Halloween Special: Remembering the ‘Paul is dead’ hoax
By 1969, the world has already experienced the summer of love, the murders of Martin and Bobby, and fear and suspicion was rampant. So when a college student named Tom called a popular Detroit radio DJ talking about evidence he discovered that suggested that Paul McCartney of the Beatles had died, it set the world on fire.
Even though there was no internet chat rooms, blogs or 24-hour cable news, this rumor spread very quickly and was difficult to refute, given the volume of so-called “evidence.”
The shortened version of the story is that Paul McCartney had a minor car accident in 1966. Rumors about the accident were amplified to the assertion that he had crashed his car and was beheaded. He was then replaced by a lookalike, but the Beatles had left clues in their music and album art about the switch.
In 1969, rancor between members in the band had become public knowledge, and sales of the latest album, Abbey Road were not the greatest. A few college newspapers published stories about the rumor. So the world was ready on October 12, 1969 when Eastern Michigan University student Tom Zarski calls Uncle Russ Gibb on WKNR/Detroit and asks him to play “Revolution Number Nine” backwards. What they heard was “Turn me on, dead man.”
There were more clues: the album cover of Abbey Road depicted a funeral procession, with John Lennon the minister, Ringo Starr the undertaker, George Harrison the gravedigger, and Paul McCartney as the corpse (he was the only one barefoot). On Sgt Pepper’s cover, you had a graveyard scene, complete with a left-handed flower bass guitar (how Paul played it), with only three strings. There is a hand over Paul’s head, as if he is being blessed before burial. And if you hold mirror to the text on the bass drum, instead of “Lonely Hearts” it reads “I ONE IX HE<>DIE” which could mean 11-9, or November 9, 1966, the day he was killed.
Even the songs on Sgt. Pepper could indicate that Paul was replaced, as the title song introduces Billy Shears, supposedly really the replacement William Campbell. He then goes on to sing “Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song/And I’ll try not to sing out of key,” as if he’s still learning to sing. Click on the links for all of the many “clues.”
From WKNR the news spread like wild fire. My personal recollection is watching my oldest brother, Peter, stay awake all night listening to radio reports about Paul’s death, digging out his records playing parts backwards and looking for all the clues.
Classy 100’s Ron Arlen has strong memories of those days around Halloween in 1969:
You have to remember in ‘69, AM radio was still king and The Beatles were still the biggest band in the business. I was shocked when I heard the news. Every Beatle fan I knew could talk of nothing else. I was a radio and music geek even back then so naturally, as the rumor of Paul’s death began to take a firm hold on my imagination, and the imagination of many other fans, I searched for those elusive clues. I listened to the old vinyl records, from Sgt. Pepper on, at the wrong speed, spun them backwards on my turntable, isolated channels, poured over the album covers and song lyrics to find the hidden meanings.
It took the mainstream media and the Beatles themselves to finally squelch the rumor. The New York Times refuted it on Nov. 2nd and Life magazine did a cover story in early November 1969 where Paul just pleads “I want to live in peace.” Listeners like Ron Arlen finally got the message that it was just a hoax:
It wasn’t until contradictions, and denials from The Beatles themselves, began to surface that I realized it was just a story… and what a great story it really was. It may have been pure coincidence. I personally believe it was a well planned joke. John Lennon was a genius and would have been the only one in the band who was capable of perpetuating such an elaborate hoax.
One thing that it illustrates is how your mind can play tricks on you… at the end of Strawberry Fields we all listened for Lennon to say “I buried Paul”. John said what he actually said was “cranberry sauce”. On the LP it still sounds like I buried Paul, to me, but on the CD version it is “cranberry sauce” clear as day. But wait! They could have changed it later… Paul McCartney is alive and well… or is he? Ha ha haaaa… Happy Halloween!