The Life story was one of the more mainstream reactions that emerged during that time to help investigate the rumor, and finally dispel it as a hoax. Yet the tale about Paul’s demise, still to this day, survives in some corners as urban legend. But as the story unfolded at the time, the whole affair helped raise the Beatles’ “mystical” appeal and also, no doubt, to sell a lot more of their music – not that they were having a hard time doing that. What follows below is a recounting of the “Paul-is-dead” story. But first some Beatles’ context at that time — which is probably the more interesting story – occurring roughly during calender year 1969 and into early 1970, leading up to the “Paul-is-dead” rumor, including some of the group’s final recording sessions, and in 1970, the break-up of the Beatles.
In January 1969, there was plenty of Beatles’ music in the air, and plenty of Beatles’ recording activity going on in various London studios. This, despite the fact that the group was having serious internal difficulties. The strains had begun upon their return from India in 1968 (see “Dear Prudence” story), and continued through their 1968 recording sessions for the “White Album.” By1969, despite the output of what would prove to be quite incredible music, the band was barely operating as a group. After arguments and frustrations, there had been walkouts by Ringo at one point in 1968, and George in 1969 – although both returned. At other times, each member did parts of songs or played instruments separately that were later combined in the studio. For the adoring public, however, the Beatles’ discord was largely out of sight, and for the most part, unknown. Beatles’ music, meanwhile, was all over the airwaves then and frequently riding high on the pop charts.The “White Album,” released in November 1968, was played heavily through early 1969 and was a huge success at the time, selling more than four million copies in the U.S. in one month. Music from the Beatle’s 1968 animated film, Yellow Submarine had also been released as a separate album in January 1969. It rose to No. 2 on U.S. album charts. Also that month, much of the music that would be used for the Let It Be album was being recorded by the Beatles, though the album itself would not appear for another year or so, as it would be shelved and reworked. Other studio recording was also occurring. In late January 1969, the Beatles were filmed in a rooftop jam session – in what would prove to be their last public “concert” together – performing several songs on the roof at Apple’s building on 3 Savile Row, London. The 42-minute session of songs was filmed for the Beatles’ movie, Let It Be During 1969, there had also been some turmoil within the group over their business interests. In early February 1969, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr hired Allen Klein to be the Beatles’ new business manager, against the wishes of Paul McCartney, who would not sign a contract with Klein. McCartney, meanwhile, had hired the law firm of Eastman & Eastman – owned by the father of his wife-to-be, Linda Eastman — as general legal counsel for Apple.
A stock struggle also ensued about this time over the Beatle’s Northern Songs music catalog, as their music publisher, Dick James, had sold his shares of Northern Songs in March 1969 to Associated Television (ATV). This would become the much-publicized “Beatles music catalog” that Michael Jackson would acquire some years later. But that’s another story (see “Michael & McCartney“).In March 1969 both Paul McCartney and John Lennon had married their respective lady friends – Paul married American, Linda Eastman of Eastman-Kodak business fame in London, and John Lennon married Japanese artist Yoko Ono in Gibraltar. In April, the Beatles’ single “Get Back” with “Don’t Let Me Down”on the B side, was released and rose to No. 1 in several countries. Meanwhile, through much of that year, the Beatles continued to work in the recording studio on music and lyrics for their Abbey Road album. This work generally ran between February and August 1969 at three London studios, with keyboardist Billy Preston brought in to help out on electric piano and organ for some of the sessions. Also during this time, in the middle of the Abbey Road work, around July 4th, 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, released a solo recording, “Give Peace A Chance” in the U.K and the U.S. This song, credited to the Plastic Ono Band, became the first solo single by a member of the Beatles, and a clear signal of where things were headed. Abbey Road, meanwhile, was nearing completion in August 1969. The track, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” was recorded on August 20, 1969. It was the last time all four Beatles were together in the same studio. In late August, John, George and Ringo went to Isle of Wight festival. Paul stayed in London as his wife Linda gave birth to their daughter, Mary.
A few weeks later, the group’s demise began, as John Lennon told Allen Klein on September 11th, he was planning to quit the Beatles. Lennon would later announce his departure to the group on September 20, 1969, but agreed that no public announcement would be made until a number of legal matters were resolved. Paul and his family meanwhile, went to their farm in Scotland. The Abbey Road album was released in U.K and U.S. in the late September-early-October 1969 time frame. This was about the time the “Paul-is-dead” rumor began to take hold.
The RumorOn September 17, 1969, just as the Beatles’ Abbey Road album was hitting the airwaves, an article entitled, “Is Paul McCartney Dead?” appeared in the Drake University newspaper, The Times-Delphic. The article, written by undergraduate student Tim Harper, began the conjecture and the crafting of “clues” suggesting that McCartney was dead. He included, for example, imagery from the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers album. Here’s a sample:
“…This album also started the hints that all was not right with the Beatles, especially Paul. On the front cover a mysterious hand is raised over his head, a sign many believe is an ancient death symbol of either the Greeks or American Indiana. Also, a left-handed guitar (Paul was the only lefty of the four) lies on the grave at the group’s feet…
“…On the back of the same album…George is pointing toward a phrase from the song “A Day in the Life” pertaining to a certain Wednesday morning at five a.m. when some famous but unnamed person “blew his mind out in a car.”…
Then on October 12th, a caller to WKNR-FM radio station in Detroit, Michigan from Eastern Michigan University also announced that Mc- Cartney was dead and that the DJ should play the Beatles’ song “Revolution 9″ backwards ( a technique also known as “backmasking,” which interestingly, was first used by the Beatles in 1966). The Detroit radio DJ, Russ Gibb, did that, reporting on the airwaves that he thought he heard phrases to the effect of, “turn me on, dead man.” Soon, Gibb was telling his listeners what he had found and was also adding to the list of clues.
Meanwhile, on October 14, 1969, college students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor published a satirical review of The Beatles’ Abbey Road album in The Michigan Daily. This story stoked the “McCartney-is-dead” claim with “new evidence,” offering various “clues,” some supposedly found in any number of Beatles’ songs and/or album covers. This story, in turn, was picked up by various newspapers across the U.S. and escalated nationally. On October 21, 1969, helping to spread the rumor nationally, a radio disc jockey at New York radio station WABC, discussed the “Paul-is-dead” rumor at length for over an hour. This occurred during the very early morning hours of WABC’s broadcasting reach, when the station’s signal could be heard in 38 states and beyond. At this point, the “Paul-is-dead” rumor was spreading like wildfire. Fans at Hofstra University even formed a special group named: “Is Paul McCartney Dead Society.”As the story grew, hundreds of supposed clues to McCartney’s death were being reported by fans – some found while listening to various Beatles songs, and others from interpretations made of cover art on various Beatles songs and albums – song-by-song in some cases, with recordings slowed down, taped backwards, and even scientific sonograms made of Paul’s voice on earlier tunes to compare for possible imposters. John Lennon, in the final section of the song “Strawberry Fields Forever,” was supposedly heard saying in the background something like, “I buried Paul,” when actually the suspect phrase was either “I’m very bored” or “cranberry sauce,” according to various reports. Abbey Road’s now-iconic album cover, shown at left, was also implicated in the rumor– supposedly depicting a funeral procession with Lennon in all white as preacher; Ringo in black as mourner; George in denim as gravedigger, and barefoot Paul as corpse. The Beatles’ press office, meanwhile, besieged with calls, issued a press statement on October 21, 1969, denying the rumor and dismissing it as “a load of old rubbish.” Still, the rumor persisted. Abbey Road, meanwhile – quite apart from its supposed “Paul-is-dead” clues – is regarded as one of the Beatles’ finest albums musically, also becoming one of their all-time best sellers at more than nine million sold and counting. In 1969, of course, there was no “always-on media” — no internet, no People magazine, no TMZ, or TV-equivalent Access Hollywood or Entertain- ment Tonight. Under such media-deprived circum- stances, more traditional journalistic sleuthing tech- niques were used to investigate the rumor. Life mag- azine, a much-respected, photo-journalist-styled news and culture weekly, dispatched a team from London, including reporter Dorothy Bacon, to track down McCartney in Scotland (see sidebar story below). It was this London team, with photographer Robert Graham, that found McCartney at his farm, photographing him with his family for the Life magazine cover story of November 7, 1969 (shown at top of this article).
When McCartney was contacted by Life’s reporter, he speculated that the rumor might have started because he, McCartney, had been out of contact for a time and hadn’t been in the press much, which he didn’t regret. “I have done enough press for a lifetime,” he told the Life reporter, “and I don’t have anything to say these days. I am happy to be with my family…” He also added that he was essentially chilling out, taking some serious down time: “I was switched on for ten years and I never switched off. Now I am switching off whenever I can. I would rather be a little less famous these days.”But the Life magazine story did not end the rumor; as the “Paul-is-dead” story persisted even though Paul was very much alive. In fact, F. Lee Bailey, a famous, high-profile U.S. trial attorney known for defending controversial clients including the Boston strangler, became involved in the action with an hour-long TV show cross-examining some of the students who first offered the claim.
RKO produced the television special, titled: “Paul McCartney: The Complete Story, Told For the First And Last Time.” The show was broadcast on WOR-TV station in New York on November 30, 1969 in which Bailey cross-examined some of the college newspaper authors and other “witnesses” about the rumor. Bailey, who used a court room setting to interrogate his subjects, left it to his TV viewers to draw their own conclusions.
“Life Finds McCartney”
Life magazine sent a team of London correspondents and a photographer to the remote reaches of Scotland on an un- announced visit to Paul McCartney’s farm. Hoping to avoid detection, the Life team hiked four and a half miles across cold moors and muddy fields until they approached the farmhouse of the missing Beatle. However, McCartney’s sheepdog, “Martha,” soon began barking at the interlopers. Paul then ran outside and began yelling at the reporters, charging them with trespassing. The photo- grapher in the group, Robert Graham, began snapping pictures of an enraged McCartney, and for his efforts, Graham was drenched with a bucket of water. The Life team then retreat- ed down the road. McCartney meanwhile, back in his kitchen, reviewing what had just happened, realized he had been perhaps a bit too harsh. He then jumped into his Land Rover, caught up with the group, and invited them back to his house for a cup of tea. After some discussion, a bargain was struck. Paul agreed to give the Life correspondents an exclusive interview. In return, Robert Graham agreed to give Paul the film in his camera. And Paul, in remarks to journalist Dorothy Bacon, said in part, “…Can you spread it around that I’m just an ordinary person who wants to live in peace?…”
The “Paul-is-dead” hoax lasted for about two months in its most heated form – from about September through December 1969. If nothing else, the rumor probably helped fuel the sales of Beatles’ albums, including all of those with supposed “Paul-is-dead” imagery or symbol- ism. The episode proved a big enough event that it became the subject of several books, articles, lectures and academic papers. Among the books, for example, are American jour- nalist Andru J. Reeve’s 1994 book Turn Me On, Dead Man, and another in 1997 by English author Benjamin Fitzpatrick, Rumours From John, George, Ringo and Me.
By mid-January 1970, in any case, it was the Beatles’ group that was dead – not Paul McCartney. At that point, each of the four Beatles separately began planning or beginning their solo careers. John and Yoko had already been recording. On April 10, 1970, Paul McCartney released his first solo album, McCartney. A few days later, Paul publicly announced the end of the Beatles. At about the same time, the Beatles’ previously-produced and recorded Let It Be album was released, followed by Let It Be the movie. That album became the Beatles’ 14th No. 1 album. Two singles from Let It Be – “The Long and Winding Road” and “Let It Be” – also became No. 1 hits.
Documents filed on December 31, 1970 officially ended the legal entity known as The Beatles. Three years later, John, George and Ringo split with Allen Klein and sued him. Still, during this tumultuous year of 1969 – marking their final disintegration as a group – the Beatles still managed, with help from their producer, George Martin, to turn out some of their most enduring and most loved music. For more stories at this website on the Beatles please visit the Home Page, the Annals of Music category page, or the archive. Thanks for visiting. - Jack Doyle
Date Posted: 7 March 2011
Last Update: 15 December 2011
Comments to: email@example.com
Jack Doyle, “The Paul-Is-Dead Saga, 1969-1970,”
PopHistoryDig.com, March 7, 2011.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
Tim Harper, “Is Beatle Paul McCartney Dead,” The Drake Times-Delphic (Drake University, Iowa), September 17, 1969.
Fred LaBour, “McCartney Dead; New Evidence Brought to Light” The Michigan Daily (Ann Arbor, MI), October 14, 1969, p. 2.
Brian D. Boyer, “Paul McCartney Dead? Campuses Swept by Beatle Rumor,” Chicago Sun-Times, October 21, 1969, p. 1.
B.J. Phillips, “McCartney ‘Death’ Rumors,” Washington Post, October 22, 1969, p. B-1.
“Beatle Spokesman Calls Rumor of McCartney’s Death ‘Rubbish’,” New York Times, October 22, 1969, p. 8.
John Neary, “The Magical McCartney Mystery,” Life, November 7, 1969, pp. 103-105; and Dorothy Bacon, ” ‘I Want To Live In Peace’,” Life, November 7, 1969, p. 105.
John Burks, “A Pile of Money On Paul’s ‘Death’,” Rolling Stone, November 29, 1969, p. 54.
“The Beatles,” in Holly George-Warren and Patricia Romanowski (eds), The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, New York, 3rd Edition, 2001, pp. 56-59.
“Paul Is Dead,” Wikipedia.org.
Andru J. Reeve, Turn Me On, Dead Man: The Beatles and the ‘Paul Is Dead’ Hoax, Popular Culture Ink., 1994
Benjamin Fitzpatrick, Rumours From John, George, Ringo and Me, 1997.
Brian Moriarty, “Who Buried Paul?,” Illustrated Transcript of a Lecture at the Game Developers Conference, San Jose Convention Center, March 17, 1999 on St. Patrick’s Day 1999, as a featured lecture, Ludix.com, detailed accounting of “Paul-is-dead” hoax.
Gary R. Patterson, The Walrus Was Paul: The Great Beatle Death Clues, Prentice Hall, 1998.
Mark Lewisohn, The Complete Beatles Chronicle, London: Pyramid Books, 1992.
“The Get Back Rehearsals,” Four Parts: The Twickenham Sessions; The Apple Sessions; The Rooftop Concert; and, The Apple Studio Performance.