. He has played 54 different instruments on his recordings. He has tackled innumerable musical genres. Perhaps it’s this depth of talent, this chameleon-like ability to be a one-man music industry, that confuses those who think that this person can’t possibly really exist. Like Shakespeare, he has to be an impostor: there’s surely skullduggery at work. Perhaps this soothes envy in our psychological makeup – those whose genius we perhaps don’t fully buy into, we can take down a peg or two. It makes us feel better. Plus, some people are just natural contrarians and conspiratorialists, and I should note that James Delingpole comes up with far more fanciful reasons for believing that Paul is dead.
For those of us who want to celebrate the rare, awesome human beings who push artistic endeavour to new heights, though – and also like to think of ourselves as rational, thinking people who value evidence – we can happily say: Paul is not dead. And long may that continue to be true.
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