Today we delve into a rumor that has circulated since the late 60s, that Paul McCartney of the Beatles secretly died and was replaced by a lookalike.
The Mystique of The Beatles
One of the most vivid memories from my early teen years is swimming on a hot summer night while listening to a cassette of the Beatles on a late 80s Boombox. The otherworldly sounds of “Strawberry Fields Forever” piercing the night as I slid through the pool water. I marveled at the creative bizarreness of it, yet it was at that moment that I also decided they were remarkable, and I’ve been a huge fan ever since. Soon after becoming a Beatles devotee, I began to hear word-of-mouth whispers (which predated the popularity of the internet by nearly a decade) from friends about clues in the Beatles’ music and album art indicating that Paul McCartney had died in an auto accident and had been replaced by a talented impersonator by the name of Billy Shears. Like many distrustful teenagers, I was skeptical, but the mysteriousness certainly added to the mystique of the band.
Paul is Dead: Some Supposed Clues
Following are some of the clues often spread by those fascinated with the “Paul is dead” urban legend. I’m sure there are many other supposed clues that people have identified, but these are the major ones that I remember from my youth.
“Strawberry Fields Forever” – One of the first alleged clues of Paul’s death comes at the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” a psychedelic masterpiece of a single released by the Beatles in February of 1967. The song is now included as part of the “Magical Mystery Tour” album. Buried in the mix of the strange, backwards ending of the song, John Lennon can be heard to be saying what sounds like “I buried Paul” in an altered voice around the 3:56 mark.
Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band – Considered to be one of the greatest rock albums ever released, and a catalyst for the illustrious “Summer of Love,” Sgt. Peppers was released on June 1st, 1967. Some saw the flowery and colorful cover art as depicting a massive psychedelic funeral, and floating above Paul McCartney’s head was a mysterious disembodied hand that supposedly symbolized death. Some of the other album art shows all of the Beatles facing the camera except Paul, who has his back turned. “With a Little Help From My Friends,” the album’s second song, contains a miscellaneous introduction of a character named Billy Shears, the name of Paul’s supposed replacement. In the album’s final song, “A Day in the Life,” Lennon is heard singing “He blew his mind out in a car,” reputed to be a possible reference to a car accident that theoretically killed the real Paul McCartney.
Another theory points to a yellow wreath at the bottom of the album cover in the shape of a bass guitar. Since Paul was the bassist, the theory goes, the wreath was a hint that he had actually died.
The Beatles AKA “The White Album” – Released in November 1968, the Beatles’ classic double album contains several professed clues alluding to the death and replacement of Paul McCartney. Lennon’s “Glass Onion,” the album’s third song, is filled with cryptic lyrics: “I told you about the Walrus and me, man. You know that we’re as close as can be, man. Well, here’s another clue for you all, the Walrus was Paul” (with emphasis on the word ‘was’). The very ending of “I’m So Tired,” another Lennon song, features Lennon spouting gibberish in the final 4-5 seconds of the tune. Listeners who were able to play the babbling in reverse claim that it sounds like “Paul is a dead man. Miss him, miss him, miss him.” Below is a clip of the “I’m So Tired” ending in reverse.
Abbey Road – Released in September 1969, the cover of Abbey Road supposedly symbolizes a sort of funeral procession in the mind’s of some fans. Some see Lennon dressed in white as a clergyman, Ringo as an undertaker or mourner, the barefooted McCartney as a corpse, and Harrison as a gravedigger.
Debunking the ‘Paul is Dead’ Clues
“Strawberry Fields Forever” – Lennon’s voice at the end of the “Strawberry Fields Forever” does sound like he is saying “I buried Paul”. However, Lennon and McCartney have always asserted that he was saying “cranberry sauce” instead. In fact, on several unreleased versions of the song that were featured on the Beatles Anthology in 1996, it does sound like Lennon is saying “cranberry sauce” instead of “I buried Paul.”
Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band – The mystical, ghostly hand floating over McCartney’s head actually reportedly belongs to writer Stephen Crane, one of the 70-some personalities that the Beatles admired and wanted on the cover of the album. Being that Sgt. Peppers was meant to be a concept album performed by alter egos of the Beatles, Billy Shears is probably a conceptual character. The rest of the clues perceived in the art and lyrics are likely coincidental.
With each member of the band choosing famous figures to appear on the cover, one of John Lennon’s choices was Stu Sutcliffe, the original bassist for the band. Sutcliffe died in 1962 and his image does appear on the cover. The yellow wreath could have been in his honor as well.
The Beatles AKA “The White Album” – Lennon often wrote enigmatic lyrics, and sometimes he even wrote them to intentionally bewilder people. An oft repeated story, which may have its roots in an authorized 1968 biography of the Beatles penned by Hunter Davis, is that Lennon began writing willfully confounding lyrics when he learned from a student’s letter that an English teacher at his former high school in Liverpool was interpreting Beatles lyrics as part of a classroom exercise.
Abbey Road – Several years ago, guest Paul McCartney was asked about the ‘Paul is dead’ rumor on the Late Show with David Letterman. Below is a clip of his response in which he talks about the Abbey Road cover photo:
“We did a cover for a record called Abbey Road,” McCartney said, “The idea was to walk across the crossing and I showed up that day with sandals, flip flops and it was so hot that I kicked them off and walked across bare-footed. So this started some rumor, that because he was bare-footed, he’s dead. (Audience laughs). I couldn’t see the connection myself.”
When asked how he handled the rumor, McCartney said, “I just laughed,” and stated that the rumor was started by an American DJ, “So you guys are to blame.”
“I just laughed it off, but it was a little bit strange for people started looking at me like… ‘Is it him, or a very good double?'”
The Beatles Dispute Rumors that Paul is Dead
The rumor that Paul was dead became such a widespread urban legend that it was later covered in an article on conspiracy theories from Time magazine. There are numerous interviews in which the Beatles refute the ‘Paul is dead’ rumors. Some being over forty years old, these interviews can be difficult to locate, but they do exist. Two of these interviews can be heard here and here. In the first interview, John Lennon responds to the rumor by stating, “It’s a joke… Paul isn’t dead, and if he was we would have told you.”
It is possible that the ‘Paul is dead’ rumor was perpetuated by the Beatles after they learned of it from fans, or they fabricated the rumor as a marketing ploy, but the truth will probably never be known for sure.
2015 Fake News Report
In 2015, a fake story from World News Daily Report circulated online which claimed Ringo Starr claimed the “Paul is Dead” rumor was true. The fake article quotes a non-existent interview in which the Beatles drummer said the band “panicked” after McCartney died in 1966.
World News Daily Report publishes outlandish fake news stories. The website had a disclaimer which read, “All news articles contained within worldnewsdailyreport.com are fiction, and presumably fake news.” That disclaimer has since been replaced with generic legal jargon.
Although the source of this rumor remains unknown, the ‘Paul is dead’ legend was possibly the result of acid-tinged thoughts by fans (apparently LSD is a heck of a drug) or could have been spawned by the Beatles themselves as a way to further market their music. Many of the conjectural clues regarding Paul’s death and replacement can be debunked or ascribed to vague coincidences. The Beatles have contested the rumored claims in various interviews.
Paul McCartney is very much alive.
Updated February 18, 2015
Originally published June 2014