The ‘Paul Is Dead’ myth began in 1969, and alleged that Paul McCartney died in 1966. The Beatles are said to have covered up the death, despite inserting a series of clues into their songs and artwork.
The story goes that at 5am on Wednesday 9 November 1966, McCartney stormed out of a session for the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, got in to his Austin Healey car, and subsequently crashed and died.
Somewhat improbably, McCartney was said to have been replaced by a lookalike, called variously William Shears Campbell or William Sheppard. William Campbell allegedly became Billy Shears on Sgt Pepper, while William Sheppard was supposedly the inspiration behind ‘The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill’ (actually an American named Richard Cooke III).
However, a couple of relevant incidents did take place. On 26 December 1965 McCartney crashed his moped, resulting in a chipped tooth (seen in the videos for ‘Paperback Writer’ and ‘Rain’) and a scar on his top lip, which he hid by growing a moustache.
Additionally, on 7 January 1967 McCartney’s Mini Cooper was involved in an accident on the M1 motorway outside London, as a result of which it was written off. However, the car was being driven by a Moroccan student named Mohammed Hadjij, and McCartney was not present.
Hadjij was an assistant to London art gallery owner Robert Fraser. The pair turned up at McCartney’s house on the evening of 7 January, and were later joined by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones and antiques dealer Christopher Gibbs.
The party decided to head to Jagger’s home in Hertfordshire, before moving on to Redlands, Richards’ Sussex mansion (and scene of his later drugs bust). McCartney travelled with Jagger in the latter’s Mini Cooper, while Hadjij drove in McCartney’s Mini.
The two cars became separated during the journey. Hadjij crashed McCartney’s Mini and was hospitalised with injuries. The heavily customised car was highly recognisable, so rumours began circulating that McCartney had been killed in the incident.
The following month a paragraph appeared in the February 1967 edition of the Beatles Book Monthly magazine, headed “FALSE RUMOUR”:
Stories about the Beatles are always flying around Fleet Street. The 7th January was very icy, with dangerous conditions on the M1 motorway, linking London with the Midlands, and towards the end of the day, a rumour swept London that Paul McCartney had been killed in a car crash on the M1. But, of course, there was absolutely no truth in it at all, as the Beatles’ Press Officer found out when he telephoned Paul’s St John’s Wood home and was answered by Paul himself who had been at home all day with his black Mini Cooper safely locked up in the garage.
Although the magazine downplayed the incident, and claimed the car was in McCartney’s possession
The origins of the myth
Belief that Paul McCartney may have died in the mid 1960s began in 1969. The first known print reference was in an article written by Tim Harper which appeared in the 17 September edition of the Times-Delphic, the newspaper of the Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
Harper later claimed that he wasn’t the original source for any of the claims in his articles. He said he was writing for entertainment purposes only, and said he got the information from a fellow student, Dartanyan Brown. Mr Brown is said to have got the story from a musician who had heard it on the Californian west coast, and that he also read the story in an underground newspaper.
The rumours gained momentum on 12 October 1969, after an on-air phone call to radio presenter Russ Gibb, a DJ on WKNR-FM in Michigan. The caller, identified only as ‘Tom’, claimed that McCartney was dead, and instructed Gibb to play ‘Revolution 9’ backwards, where the repeated “number nine” phrase was heard as “turn me on, dead man”.
Listening to the show was Fred LaBour, an arts reviewer for student newspaper The Michigan Daily. LaBour used clues from Gibb’s programme along with others he had invented himself – including the name of William Campbell, the alleged replacement for McCartney.
I made the guy up. It was originally going to be Glenn Campbell, with two Ns, and then I said ‘that’s too close, nobody’ll buy that’. So I made it William Campbell.
The Michigan Daily published it on 14 October, under the title McCartney Dead; New Evidence Brought To Light. Although clearly intended as a joke, it had an impact far wider than the writer and his editor expected.
Shortly afterwards, Russ Gibb co-produced a one-hour special called The Beatle Plot, giving the rumour greater prominence; by then it was well on its way to become a national, then international, talking point, inspiring fans to pore over their albums for further clues.
A British version of the rumour is believed to have existed prior to the American one, with fewer details. The sources are unknown, but the notion of McCartney dying in a road accident appears to have originated there.
The Beatles’ responses
Although The Beatles and their press office at Apple were initially bewildered and somewhat annoyed by the story’s refusal to die away, there is evidence that the group members themselves found it amusing.
Paul McCartney travelled to his Scottish farm on 22 October, and Peter Brown called him to ask for a statement that could be given to the press. McCartney gave a line borrowed from Mark Twain: “Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
The statement did little to quell the intrigue, and Apple continued to be bombarded with calls from reporters. WKNR’s Russ Gibb spoke to Derek Taylor, and to someone else who claimed to be McCartney but was in fact Tony Bramwell. The station’s John Small also spoke to John Lennon, who sounded bewildered and amused by the story: “What did we do, stuff him and shave him? How could we do it? I don’t understand what it’s all about.”
A reporter from New York’s WMCA, Alex Bennett, arrived in London on 22 October. The following day he interviewed Ringo Starr, Derek Taylor, Neil Aspinall, photographer Iain Macmillan, McCartney’s tailor and barber, and members of Apple group White Trash. Starr told the Bennett: “If people are gonna believe it, they’re gonna believe it. I can only say it’s not true.”
On 24 October McCartney agreed to speak to the BBC’s Chris Drake. The interview took place at McCartney’s High Park Farm in Campbeltown, Scotland.
McCartney suggested that the stories had begun as he had adopted a lower public profile recently. He said that he once did “an interview a week” to keep in the headlines, but since getting married and becoming a father he preferred to live a more private life.
He was firm in denying he had died, saying: “If the conclusion you reach is that I’m dead, then you’re wrong, because I’m alive and living in Scotland.” Linda McCartney said their holiday was being ruined by the press speculation, adding that “everybody knows he’s alive”.
Talk then turned to the subject of McCartney’s farm, which he admitted was scruffy. He said he had been dubbed “the new Laird” when he first met his Scottish neighbours, but didn’t want to be considered the “squire of the district”. He concluded the interview by saying that The Beatles had no plans to reconvene in the near future, having recently completed an album and film, and that he may not return to London until 1970.
A one-minute extract from Chris Drake’s interview was broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend on 26 October from 1pm. A longer recording lasting 3’30” was included on The World At One the following day, and 3’20” was included on Late Night Extra on Radio 2 from 10pm later that night.
In an edition of Life magazine dated 7 November 1969, McCartney reassured fans that “Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” paraphrasing Mark Twain. “However,” he continued, “if I was dead, I’m sure I’d be the last to know.”
The magazine’s cover featured Paul and Linda with their children, in a picture taken on their Scottish farm. The cover featured the words “The case of the ‘missing’ Beatle – Paul is still with us”. Shortly after the issue went on sale the rumours started to decline.
In his revealing Rolling Stone interview in 1970, John Lennon was asked about the death story. He responded in a typically forthright fashion:
I don’t know where that started, that was barmy. I don’t know, you know as much about it as me… No, that was bullshit, the whole thing was made up. We never went for anything like that. We put tit-tit-tit in ‘Girl’. It would be things like a beat missing or something like that, see if anyone noticed – I know we used to have a few things, but nothing that could be interpreted like that.
Lennon referred to the myth in 1971’s How Do You Sleep?, his vitriolic attack on McCartney from the Imagine album. The song contains the lines: “Those freaks was right when they said you was dead, the one mistake you made was in your head”.
McCartney parodied the rumours with the title and cover or his 1993 album Paul Is Live. The artwork was based on the Abbey Road cover photograph; instead of the 28IF number plate, a car shows 51 IS instead. To reinforce the cycle of life, he is pictured being dragged across the famous zebra crossing by one of the offspring of his sheepdog Martha.