As it’s Halloween, it seems fitting to take a look at one of the weirdest elements of the Beatles story: the ‘Paul is Dead’ conspiracy theory. Although it originated way back in 1967, it endures to this day. In fact, since the advent of the internet, it’s probably become even more of a big deal, with countless websites dedicated to exposing the ‘truth’ about what happened. Yes, there are people who still believe that Paul McCartney was killed in a car crash and replaced by a lookalike.
The alleged car crash was said to have happened in January 1967, in icy conditions on the M1 motorway. The February edition of The Beatles’ fan club magazine reported that this was complete nonsense, with Paul himself confirming that he had in fact been at home all day.
But this wasn’t the end of the rumour. By 1969, people were pointing to what they saw as ‘clues’ in The Beatles’ music that Paul had died after all. This time, it was suggested that the so-called car crash had happened even earlier, in November 1966. Apparently, Paul had driven away angrily after an argument during a recording session, which is when the crash happened (he was actually on holiday with girlfriend Jane Asher at the time). But rather than bringing an end to The Beatles, a massive cover-up was conducted, with Paul being replaced by a lookalike named William Campbell (or William Shepherd, or Billy Shears… it varies). A man who not only looked and sounded exactly like him, but played and wrote songs exactly like him. Yep. Makes perfect sense…
So what exactly are these clues in the music? Hidden messages have been reported, such as the line “I buried Paul” in ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. When asked about this, John Lennon revealed that the words he was actually saying were “cranberry sauce”, which kind of sums up how hilarious the whole thing is in the first place.
It’s not just the music itself, though. Clues have also been picked out from the album covers. Abbey Road in particular has been subject to much scrutiny. Apparently the image of The Beatles on the zebra crossing depicts a funeral procession; John Lennon is a heavenly figure (due to being dressed all in white), Ringo Starr is the undertaker (because he’s dressed in black) and George Harrison is a gravedigger (presumably because that’s the only role that was left). And Paul? Well, he’s barefoot. So he must be dead. He’s also out of step with the other three. So, you know. He must be dead. But wait, that’s not all. The car in the background has a license plate which reads ’28IF’, which obviously means that if Paul were alive, he would be 28 (discounting the fact that he was actually 27 at the time).
Needless to say, the band themselves laughed off the idea. But that hasn’t stopped people looking for slip-ups. John Lennon’s 1971 song ‘How Do You Sleep?’ was notable for its digs at Paul, and included the line “Those freaks was right when they said you was dead.” Clearly, this was John being his usual mischievous self, but of course it was taken by some as confirmation of the cover-up. Just a couple of years ago, there was a huge fuss made over an ‘interview’ Ringo had supposedly given to the Hollywood Inquirer, in which he confessed to the whole thing and explained their reasons for going along with it. The problem was, the ‘interview’ never happened, and the Hollywood Inquirer doesn’t exist.
Paul himself has made fun of the theory. His 1993 live album was cleverly titled Paul Is Live, and its cover parodied some of the Abbey Road ‘clues’ (including the car’s license plate, which now read ’51IS’, meaning he is alive and is 51).
Some fans believe the rumour was started by The Beatles themselves as a way of making fun of people who read too much into things. This could well be true, but either way, it’s a rumour that certainly took on a life of its own.