One of the (many) strange things to come out of the 1960s was the bizarre rumour that, before George and John died, the first Beatle to pass away was Paul McCartney. Weird? Yes. In bad taste? Almost certainly. According to the main source, an article written by a Michigan University student in the Daily newspaper in 1969, Paul died in a fiery car crash in 1966, the only survivor of which was his then girlfriend Jane Asher. According to the rumour, as this would have finished off the Fab Four, a lookalike replacement named Billy Shears (or William Campbell) was found. With a little plastic surgery and the growth of some scar-covering facial hair – matched by George, Ringo and John for the sake of fashion consistency – The Beatles kept on rocking. The ongoing aversion of McCartney (or Shears, or Campbell, depending on whom you believe) to spontaneous photography is said to be owing to his fear that the cover-up will be rumbled. However, The Beatles could not keep the truth hidden, and their post-Paul songs and albums are riddled with hints of McCartney’s ‘death’. Let’s look at the so-called ‘evidence’.
Hundreds of supposed clues to McCartney’s death have been reported by fans and followers of the legend. These include messages perceived when listening to a song being played backwards, and symbolic interpretations of both lyrics and album cover imagery. The photo on the cover of the Abbey Road album depicts The Beatles crossing the road with Lennon dressed in white, like a minister; Starr in black, like a pallbearer; and Harrison wearing the garb of a gravedigger. The barefoot McCartney is walking out of step with the others because… he’s dead. The number plate of a VW car in the background reads 28IF LMW: Paul would have been 28, if he’d been alive to make Abbey Road, as Linda McCartney Weeps. The lines “Come together / Over me” from the song Come Together refer not to a kinky sexual fantasy, but to the three remaining Beatles standing over Paul lying in state. The famous sleeve of Sergeant Pepper is even more explicit, showing a crowd of famous dead people, with The Beatles centre, all facing Paul, behind a BEATLES wreath. Wax figures of the band stand overlooking a grave. Splitting the words on the drum with a mirror reveals HE ^ DIE, pointing at Paul. There’s also a left-handed bass guitar, as played by Paul, with three sticks to symbolize the remaining Beatles, and a doll in a red-lined dress, holding a toy car: that’s a blood-soaked Jane Asher with the car Paul died in.
Inside, the sleeve shows Paul wearing an arm patch with the letters OPD: Officially Pronounced Dead. The lyrics tell it all: “Let me introduce you to the one and only Billy Shears / And Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. She’s Leaving Home reveals the time and day of the accident to be “Wednesday morning at five o’clock”. That’s confirmed in the lyrics of Good Morning, Good Morning – “Nothing to do to save his life”, “People running around / It’s 5 o’clock”. The song Revolution 9 also contains a message which seems to confirm the rumour when played backward – “Turn me on, dead man … turn me on, dead man … turn me on, dead man…”. Then there is the suggestion that the words spoken by Lennon in the final section of the song Strawberry Fields Forever are “I buried Paul” (McCartney later revealed the words were actually “cranberry sauce”). A hand apparently visible behind Paul’s head on I Am the Walrus was said to be a mystic sign of his death. And so on and so on.
All of this may sound rather implausible to say the least but at the time the rumour was viewed seriously enough for The Beatles’ press office to issue statements denying it vehemently. The rumours declined after a frank interview with McCartney was published in Life magazine in November 1969. However, ever since then, this particular urban legend has been referenced in popular culture and has, every now and again, reappeared with a new slant. Both Lennon and McCartney subsequently referred to the legend in their music: Lennon in his 1971 song How Do You Sleep? (describing those who had spread the rumour as ‘freaks’), and McCartney with his 1993 live album titled Paul is Live (parodying the Abbey Road cover and its ‘clues’). Even recently, a 2009 Wired Italia magazine article compared selected photographs of McCartney, taken before and after his alleged demise. Then, in 2010 a video documentary entitled Paul McCartney Really Is Dead: The Last Testament of George Harrison?, featuring audio tapes of a voice claiming to be Harrison explaining that the rumour is true, was released. Whilst this is widely derided as a fake, it can’t help but leave you wondering…