‘’Those freaks was right when they said you was dead” spat John Lennon in the 1971 song ‘How Do You Sleep?’ It was a venomous retort to his ex-bandmate Paul McCartney in an ongoing feud after the break-up of The Beatles. But what he meant by these caustic lines is a little more outré. These lyrics were referring to a rather bizarre theory that had been circulating since 1967, a rumour that had been spreading around the world that Paul McCartney had in fact died in a car crash in 1966, and been replaced by a lookalike provided by the MI5. Yes, that’s right Sir Paul McCartney, arguably one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century with a solo career that would span six decades and result in 26 studio albums and 111 singles, is in fact an imposter called William Shears Campbell. As wacky conspiracy theories go, this one may be in the top ten, and it does beg the question: just what had these fans been putting in their Kool-Aid? Let us travel down into the murky depths of the ‘sea of green’ and explore how one of the strangest myths in popular music, the ‘Paul is Dead’ legend, came to be.
The Myth first came to public attention in America in 1969, when an article was printed in the Times-Delphic, the student newspaper of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. It was written by Tim Harper and titled ‘Is Beatle Paul McCartney Dead?’. It cited various cryptic clues in the album artwork and song lyrics that all pointed to Paul’s premature demise. Harper had heard it from a musician on campus who had picked it up on the West Coast where it was spreading and gaining a paranoiac momentum. The erroneous facts state that on a Wednesday morning at 5 am, Paul McCartney left the Abbey Road studios after a heated exchange with Lennon, jumped in his Austin Healey and sped off. What happened next is open to fictitious conjecture, some say he was decapitated in a head-on collision, others that a crazed fan named Rita was responsible for the supposed crash. One point they did all agree on was that Paul McCartney was no more.
The story gained further media attention when someone called up Michigan DJ Russ Gibb, live on air, and detailed the demise of the Beatle. His evidence was that if you played The Beatles track ‘Revolution 9’ from ‘The White Album’ backwards, there was a secret message that said “turn me on, dead man”. What more evidence could we possibly need, right? But Gibb then decided to add fuel to the fire by producing a one-hour special titled, The Beatle Plot, where more outlandish claims were made and the conspiracy spread further until it started to gain first national, then international news coverage. Beatles fans started with gusto to dissect lyrics, album artwork, liner notes, and photographs looking for hidden messages, signs, and symbols of this supposedly gargantuan cover-up. The climate was ripe for this sort of story; conspiracies and paranoia were part of the social and political landscape. The Martin Luther King Jr. and JFK assignations had left the youth and counterculture in no doubt of the corrupt and nefarious attitudes of the establishment. Vietnam was raging, protests were being staged all over the world as a youth movement clashed with the power structure, and people took drugs and listened to music.
The conspiracy would begin with ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ album, The Beatles magnum opus. It would be a catalyst for the ‘summer of love’ and the experimentation with mind-expanding chemicals. Discovering hidden meanings in songs had become popular as people sat around, opened their minds and ‘floated downstream’, interpreting lyrics and reading into things that may or may not have been there. When ‘Sgt Peppers’ had first been released, John Lennon had come under scrutiny for the song ‘Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds’ as the media had noticed that the title also spelled LSD. ‘Peppers’ would be the album that The Beatles would be recording when McCartney had his supposed fatal accident. He had in fact experienced an accident on his moped in 1965 that resulted in a chipped tooth and a laceration on his lip, and another incident where his Mini Cooper car had been written off after an collision. This latter episode did make the papers and briefly, it was speculated whether McCartney had in fact been killed. In reality, he wasn’t actually driving or even in the Mini Cooper that crashed. But it may have been enough to ignite the rumor that would manifest its self into Rock and roll history.
To further fuel the flames, in the 1967 single, “Strawberry Fields”, Lennon is supposedly heard saying “I buried Paul” in the last section of the song, admitting to the death of his friend. Lennon would later say that was actually muttering the words ‘cranberry sauce’ in the background. On the cover art of ‘Sgt Peppers,’ there is a reef in the shape of a bass that was thought to signify Paul’s funeral. Paul is also wearing an armband with the letters OPD, which was convincing enough for some to believe he was in fact, ‘officially pronounced dead’ (OPP actually stands for ‘Ontario Provincial Police’, but who knows maybe they were in on it too). In the track ‘Day In a Life’, the character in the song dies in a car crash, and the line ‘He blew his mind out in a car’; is supposed to refer to the car crash McCartney had lost his life in, but it actually refers to Tara Browne the heir to the Guinness fortune who died when his car ran a red light in 1966. Even William Shears makes an appearance on ‘Sgt Peppers’ as ‘Billy Shears, Ringo’s alternate ego on a ‘Little Help from my friends’. Paul even predicts the time of his apparent death on the LP, in the song ‘She’s Leaving Home’ the opening verse ‘’Wednesday morning at five o’clock As the day begins’’ the same day and time that he supposedly met his end.
On the ‘Abbey Road’ album cover, a suited, shoeless, Paul McCartney strides across a zebra crossing holding a cigarette. This innocent-looking troupe is supposedly signifying a funeral procession, with George Harrison acting as the grave digger (because he’s wearing denim, obviously), John Lennon as the priest, and McCartney as the deceased, as he’s shoeless – apparently in some cultures people are buried without shoes. The cigarette in his right hand send conspiracists into a frenzy since everyone knows Paul is a lefty. Imposter! Actually, Paul McCartney is right handed, he just plays guitar with his left, but according to theory, out of concern for the severe distress McCartney’s death would cause the Beatles’ audience, Britain’s secret service, the MI5 provided a stand-in. It’s claimed that McCartney’s replacement was named William Shears Campbell, and he was referred to as “Billy Shears” in the song “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The ‘evidence’ would build up over time until, The Beatles would have to actually address the issue after being inundated with phone calls to Apple (the name of their company at the time), and their press officer Derek Taylor. A reporter had even flown over from New York to try and procure an interview with the departed, or his stand-in. Understandably The Beatles were nonplussed, and Lennon commented at the time
“What did we do, stuff him and shave him? How could we do it? I don’t understand what it’s all about.”
Television programs followed, radio shows and newspaper articles, and eventually, a team of reporters tracked down McCartney at his farm in Scotland, where he had actually sought refuge, after the Beatles split, something the press were oblivious of at this point. McCartney, after initially being furious over the trespassing of the reporter from Life magazine, agreed to an interview to try and dispel rumours of his death.
“Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated, However,” he continued, “if I was dead, I’m sure I’d be the last to know.”
McCartney also commented that it may have been because he’d been keeping a lower profile, choosing to spend more time with his family instead of in the public eye.
The whole ‘Paul is Dead’ episode would result in a slew of novelty records, and a spike in sales, often witnessed after the actual death of an artist. It continues to perplex and ensnare conspiracy theorists who just won’t ‘let it be’ and still devote an excessive amount of time deciphering hidden clues and messages in The Beatles back catalog. Alas the real death came with the end of the 1960s, and of a band that changed music forever. Paul McCartney is alive and well and continues to tour and make music at the age of 81 – or does he?
Words by Liam Ward.