How the cute Beatle became the dead Beatle
In November 1966, Sir Paul McCartney died. His car crashed, leaving the Beatles decapitated. In the midst of chaos, the legendary Beatles bass player was replaced with look-alike Billy Shears. Shears, born into an underprivileged family, was the winner of a McCartney look-alike contest. The transition was impeccable; Shears looked, talked and sang just like McCartney. The remaining Beatles could not deal with the guilt of lying to their oh-so-dedicated fans, so they began dropping hints.
This is the basis of the “Paul is Dead” conspiracy theory, whose clues include everything from photo evidence to hidden messages in songs. Said clues began being dropped in on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Not only does the album include the name Billy Shears, but its album cover also features the band’s heroes attending the funeral of McCartney. The band members, dressed in all black, look down upon the fresh flowers and dirt in the foreground… but these clues are just the start.
On Sgt. Pepper’s vinyl album cover, all three living Beatles are seen facing the viewer, whereas McCartney is the only one facing backward. These types of odd things have been interpreted as The Beatles trying to drop subtle hints about the new replacement.
Several songs include lyrical messages that have been taken as references to Macca’s death, including the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. On “A Day in the Life,” Lennon sings “He blew his mind out in a car/ He didn’t notice that the lights had changed/ A crowd of people stood and stare/ They’d seen his face before.” Here, Lennon alludes to the car accident that killed Mccartney.
On the Magical Mystery Tour album from 1967, you can hear John Lennon say words that sound like “I buried Paul” if you slow down the final section of the song “Strawberry Field Forever.” Off of the same album, “I am the Walrus,” is a relatively nonsensical song that is known as such. However, rumors circulated that the titular Walrus is a symbol of death and that if the Walrus is Paul, as suggested in the song “Glass Onion” from the White Album, then the song alludes to his mysterious death. In addition, there is an excerpt from a live performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear at the end of “I am the Walrus” where a character cries out “O, untimely death!”
The clues are not just in the regular lyrics themselves. The Beatles became famous for the idea of backmasking in songs. Backmasking is a deliberate process where audio is recorded, sometimes a message, and then cut and pasted into a song backwards. Therefore, you can only hear the clip if the audio is played in reverse.
Backmasking was found on several Beatles tracks and theorists found hidden messages in the audio. This technique was used several times on the White Album. For example, “Revolution 9” included messages like “Turn me on, dead man” and “He’s dead, nobody knows.” People have also shared that parts of the song sound like a car crash, referencing the tragic car accident that killed McCartney in 1966. From the same album, “I’m So Tired” also got lots of attention when listeners heard the backwards version with the lyrics “Paul is a dead man, miss him, miss him.”
The biggest clues came from The Beatles’ album Abbey Road. The album cover appears to be the four band members crossing the now-famous Abbey Road in London, England. Upon further examination, several things are hidden within the cover. For one, all of The Beatles, except McCartney, are walking with their left leg out first. In addition, McCartney is holding a cigarette in his right hand, despite being left-handed. Then comes the interpretation of The Beatles that created the backbone for the “Paul is Dead” theory.
This album cover is not simply the band crossing a road; it is a funeral procession. The angel or preacher comes first, followed by the undertaker, then the corpse and finally the gravedigger. Lennon leads the group in celestial all white, like an angel or god. Ringo, dressed in all black, is the undertaker. McCartney follows as the one who died; he is wearing a nice suit but no shoes, as they are unnecessary in death. In a full denim outfit, Harrison is the gravedigger (perhaps also an allusion to him always doing the grunt work of the band). The funeral procession idea is one that swayed more to believe something suspicious was going on with the world’s favorite band. Perhaps, if Billy Shears was right-handed, it would make sense that he was holding the cigarette in that hand. Finally, by taking a close look at the background of Abbey Road, you can see a Volkswagen Beetle with the license plate “20IF.” If you do the math, you discover that Paul McCartney would have been 28 at the time of the album being released IF he was not killed in the car crash.
The “Paul is Dead” theory is often considered a sort of branch to the chaos of Beatlemania. But why did such a theory gain so much recognition? With 73 million viewers watching their first TV performance, fame seemed to be a possible factor.
For example, when The Beatles did split up, many blamed Yoko Ono, wife of John Lennon. Though fellow band members had stated that they disliked how intrusive she was with the band, there was no reason to jump to that conclusion. Yoko was generally disliked by hardcore Beatles fans, whose hatred was often attributed to jeaolousy. Their insanely large fan group held a lot of power; certainly enough to shed some bad light on Lennon’s love.
Though not the first person to investigate the “Paul is Dead” theory, Tim Harper was one that fanned the flame. In 1969, Harper, an editor at his college newspaper in Iowa, published an article that took a deep look into the clues. In later years, Harper told one publication “A lot of us, because of Vietnam and the so-called ‘Establishment’ were ready, willing and able to believe just about any sort of conspiracy.” Interestingly enough, The Beatles theory was believed by more in America than in the U.K.
People today suspect that the conspiracy theories about the Beatles also happened to come at a time in history where paranoia and skepticism ran rampant. Events like the Vietnam War, President Johnson, JFK and MLK assassinations and the Manson murders all lead Americans into the Golden Age of Paranoia. This created the perfect storm of a society that allowed conspiracy theories to seep through into society. People were feeling uneasy and scared, especially of those who held a lot of power. In this case, The Beatles were the target.
While Beatlemania left the band with many devoted followers, people were suspicious of a group that could attract so much attention. John Lennon once went so far as to say “We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first – rock & roll or Christianity.” When the quote was published in a British article, there was no controversy associated with it. But, when the article was reprinted in America, it blew up and threatened the band’s reputation. The anxiety within the country caused for everyone to be extra cautious.
The Beatles have ended up being more than just a band. They have provided insight into what the world was like and how that contributed to making them known by many as the best rock band ever. Such a massive, international obsession with four people can turn toxic quickly. In response to the Paul is Dead conspiracy, McCartney told Life magazine that “Perhaps the rumor 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.” The obsession with The Beatles is something that is perhaps unmatched by any other to this day.
Brennan Carney is a second-year Journalism major who fell asleep in seventh grade while listening to “Revolution 9” backwards. You can reach them at [email protected].