McCartney dead — greatest hoax in music history?
November 8, 2006
By Steve Metsch, Staff writer
Can it really be 40 years since Paul McCartney died?
It happened at about 5 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, Nov. 9, 1966. McCartney stormed out of the Abbey Road studio in London, upset with his fellow Beatles over a song.
As he drove away, he took his eyes off the road and lost control of his car.
The accident was so violent, onlookers could barely recognize "the cute Beatle." Flames had burned off his hair, and his face was badly disfigured.
Hey, the Beatles told us all about it in the song, "A Day in the Life": "He blew his mind out in a car. He didn't notice that the light had changed. A crowd of people stood and stared ..."
A hastily prepared funeral was held. Witnesses were bribed to keep silent. A newspaper story on the accident mysteriously was shelved. And the band never missed a beat en route to even greater glory.
A man named William Campbell, who had won a Paul McCartney look-alike contest, was brought to London. Campbell, with some plastic surgery, coaching on Paul's singing style and lessons on playing the bass guitar left-handed, "became" Paul.
And the greatest hoax in music history had been successfully pulled off.
What, you didn't hear that story? You think Sir Paul McCartney is the real deal?
Relax, fans, McCartney didn't die 40 years ago. But looking back, it's hard to believe the countless fans who bought the story -- and those that still do.
You can see the clues
News of the "death" didn't start circulating until three years after it occurred. As the tale goes, a college kid in Michigan published a story in his student newspaper that outlined the "clues" depicted on the Beatles' album covers. Detroit disc jockey Russ Gibb recounted the alleged clues in 1969, and the story caught fire.
It got so bad that LIFE magazine sent a photographer to track down McCartney on his farm in Scotland. The subsequent article and photos were meant to dispel the rumors.
Still, the believers can cite many clues:
On the "Abbey Road" cover, the four Beatles are depicted as crossing the famous street in London. John Lennon, dressed in a gleaming white suit, is the "preacher"; Ringo Starr, in a business suit, is the undertaker or a mourner; the barefoot McCartney is the corpse; and George Harrison, in blue jeans, is the grave digger.
A car on one side of the road has the license plate number of "28 IF," which would have been McCartney's age at his death, according to cultures that maintain life begins at conception." There is a police vehicle on the other side.
Flip the album over, and you'll see a crack in the word Beatles and a shadow that resembles a skull.
On the cover of the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album, the band appears to be standing in front of a grave with flowers suitable for funeral, there's a bloody driving glove among the images, and a hand over McCartney's head, supposedly a symbol of death.
Flip the album over, and you'll see Paul is the only band member with his back to the camera. Why? Because Campbell's face didn't yet resemble McCartney's.
On the cover of "Yellow Submarine," a cartoon version of the band is standing on a hill above a submarine that represents a casket. Again, there's another "hand of death" over McCartney's head.
Finally, on "Let It Be" there are portraits of all four Beatles, but McCartney's is the only one on a red backdrop.
Bill Paige, manager of communications at Oakton Community College in DesPlaines, has worked in the music business and has met Sir Paul. He says the "Paul is Dead" story is a "fun little joke."
"I don't know that the Beatles or their people were clever enough to set the entire story up, but they sure were clever enough to play with it. They may have done some things to keep it going," Paige said.
Looking for signs in the lyrics
Then there are the dozens of song lyrics that -- truth be told -- are kind of creepy if taken out of context. Conspiracy fans can cite songs from most of the Beatles' catalog.
Consider the opening song on "Sgt. Pepper." It ends with the band singing "Billy Shears" in reference to the lead singer of the fictional Pepper band. Listen again. Are the Beatles really singing "Billy's here" to introduce Campbell?
After all, the next song, sung by Ringo, is "With a Little Help from My Friends," which has the lyric "lend me your ears and I'll sing you a song and I'll try not to sing out of key."
Is Ringo expressing concern about Campbell's attempt to replace McCartney?
Ron Starr (no relation to Ringo), who plays McCartney in the Chicago-based tribute band Band on the Run, says the Beatles' decision to stop touring in 1966 fueled rumors.
"They were kind of reclusive at the time," Starr said. "They went from being a live band to a studio band. I think when they learned about this, they had fun with it."
Starr is sure he's portraying the real Paul.
"There was a rumor that they found a guy and gave him plastic surgery so he'd look like Paul," he said. "I don't think, in the 1960s, they had plastic surgery like that. Plus, they'd have had to find a guy who looks just like, sounds like and plays the guitar left-handed, just like Paul," he said.
Here's a clue for you all
"On some levels, talking about this is insulting to Paul, relative to the songs he wrote after the 'accident' happened," said Dean Budnick, a senior editor for the music magazine "Relix."
"It's hard to believe they let another schmoe into the band," Budnick said. "Then again, maybe it accounts for the Wings catalog. But to me, that's ultimately where it falls apart. How can anyone believe that they found someone who could replace Paul?"
The key point that debunks the theories, Budnick believes, is that the Beatles went to even greater critical acclaim after the accident with "Sgt. Pepper," which many believe to be the band's masterpiece.
"If there never had been any other creative output from Paul, then, maybe, you can make the case. If the Beatles had ended, absolutely. But they didn't," Budnick said.
The story had "gravitas" because of public's hunger for anything and everything related to the Beatles, he said.
"They were so big and everyone wanted to know everything about them, particularly at a time when they weren't making a lot of public appearances. They weren't touring anymore and unless you were in England, you didn't see them."
Call up Google, type in "Paul is Dead" and you'll find countless Web sites -- some that, well, do make some convincing arguments, and others that debunk the story.
There's one exhaustive site that compares photos of Paul before and after November 1966. And, yes, he does look different at certain angles.
There's another that has photos showing him suddenly much taller than the other Beatles.
And there's one that claims a voice expert has proof that it's a different voice singing the songs after late 1966.
Several sites identify words and phrases from songs to make their case.
For example, they cite "Took her home, I nearly made it," from "Lovely Rita." They ignore the fact that Paul's clearly not singing about making it home.
In another instance, theorists say Lennon is singing "I buried Paul" at the end of "Strawberry Fields." Lennon has said he was actually saying "cranberry sauce."
Plus, there's no evidence that a William Campbell ever won a McCartney look-alike contest.
And, as Rich Altman noted, wouldn't Paul's father and brother figured out he was dead? Oh, that's right, they were paid off, too.