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Paul is Dead! A Pre-Internet Conspiracy

Posted by Ethan Clow on June 28, 2013

Paul is Dead! A Case study of pre-internet urban legend.

I admit this is out of left field, but I’ve always been fascinated with this urban legend, which centers around the idea that Paul McCartney of the Beatles died in 1966 and was replaced by a look-a-like and there are hidden clues in the Beatles’ work which reveal the truth.


So lets start with the background, the rumour’s exact origin is hard to nail down. A possible beginning might be the separate rumor that Paul McCartney had been killed in a car crash in London after a January 1967 traffic accident that involved his car. The rumour was acknowledged and rebutted in the February issue of The Beatles Book fanzine, but did this car crash story have an impact on the “Paul is Dead” rumour of 1969? Maybe.

The “Paul is Dead” conspiracy, as we know it, is American (at least as far as we know) and so let’s get into the official American version.  On 17 September 1969, student Tim Harper of Drake University in Iowa published an article in the school newspaper titled, “Is Beatle Paul McCartney Dead?” The article described a rumour that had been circulating on campus that Paul was dead (or insane or “freaked out”)

At that point the rumour included numerous clues from recent Beatles albums, including the “turn me on, dead man” message heard when “Revolution 9” from the White Album (1968) is played backwards. (You can hear the section from “Revolution 9” here, first forward and then backwards. And once you’ve been primed by reading “turn me on, dead man” you can definitely hear it.)

Now, as Beatles fans know, in 1969, the band had just released their Abbey Road album, and were in the process of disbanding; “Let It Be” had already been recorded but was yet to be released. If indeed the Beatles had replaced Paul in 1966, we may have to face the fact that it was a good decision considering the quality of music they went on to produce over those four years.

Back to Tim Harper’s article,  according to an article on Snopes… Tim Harper claimed to not be the source of hoax but rather was only reporting on it. In fact, while Harper presented several clues, many of the famous ones were not present in the original article.

Some of Harper’s clues included:

-the rapid change of music style of “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”

-there’s a mysterious hand over Paul’s head on the album art for Sgt Pepper, there’s also a left handed flower guitar on a grave at the Beatles feet.

-on the back of the cover, Paul is the only one not facing the camera.

Harper claims he got much of the information from fellow student Dartanyan Brown, who claims to have heard it first on the West Coast, repeated by various musicians at parties.

The hoax really took off on 12 October 1969, when a caller to Detroit radio station WKNR-FM told disc jockey Russ Gibb about the rumour and its clues. Gibb and other callers then discussed the rumour on the air for the next hour. Apparently they even improvised new clues on the spot.

Two days after the WKNR broadcast, The Michigan Daily published a satirical review of Abbey Road by University of Michigan student Fred LaBour under the headline “McCartney Dead; New Evidence Brought to Light”. It’s likely that many of the “clues” that LaBour was reporting about (albeit sarcastically) were likely created or inspired by the improvised anomaly hunting undertaken at the radio station two days earlier.

Regardless, the article identified various “clues” to McCartney’s death on Beatles album covers, including new clues from the just-released Abbey Road LP. As LaBour had invented many of the clues, he was astonished when the story was picked up by newspapers across the United States.

It should be noted, that the radio DJs, writer Labour and others, all assumed this was a joke and didn’t realize how seriously some people were taking it.

WKNR-FM further fueled the rumour with a special two-hour program on the subject, “The Beatle Plot”, which aired 19 October 1969 (and in the years since on Detroit radio).

The next step for the rumour came in the early morning hours of October, 21, 1969, Roby Yonge, a disc jockey at New York radio station WABC, discussed the rumour on the air for over an hour before being pulled off the air for breaking format. At that time of night, WABC’s signal covered a wide listening area and could be heard in 38 states and at times, other countries.

When Labour started getting international press calls about the story, he unwisely decided to play along and assert that the story was true. Paul was dead, the clues were real.

There was a followup article, printed in the underground journal “Big Fat Magazine”, which gives the date of Russ Gibb’s broadcast of the 12th of October 1969, the date of Fred LaBour’s tongue-in-cheek response as the 14th of October 1969 and we also know that “The Beatle Plot” aired on the 19th of October, and the Roby Yonge segment aired on the 21st of October.

Some of the details of the clues invented by LaBour included hints from the Beatles on the Abbey Road album art, the invention of William Campbell, Paul’s “look-alike” as well as the statement that a walrus was a Greek symbol for a corpse (this seemingly derived from the Harper clue that the walrus was a Scandinavian or American Indian sign of death) Pertaining to this,  I could find no reference that supports the Walrus as a sign of death or a corpse.

A lot of myths are broken down into two categories: album art and lyrics.

Album Art Clues:

Sgt Pepper clues:


I’ve circled the clues in red, so they’re easier to spot. First, you have the hand over Paul’s head… which means… he’s dead. I guess. Next, there’s the left handed flower guitar on the grave (Paul was left-handed) The doll on the right, there’s a small car on her lap, supposedly that’s the same kind of car Paul was killed in. Paul is also wearing an armband, which you can’t really see on the front cover, but on the back of the album it says “OPD” meaning British police jargon for “Officially Pronounced Dead.” The patch actually reads “OPP,” which stands for Ontario Provincial Police. Paul was given the patch while on tour in Canada. If you closely at clear images of the armband, you can make out Ontario’s provincial flag.

Also, if you look at “Lonely Hearts” backwards is says “I ONE IX HE ◊ DIE” which properly translated, means “11 9 HE DIE” (i.e. November 9, He Die)

Magical Mystery Tour:


Paul is the only one in a black walrus outfit, which means he’s dead. Frankly, I’m not sure how you can tell that’s Paul. Maybe the Beatles made that clear elsewhere.

Abbey Road


The front shows a funeral procession and depicts John as the preacher (in white), Ringo as a mourner (in black), with Paul as the deceased, followed by George as the gravedigger (in work clothes) Additionally, Paul is in bare feet, is out of step with the others, has his eyes closed, and is the only one shown smoking, holding a cigarette in his right hand when he is a left handed. This is also the said to be the location of the car crash that killed Paul and that the Beatles are walking out of a graveyard on the left. But as fans who have been there know, there is no graveyard at that location. There is a Volkswagen on the left, its license plate reads LMW – 28IF. The clue here is that if Paul was really Paul, he would have been 28 years old. (“28 if…”) However, Paul was actually 27 years old when Abbey Road was done.

Sgt Pepper Clues:

Lyrics from “Fixing A Hole”

“… and it really doesn’t matter if I’m wrong I’m right where I belong.  See the Beatles standing there, they disagree..”  and  “…silly Beatle run around…” (William is adjusting to his new role as PM)

The ACTUAL lyrics are

“…and it really doesn’t matter if I’m wrong I’m right Where I belong I’m right Where I belong. See *the people* standing there who disagree…”   and “Silly *people* run around…”

Lyrics from She’s Leaving Home:

  “..Wednesday morning at five o’clock as the day begins..” (the time of the supposedly fatal accident)

Lyrics from Lovely Rita:

“..standing by a parking meter when I caught a glimpse of Rita..” (he took his eyes off the road!)

Lyrics from Good Morning, good Morning:

  “..nothing to do to save his life..” and “..and you’re on your own you’re in the street..” and     “..people running around it’s 5 o’clock..” and  “..watching the skirts you start to flirt, now you’re in gear..” (all references to Paul’s death)

Lyrics from A Day In The Life:

“..I saw the photograph. He blew his mind out in a car, he didn’t notice that the lights had changed.  A crowd of people stood and stared they’d seen his face before, nobody was really sure if he was from the house of Paul..”

The ACTUAL lyrics are

“I saw the photograph. He blew his mind out in a car, he didn’t notice that the lights had changed.  A crowd of people stood and stared they’d seen his face before, nobody was really sure if he was from the *House of Lords*”

Magical Mystery Tour clues:

Lyrics from Strawberry Fields Forever:

“I buried Paul” (from the end of the song)

The ACTUAL lyrics are

“cranberry sauce.”

Lyrics from I Am The Walrus:

“..I am the eggman, they are the eggmen, I am the walrus..” (eggmen represent “life”, walrus represents death. Since Paul is (supposedly) the walrus, the meaning is that I have life, they have life, I am dead).

In actuality, Lennon stated that “I am the Walrus” was intentionally written to be nonsensical to confuse people looking for meaning in their songs.  Also, as I mentioned, I couldn’t find references that say that the walrus is a sign of death.

Lyrics from Hello Goodbye:

“ say goodbye, I say hello..” (exit Paul, enter William Campbell)

In actuality, the song is thematically consistent with Paul’s many lyrics which talk about romantic conflicts and difference of opinion. Or, as my friend once pointed out to me, its a song about two people who can’t speak the same language talking to each other.

Lyrics from All You Need Is Love:

“..No one you can save that can’t be saved..” and  “..nothing you can see that isn’t shown..” and  “..yes he’s dead..” (misheard lyrics) and  “..we loved you yeah, yeah, yeah..”

The ACTUAL lyrics are

“…No one you can save that can’t be saved…” and “…Nothing you can see that isn’t shown…” and “…*She love you*, yeah, yeah, yeah…”

The White Album clues:

-Play Revolution 9 backwards and you’ll hear “turn me on, dead man.. ..turn me on, dead man” (audio pareidolia)

For a detailed breakdown of how pareidolia works in relation to backwards music see… The Skeptic’s Dictionary

– Glass Onion contains several alleged clues:

“..I told you about Strawberry Fields..” and  “..well here’s another place you can go..” and “ see how the other half live, looking through a glass onion..” and “..I told you about the walrus and me..” and “..well here’s another clue for you all, the walrus WAS Paul..” and  “..I told you about the fool on the hill..” and “..listen to me, fixing a hole in the ocean..” and “..looking through a glass onion..”

It’s well documented that Lennon was getting annoyed with people searching for hidden meanings in Beatles songs so included several lines to frustrate people. There is another theory that “glass onion” is a British term for a coffin handle. This was apparently invented by DJ Gibb and there’s no evidence for such a term being used in Britain.

Let’s return to the British version of the car crash. Apparently this rumor was a source of distress to the Beatles themselves, who countered the rumor at least once (May 1967) in a press conference and again in the Beatles Book fanzine. However this could be the origin of the rumors that Tim Harper and Dartanyan Brown heard and inspired them to write about in their university newspapers.

One question we might have is why didn’t McCartney just come out and say “Hey, I’m alive!” Keep in mind that during this time, the Beatles were breaking up,  he wasn’t doing much public engagements and he was spending time at his Scottish retreat with his new wife to contemplate his forthcoming solo career.

All four Beatles denied any involvement in the “Paul Is Dead” hoax, either as creators of it, or as participants in a conspiracy. McCartney said this about the hoax to Life Magazine in 1969:

“Perhaps the rumour started because I haven’t been much in the press lately. I have done enough press for a lifetime, and I don’t have anything to say these days. I am happy to be with my family and I will work when I work. I was switched on for ten years and I never switched off. Now I am switching off whenever I can. I would rather be a little less famous these days.”

It’s interesting to consider who believes this, we talked about a conspiracy theory poll a few months ago, it asked American voters what they thought about a number of conspiracies. 5% of the voters believed Paul was dead and replaced by a look a like. To put this in perspective, about 126,000,000 Americans voted. If 5% of them believed this conspiracy, that means that 6,300,000 people buy into this.

Considering this theory spread over a period of weeks, going world wide essentially, its kind of amazing to consider how the internet has changed conspiracy theories. Surely with Facebook, Twitter and other social media, conspiracies can spread faster. Weeks become hours as it were. Yet, one must respect the power of this particular example. It went from a university newspaper to world wide news. It’s hard to imagine that happening today. Are we better off now? We do have resources to examine such claims. Resources that are at our fingertips thanks to the internet.

Yet, news sources seem as credulous as ever. And the tendency to take rumour as fact seems as persistent today as it did in 1969.


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