Paul is still dead! Fake news that shook the world, 50 years later

One of the most elaborate conspiracy theories ever helped a generation cope with change — and refuses to go away

Published September 23, 2017 2:00PM (EDT)

Paul McCartney (AP)
Paul McCartney (AP)

“The masses will catch up with us in 2020.” – John Lennon

A little over 50 years ago, on Nov. 9, 1966 (9/11 in British usage), Paul McCartney was decapitated in a car crash, and was soon replaced, unbeknownst to the public, by a lookalike with equal or better musical abilities, the impostor “Faul” we have lived with till today.

It was a rainy night and after a late session at their Abbey Road studios, ending in an argument amongst the Beatles, Paul got into his Aston Martin and picked up a streetwalker named Rita (of “Lovely Rita” fame) along the way; Rita got excited when she realized who she was with, making Paul lose control.

MI5 , the British intelligence agency, believed that hundreds would commit suicide if the shocking news were revealed, and besides the Beatles were a national treasure bringing in untold revenue. So a man named Billy Shears (or William Campbell), a Scottish lad, was made to fill in, after the requisite plastic surgeries.

This new Beatle, known to the cognoscenti as “Faul,” turned out to be an even better musician than the original Paul. But the Beatles, struck by bad conscience, kept strewing their albums, both aurally and visually, with a multitude of clues about what had happened; discerning Beatles fans would therefore know the truth. The man we know today as Sir Paul McCartney is actually Faul, who has done an outstanding job of impersonation for twice the length of the original Paul’s lifespan.

Although the Beatles were a key musical influence on me when I was growing up, I never encountered the Paul-Is-Dead (PID) theory until recently; or perhaps I did and let it glide over because it wasn’t important for me to know it. Now that I’m well past the Beatles’ style of music it has entered my consciousness.

At the outset I want to make it clear that the label "conspiracy theory" often turns out to be facile dismissal of legitimate grievances about unaccountable political power. Conspiracy theory, we might say, is the poor man’s political economy. It is not possible for everyone to have the knowledge and intelligence to understand, say, neoliberal economics, so the New World Order organized by the Illuminati around the globe becomes an easily digestible mapping — and perhaps gets to the heart of the matter in the same way.

Conspiracy theory in the political realm is often more true than false, if one thinks of it as a symbolic code deciphering power relations. It can be seen as diminishing active citizenship, because the codes of the conspiracy cannot ultimately be shattered, but it can equally be seen as empowering, to the extent that it generates widespread skepticism about the official narrative. For example, if one compares the official narrative of catastrophic political episodes with the conspiracy version, surely the latter offers greater psychological satisfaction and gets to the heart of organized power more elegantly.

PID is of different provenance, dealing as it does with popular culture, but at its roots it reveals a similar sociopolitical calculus. In late 1969, American college campuses were roiled by the anti-war movement, facing the consequences of the election of Richard Nixon and the inevitability of the draft, at the same time as various liberation movements were beginning to find their feet. The Beatles may have had a lot to say about the social changes of the early 1960s, but the new political realities were of a more intractable nature; the Beatles, with their wives and mansions, must have started to look pretty tame by then.

So it is no surprise that it was at large Midwestern universities in the United States that PID really took off; the British were never as influenced by it, perhaps because they could regularly see the Beatles in London, especially as Paul and John became involved in avant-garde happenings once they stopped touring for good in 1966. (Their last concert was in San Francisco that August.)

In the annals of college newspaper writing, surely Fred LaBour’s essay for the Michigan Daily ranks among the very top. This masterpiece of a speculative essay, purporting to be a review of "Abbey Road," laid out many of the details that became the cornerstone of PID. LaBour later admitted it was all made up (at the mock television trial attorney F. Lee Bailey conducted on RKO TV, questioning protagonists such as a petulant Peter Asher, Paul’s ex-girlfriend Jane’s brother). But LaBour was on to something when he wrote that the Beatles had a religious motive. Indeed, one of the reasons the Beatles stopped touring was because their final American tour was extremely fractious, marked by violence and record-burning in the South, after John claimed that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus; PID started soon after this confrontation.  

Earlier, DJ Russ Gibb of WKNR in Detroit had heard from Iowa student Tim Harper, asking Gibb to play “Revolution 9” from the "White Album" backwards, which makes audible the phrase “Turn me on, dead man.” LaBour took it further by deconstructing the iconic "Abbey Road" cover, where Paul alone is barefoot (Paul often appears differently on album images than the others), John is dressed as a priest, Ringo as an undertaker, and George as a gravedigger. The license plate of the Volkswagen Beetle reads 28IF (meaning Paul would be 28 if alive).

AbbeyRoadThe historic "Abbey Road" cover, strewn with "clues," which McCartney later made fun of in his own cover for his 1993 album, "Paul Is Live."

DJs around the country stirred the pot, driving listeners to buy multiple copies of the same record, playing them backwards to detect clues and destroying them in the process (all the better for record sales). One can decipher innumerable clues, such as Lennon’s gibberish at the end of “I’m So Tired” playing backwards as “Paul is a dead man! Miss Him! Miss Him! Miss Him!”

For me, the creepiest of all the back-masking is the entire “Revolution 9” song, which turns into a step-by-step rendering of Paul’s car crash, his shrieks for help, the burning and explosion of the car, and the laments of the Beatles at viewing his corpse and at the funeral. Voices can be heard saying, for example: “He hit a light pole and we better go see a surgeon,” and “My wings are broke and so is my hair.” Apparently it is difficult to have sounds make sense when played backwards, unless one is consciously aiming to do so — and the Beatles, according to producer George Martin and Lennon himself, were very much interested in such technical wizardry, particularly from "Sgt. Pepper" onward.

Similarly, the "Pepper" cover, arguably the most famous in the history of records, allows much creative interpretation. The Beatles, as we learn in George Martin’s book "With a Little Help from My Friends: The Making of Sgt. Pepper" (1994), wanted to make a major artistic statement with the cover, and recruited designer Peter Blake for the job. They picked a panoply of historical figures (for example, Aleister Crowley, the influential occultist), whose choice only fed into the PID theory, and they are all at a funeral (or celebration, if we heed Martin), mourning Paul or the Beatles, the yellow hyacinth wreath spelling “Paul?” and laid out in the form of a left-handed guitar (McCartney is left-handed).

sgt-pepperThe front cover of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" is chock-full of clues

It’s impossible to even briefly mention here some of the key aural and visual clues, but Andru J. Reeve’s good-humoredly skeptical "Turn Me On, Dead Man: The Complete Story of the Paul McCartney Death Hoax" (1994) is a good place to start. Also, if you’re interested in going down the same rabbit hole I did, there is endless fascinating material on the internet. Brian Moriarty skeptically covers the theory in the spirit of a computer gamer. A recent mockumentary, in the alleged voice of George Harrison (available at Netflix), covers the territory in an over-the-top manner, inciting doubt. A documentary more reverential toward PID is "The Winged Beatle." In a droll lecture, Nick Kollerstrom focuses on MI5’s investment in protecting the British national interest. You can listen to some of the back-masking and other clues here, here, here and here.

PID apparently has no end in sight, since the Beatles have continuously fed the controversy, right up to McCartney's most recent album, "Memory Almost Full," which has been mined by cluesters for numerous creepy admissions. Heather Mills, Paul’s second wife, went on record after their contentious divorce that she feared for her life, telling an interviewer that “people don’t want to know what the truth is because they could never handle it, they would be too devastated.”

A robust conspiracy theory, like official theories, leaves nothing out; everything can be explained within its parameters. Furthermore, conspiracy theories feed on each other, so if we take the JFK assassination as a template, other theories make direct and indirect connections with that one and keep building an endless loop. Therefore, it is alleged that Lennon was assassinated in 1980 because he was about to go public with the Paul conspiracy, and the same is alleged about George Harrison’s attempted murder in 1999 and his subsequent premature death in 2001. Beatles handler Mal Evans’ inexplicable death — he was shot by Los Angeles police while acting strangely in 1976 — is said to have occurred because he’d finished writing a memoir about the Beatles; the manuscript of that book, "Living the Beatles’ Legend," disappeared after his death.

Once exposed to PID, it became possible for me to read all of the Beatles’ latter output, at the level of pure text, as one extended lament over Paul’s death and their guilty conscience about the coverup. "Sgt. Pepper" in particular yields a rich overlay of meaning, and everywhere the apparent gibberish becomes illuminating, a piercing cry of grief that is the perfect antidote to the earlier Beatlemania.

So why did PID take hold at the time it did, and what does it tell us about the nature of conspiracy theories?

The Beatles had disappeared from sight (Life magazine reporters traced Paul to his primitive Scottish farm, once major American media started going wild with rumors), and the music that came out after the break was a radical departure from not just their own oeuvre but from the history of rock music to that point. The Beatles were no longer propagating naïve love anthems, giving voice to teenage female angst, deriving inspiration from early '60s “girl groups” like the Shirelles and the Ronettes and making it more musically sophisticated. Rather, they had started constructing a social utopia ("Sgt. Pepper" is self-referential in that sense, the musical version of art for art’s sake).

The Beatles, I would argue, had reached the farthest possible point with their interpretation of music as a counter to political reality, and had exposed, with "Pepper" and subsequent albums, the limits of the counterculture that had by then proliferated. (Without them, it went on for a few more years, in a self-conscious though depleted way.) This explains why Paul had to be seen as dead and the Beatles no longer who they were, because in fact they were not who they used to be in their earlier naïve phase, and the new experimental phase (with music that was technically irreproducible on the stage) was inherently self-limiting as revolutionary strategy. We are up against the familiar phenomenon of the true avant-garde always decapitating itself.

PID became a way for the counterculture, running against its own limits, to announce its premature death to itself. Nothing utopian that Lennon did in his solo career, which seemed quite beside the point in many ways during the 1970s, can overcome the suspicion of a certain formal pretense, a self-distancing that authenticity cannot sustain for long.

I would go so far as to argue that the counterculture (which has really been mass Western psychology for more than 50 years now) remains frozen at more or less the same point the Beatles left it, with vulgarized Eastern mysticism, self-improvement as a private code and simultaneous acknowledgment of and distancing from political grievance still the dominant parameters. PID was a way to formalize the counterculture’s own death to itself.

On the other hand, I could also argue that the Beatles offered such a dynamic alternative to modes of seeing and feeling in their latter career that their offer could not be taken up by the culture at large — it was too much, too soon. There were other, far more genuinely radical, musicians on the scene — Bob Dylan, for example — but that is a different issue.

For PID theorists, the question remains as to how a musician as talented as Paul could ever be replaced, with the alleged impostor perhaps even more successful than the original.

Official history has much to say about this. One can read the second half of the Beatles oeuvre, and indeed their solo careers, as a natural evolution from their origins as pranksters with roots in the British popular comedic tradition. In particular, Paul’s post-Beatles career was suspiciously vapid — amateurish as he was in mistreating hirelings for different iterations of his Wings band — for a man who by all accounts was the confident entrepreneur holding the Beatles together toward the end. Steven D. Stark explains this well in "Meet the Beatles: A Cultural History of the Band that Shook Youth, Gender, and the World" (2005).

I never thought I could be so engrossed by the financial troubles inflicting Apple Corp., Paul’s utopian idea to revolutionize all aspects of the culture industry (and surely the inspiration for Steve Jobs’ name for his company). Whether to trust their affairs to rapacious but effective agent Allen Klein or Paul’s well-heeled father-in-law Lee Eastman (both New Yorkers) was a big reason for the group’s unraveling.

Peter Doggett’s "You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup" (2010) is fascinating reading on this score, but the easy way around the financial labyrinth, so inconsistent with the Beatles’ public image, is to give a heroic death to Paul, and substitute him with an even greater talent, as though to make musical ability beside the point, and thereby shift the narrative back to the audience, whose main task then becomes to decipher secret codes rather than confront the spiritually threatening challenge of the music. Of course this can take a monstrous form, as in Charles Manson decoding Beatles records for his murderous agenda.

Precisely at the moment PID took off on American campuses and radio, the Beatles had in fact ceased to exist, for all practical purposes, though the world didn’t know it yet. The band members had felt it for quite a while, which would explain why the songs after 1966 become self-reflective about their own (and particularly Paul’s) symbolic death, or why, for example, the walrus identification (as metaphor for death and inauthenticity) becomes so important, or why Lennon’s 1971 song “How Do You Sleep?” can either be interpreted as the natural destruction of the musical group’s integrity against harsh political realities, if you’re not a conspiracy theorist, or Faul’s continuing deception, if you believe in PID.

A pat explanation for the overwhelming number of clues is that the Beatles were just having fun once the rumors started (the rumors first aired in early 1967 in Britain following news of Paul being involved in a car crash), as a way to increase sales. But their refutation of clue after clue over the years as purely coincidental invites doubt.

The Beatles intended "Sgt. Pepper" as the first concept album (and it remains the most successful one to date). Paul’s idea was to distance themselves from their music, presenting the album as a highly self-conscious performative act, introducing — of course — Billy Shears, in the opening song. Even after the breakup Paul continued publicly questioning his past reality as a Beatle, and does so to this day, which feeds into the conspiracy theory but also lets us see them as early skeptics of their own charisma.

Why Paul, though? Why not John who died secretly?

One reason could be that Paul was the most androgynous of the group, and his transformation (especially in the midst of his intellectual takeover of the Beatles) was the most marked, both visually and musically. Therefore he was the one who had to be “killed,” rather than John, whose consistency had to be preserved (thus the global shock at his assassination, since he was not the one supposed to die).

Perhaps also the college generation of that time felt that Paul, more than the others, had conned them with his earlier articulation of the primal feminine voice, which, in the wake of resurgent militarism, needed to be exorcized from the imagination. The task of conspiracy theory is always to explain the illicit usurpation of power by unseen forces, and in this case it was the aesthetic monopoly — androgynous and challenging to male norms — that was perhaps seen as usurpation by a Faul propped up by British intelligence.

To conclude, I offer some speculations about conspiracy theory’s logic of explanation, extending from PID to build a more general case.

Conspiracy theory is not just simplistic, as official dismissals would have it. Indeed, it often provides a deeper, more profound, more satisfying systematization, as wholesome as official narrative. It replaces unbearable randomness (which is to say our own incremental, almost undetectable, death) with pure intentionality. That is true of PID, as well as 9/11 or the JFK assassination or any other conspiracy.

I think LaBour hit the nail on the head, very intuitively, in describing the Beatles as being interested in building a religion. To counter such elite manipulation, the resulting form of anti-conspiracy agency may be demented, but it is agency nonetheless; Donald Trump’s presidency, we might argue, is nothing more than the sum of all the postwar conspiracy theories, yet this agglomeration has actually managed to seize power.

Just as literary (deconstructive) textual analysis takes us to conflicts that resonate with us -- sub-rosa clashes of morality enacted by the critic in alliance with the reader (with the artistic creator standing at a distance) -- conspiracy theory, with its proliferation of endless clues, allows us an alternative route of access to the deeper meaning of history. Lennon-McCartney’s words, in "Sgt. Pepper" or "Abbey Road" or the "White Album," are not meaningless gibberish. They’re either surrealistic masterpieces (if you’re a literary theorist) or clues to Paul’s death (if you’re a PID believer), but the process of exhumation and recovery is similar.

Conspiracy theory literalizes, at the accessible, human and concrete level, social transformations of which they are the outward symbol. Three brash Americans intervened in the cozy British setup of the Beatles, who used to be able to work seamlessly with genius producer George Martin and their devoted gay manager Brian Epstein (who, very sadly, committed suicide in 1967). These Americans were John’s Japanese-American girlfriend Yoko Ono (historically held responsible for accelerating tensions among the Beatles, particularly with her overwrought and vacuous performance art, which she insisted on imposing on the Beatles); Paul’s girlfriend, photographer Linda Eastman, who had earlier tried to rope in the Rolling Stones and other musicians; and the aforementioned amoral agent Allen Klein.

These quintessentially American intrusions froze the Beatles’ contribution to the counterculture at the level of unending gothic death, where mass psychology remains today, unable to reckon with capitalism’s worst onslaughts. All of it is symbolized in Paul’s grotesque end. The earlier Paul, with his naïve romanticism, died aesthetically, but conspiracy theory literalized it, as though the counterculturalists on American campuses were desperate to acknowledge their own political helplessness.

The albums from "Sgt. Pepper" onward undoubtedly reveal the Beatles’ macabre obsession with death, the point where the counterculture got frozen (hence Paul and the other Beatles’ health-consciousness and vegetarianism from that point on), an overwhelming fear of death that makes all of us hyper-consumers of our own end. That is the point of PID. As the reigning cultural deities of that decade, the Beatles died for us and went to heaven (or archival immortality). They could never split up as a normal group, have normal afterlives in their solo careers, or die naturally. The American conspiracy theorists preempted focus on the psychological labyrinths the Beatles had entered, prompted by selfish parvenus who brought out the worst in their character.

Both worshippers and deities together made the Beatles' breakup, and all that’s followed in the half-century since then, tinged with a deadly romanticism that was rapidly leaking out in the late 1960s. Thus we assimilate death not banally or procedurally, but as a matter of impossible, endlessly deferred detection. We make a mystery out of it: The Beatles’ widely panned movie project in the period of suspension, littered with clues, was called "Magical Mystery Tour."

mmtPaul as the walrus, symbolizing death.

Conspiracy theory is excess, or rather impossible containment of excess. In the case of PID it is the point where the counterculture crashed because it could not reckon with its own plenitude (though PID was a way for males, in particular, to reckon with the androgynous surfeit of Beatlemania, its exact earlier counterpart).

PID consumers all but seem to desire Paul’s death. Why? It involves the producers and consumers of art in a complicit relationship. Who is to say that the Beatles were not artistically supercharged by rumors of the death of their de facto leader in their latter stages? Who is to say that the audience, obsessed with clue-hunting, wasn’t benefiting from a masculine scream of horror that was the reversal of Beatlemania’s female orgiastic scream?

A generation realizes maturity is at hand, but refuses to grow up, and PID becomes one attempt to stall its maturity toward an unwanted realism. But it is also to the credit of that generation’s rampant imagination that it came up with a theory as protean as PID (and many others besides) to counter death with death. How, in the end, is PID any different from Thomas Pynchon’s "The Crying of Lot 49"?

Conspiracy, to repeat, is the imagination of excess, the acknowledgment that imagination cannot contain everything, the refusal that the work of art can ever be contained and closed; it is liberating precisely for that reason, especially if we think of political performance or spectacle as works of art produced and engineered, behind the scenes in technocratic warrens, for the dormant masses, who refuse, however, to abide by the law and give up their creative agency.

So, either Paul is dead, or the Beatles crashed against the limitations of popular music as agent of change after the highly engineered sound of "Sgt. Pepper" (“Get back to where you once belonged!”). Conspiracy theory, to counter elite science, always enacts pseudo-science in a populist vein; its methods are technological, its procedures deductive, its empiricism its only saving grace — just like the official sciences of empire. Tim Harper and Fred LaBour have their demonic right-wing counterparts in Glenn Beck and Alex Jones today, with the difference being that the earlier conspiracy theorists were fully aware of their playful partnership with the audience, viewing themselves almost as co-creators of an elusive utopian culture. The application of the toolbox of scientific rationality toward accelerated, almost incomprehensible, social change is only superficially similar.


By Anis Shivani