Paul is dead. Again. Or so some hoaxers would have you believe. On Wednesday evening, one-man talk show panel, Phil Hendrie, summed up the latest incarnation of the ‘Paul is dead’ rumor, calling the Ringo-reveals-all report “fake news” that failed to deliver anything in the way of originality, satire, or humor.
Hendrie was right. The original ‘Paul is dead’ scuttlebutt fascinated a generation of record-buying teenyboppers in 1969. The recent rumor rehash offers exactly zilch in the way of originality. Based on decades-old rewrites, the World News Daily story Phil Hendrie referred to pales in comparison to the teenage intrigue and adolescent angst that surrounded the 1969 ‘Paul is dead’ story.
Where and when the Paul is Dead rumor began
The first written whisper that Beatle bassist James Paul McCartney was dead appeared in a college newspaper article with a headline that screamed, “Is Beatle Paul McCartney Dead?” Written by 19-year-old journalism student, Tim Harper, and published on September 17, 1969 in the Drake University Times-Delphic, it was the first in-print story that espoused the cockamamie theory that Paul McCartney had perished in an automobile accident in 1966 and had been subsequently replaced by a talented lookalike named William Campbell.
When he wrote the article, Harper did not own a Beatles record. He wasn’t a conspiracy theorist, and he wasn’t particularly fond of the Beatles. The sophomore writer was, however, fond of getting to the kernel of a good story. When Harper overheard Times-Delphic editor, Dartanyan Brown, mention the rumor that Paul was dead and gone, he decided to investigate.
Harper talked to students, friends, and anyone else who knew about the ‘Paul is Dead’ rumor. Before long, the college journalist had amassed a mountain of mystery, mostly in the form of ‘secret clues’ delivered to Beatles fans via album covers and song lyrics.
How the ‘Paul is Dead’ story went viral in ’69
1969 was a banner year, as far as American youth culture was concerned. On July 21, astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first earthling to leave footprints on the moon. In mid-August, nearly half a million assorted music fans gathered at a farm in upstate New York to celebrate the three-day Woodstock Music & Art Fair. Counterculture publications including the Los Angeles Free Press, Berkeley Barb, and the East Village Other challenged readers to defy the status quo while giggling at ‘underground’ cartoons by Robert Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, and other notable comic artists of the day.
College newspapers were keen to keep up. Within days of its publication at Drake University, the “Is Beatle Paul McCartney Dead?” article was being shared, rewritten, and republished on college campuses from coast to coast. The rumor was further promulgated when an on-air caller identified only as “Tom” described a number of ‘secret McCartney death clues’ to DJ Russ Gibb at Detroit underground radio station WKNR-FM on October 12.
Sgt. Pepper ‘secret clues’ that convinced some Beatles fans that Paul was dead
The cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is chock full of esoteric images that were interpreted by some fans to mean that a deceased Paul had been replaced by an impostor. In the elaborately staged front cover, McCartney’s Beatles bandmates are seen holding gold-colored instruments while Paul grasps a black clarinet. There is an open palm above McCartney’s head. Some said this was a Far Eastern symbol of death. Inside the album jacket one finds an unforgettable image of all four Beatles wearing colorful satin uniforms. Only Paul’s sleeve bears a patch reading “O.P.D.” Clue diggers surmised that these initials stood for “officially pronounced dead.”
Images on the cover of Abbey Road also bolstered belief that “the cute” Beatle was indeed dead. Photographer Iain Macmillan’s emblematic depiction of George, Paul, Ringo, and John striding a sidewalk in single file fashion was said to represent a funeral procession led by John Lennon as a white-suited holy man followed by Ringo Starr in undertaker black. George Harrison in his blue jeans and work shirt was construed as the grave digger, while barefoot Paul (the corpse) walked out of step with the other Beatles and had his eyes closed. Rumormongers interpreted the “LMW 28IF” license plate on a Volkswagen Beetle on the front cover to mean that Paul would be 28 years old if he were still alive.
Life magazine set the record straight
Two months after the ‘Paul is Dead’ rumor began circulating among worried Beatles fans, Life magazine published a feature article with the optimistic headline, “Paul is Still With Us.” In the article, McCartney assured Beatles fans and Life readers that he was alive and well and living in Scotland.
“Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated. However, if I was dead, I’m sure I’d be the last to know.”
At the time of this writing, Sir James Paul McCartney is very much alive.
[Feature Image by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images]