The rumor that Paul McCartney died in the 1960s and The Beatles replaced him with a lookalike — a conspiracy theory that goes by the shorthand “Paul is Dead,” — is one of the longest running urban legends of the entertainment world. It’s also one of the most delightful.
Doing a deep-dive into Paul is Dead is guilt-free, since the distribution of the story has been a victimless crime (unless you count Paul). No one is really hurt beyond annoyance, which John Lennon conveyed when he said that it was the stupidest rumor he’d ever heard.
This isn’t insisting Tupac is alive, which could possibly stoke hopes in those who love him that may go unrequited. This is looking at a man who is very much fine and alive, who is making music videos with Rihanna and albums called Kisses on the Bottom (!) and saying, “You are not you.” It’s silly.
And it’s fun as hell.
Paul is Dead believers look to album liner notes, the warped sounds (words?) of records played backwards, and visual trickery to prove their case. They believe it has all been perpetrated by the remaining Beatles as acts of confession; that they couldn’t outright admit that they’d replaced Paul but want us, the people, to figure it out ourselves. It’s looking for clues and double meanings and symbolism, basically like a rock and roll DaVinci code...and we’re Tom Hanks (the long-haired version, of course).
The Paul is Dead story gained traction approximately 3 years after Paul’s supposed death in 1969. Someone, somewhere, definitely not high, noticed that on the White Album, if you play Revolution #9 backwards, the words “Turn me on, dead man” seem to be heard.
A college student called into a Detroit radio show to discuss the theory, offering the Revolution #9 discovery as sonic proof. The host was dismissive at first, but when the caller insisted he play it backwards for himself, the DJ expressed his astonishment. People started calling station like crazy and it grew from there.
So what do people think happened to Paul, exactly?
Believers say he died early in the morning in 1966, when his car skidded off an icy road and crashed into a pole. (Like all the most believable falsehoods, there is a nugget of truth here. His car WAS in a crash — but he wasn’t driving it, and the driver wasn’t killed.)
The legend goes that his remaining band members were afraid of how the loss of Paul would impact the band’s popularity, definitely something THE BEATLES needed to sweat. And so they replaced him with perfect lookalike, soundalike, actalike named Billy Shears, rumored to be an orphan who had once won a Paul McCartney look alike contest.
The game was afoot. And they were pulling it off! Except that the guilt of the cover up began to weigh on them. So in 1967, John, George, and Ringo began laying an audio-visual trail of breadcrumbs leading to the truth.
The fact that in 1969, people believed this began in 1967 must have been thrilling. There are few things more exciting than realizing that clues have been right in front of you all along, and you just needed to look at them differently to even realize they were clues.
So people started looking real differently at The Beatles’ work.
A year after Paul “died”, The Beatles started inching their way into the light. The jam-packed Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover has yielded a ton of theories, prominently that what’s depicted isn’t just any gathering, but a funeral.
There’s freshly dug earth in the foreground (a grave?), and if you looked very carefully, Paul’s sleeve has a patch that says “OPD” - “Officially Pronounced Dead.” The fact that it’s actually police patch that says “OPP,” for Ontario Provincial Police, is of little consequence.
In the liner notes and lyrics, a photograph has everyone in the group is facing the camera except Paul, whose back is turned, face conspicuously invisible. George’s finger points to the lyric, “Wednesday morning at 5 o’clock” — speculated to be when Paul died.
Later that year, the song Strawberry Fields Forever had a trippy ending with a warped-sounding John Lennon supposedly saying, “I buried Paul.”
However, John Lennon has clarified that he’s actually saying “cranberry sauce.” Paul is Dead truthers understandably call BS. It totally sounds like, “I buried Paul,” and who thinks about cranberry sauce? Is it perhaps because it’s red, the color of blood?!
The aforementioned Revolution #9 Easter egg, “Turn me on, dead man,” can be found on 1968’s The White Album, as well as a second “play it backward and the truth appears” phenomenon:
Between the tracks “I’m so tired,” and “Blackbird,” heard backwards is, “Paul is dead man, miss him, miss him, miss him.”
The following year, the iconic Abbey Road album cover with The Beatles using a crosswalk in single file is said to symbolize a funeral procession, which is extremely sweet.
Supposedly, John is wearing white because he’s the preacher. Ringo is in black because he’s the undertaker. George is in the back wearing blue jeans bc he’s the grave digger. And Paul, out of step with the others, is barefoot, calling to mind the human body and its mortality.
The Volkswagen in the back of the shot has the license plate 28IF — with believers saying it was a nod to the fact Paul would have been 28 if he were still alive. However, he would have actually been 27.
Human minds are built to seek out mystery and attempt make sense of it; to take what’s in front of us and try assimilate it to our version of reality. It just happens that some human minds have been probing for a very long time at the idea that the real Paul McCartney died and that the Paul McCartney we see today is a long-running imposter wearing the hell out of a pair of jeans.
And Jeans McCartney doesn’t seem to be bothered — he put out a live album called Paul is Live! in 1993. He’s willing to have fun with it, which allows us to have fun inspecting The Beatles’ work for intentional or accidental clues without the lingering moral ickiness that some other speculative pursuits bring.
Paul is Dead is possibly the closest thing we have to a light, fluffy conspiracy theory. Turn me on, dead man.
Want more? Check out Guide to the Unknown Episode 34 for more about the Paul is Dead story!