Fifty years ago, a Detroit DJ accidentally started the biggest hoax in rock & roll history: the “Paul is dead” craze. It blew up on October 12, 1969, when Russ Gibb was hosting his show on WKNR. A mysterious caller told him to put on the Beatles’ White Album and spin the “number nine, number nine” intro from “Revolution 9” backwards. When Gibb tried it on the air, he heard the words, “Turn me on, dead man.” The clues kept coming. At the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” John says, “I buried Paul.” What could it all mean?
It meant the Beatles were hiding a secret: Paul McCartney got killed in a car crash back in 1966, and the band replaced him with an imposter. The rumor spread like wildfire, as fans searched their Beatle albums for clues. Fifty years later, “Paul is dead” remains the weirdest and most famous of all music conspiracy theories. It became a permanent part of Beatles lore—a totally fan-generated phenomenon that the band could only watch with amusement or exasperation. As Paul told Rolling Stone in 1974, “Someone from the office rang me up and said, ‘Look, Paul, you’re dead.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I don’t agree with that.’”
Needless to say, it wasn’t true — Paul is not just gloriously alive, he’s still peaking as a songwriter and performer, debuting at Number One last year with Egypt Station. But after the Detroit radio broadcast, people pounced on the story. Two days later, the Michigan Daily explained the Abbey Road cover as a funeral procession: the Preacher (John in white), the Undertaker (Ringo in black), the Corpse (poor Macca). And bringing up the rear, George in blue denim as the grave-digger—man, even in the conspiracy theories, George gets shafted with the dirty work.
Here’s how the rumor went, as summed up by Nicholas Schaffner in The Beatles Forever: Paul died on November 9, 1966. He drove away from Abbey Road late the night before — a “stupid bloody Tuesday” — then blew his mind out in a car. He was Officially Pronounced Dead (“O.P.D.”) on Wednesday morning at 5 o’clock, which is why George points to that line on the Sgt. Pepper sleeve, while Paul wears an “O.P.D.” patch. But the other Beatles decided to hush up the news, so Wednesday-morning papers didn’t come. Somehow, they kept Paul’s death a secret, replaced him with a look-alike, then dropped sly hints about the cover-up scam. The imposter wrote “Hey Jude” and “Blackbird,” which means he’s the guy who probably should have had Paul’s job in the first place.
Fans began whispering about all the clues on the just-released Abbey Road. Look at that cover — Paul’s barefoot, out of step with the others, holding a cigarette in his right hand. (The real Paul was a lefty.) The Volkswagen with the “28 IF” license plate — that’s how old Paul would have been if he were still alive. (He was 27.) No theory was too ridiculous to get taken seriously. Fans eagerly believed “walrus” is Greek for corpse (it isn’t — it’s Scandinavian) or that “goo goo goo joob” is what Humpty Dumpty says in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, before his fatal fall off the wall. (Nope, sorry.) “I Am the Walrus” ends with a live BBC broadcast of a fatal scene from Shakespeare’s King Lear, with Oswald groaning, “O, untimely death!” (That one’s true—John just taped it off the radio one night and liked how it fit the song.) And in “Glass Onion,” John sings, “Here’s another clue for you all / The Walrus was Paul.”
When the rumor blew up, Paul was neither dead nor a walrus. He was in seclusion on his Scottish farm with Linda, Heather, and their six-week-old daughter Mary, known to the world as the infant cradled in his leather jacket in Linda’s most famous photo. With a newborn baby to care for (a first for Paul), he was in no mood to indulge the media frenzy. As he told Rolling Stone, “They said, ‘Look, what are you going to do about it? It’s a big thing breaking in America. You’re dead.’ And so I said, leave it, just let them say it. It’ll probably be the best publicity we’ve ever had, and I won’t have to do a thing except stay alive. So I managed to stay alive through it.”
John Lennon, calling the same Detroit radio station on October 26th, fumed, “It’s the most stupid rumor I’ve ever heard. It sounds like the same guy who blew up my Christ remark.” John denied any coded messages (“I don’t know what Beatles records sound like backwards; I never play them backwards”) or that he was the preacher at a funeral. “They said I was wearing a white religious suit. I mean, did Humphrey Bogart wear a white religious suit? All I’ve got is a nice Humphrey Bogart suit.” John’s pique was understandable — he was releasing his solo single “Cold Turkey” (the record where he finally ditched the “Lennon-McCartney” credit) and his Wedding Album with Yoko. The last thing on earth he wanted to talk about was Paul’s bare feet.
The attorney F. Lee Bailey hosted a TV investigation, cross-examining witnesses like Allen Klein and Peter Asher. Beatles scholar Andru J. Reeve, in his wonderful history of the phenomenon, Turn Me On, Dead Man, gives transcripts of the TV trial. When Klein was asked why John said, “I buried Paul,” he claimed, “On that particular take, his guitar buried Paul’s sound.” (Imagine: Allen Klein not giving a straight answer.) The record racks got flooded with quickie exploitations, like Jose Feliciano’s “So Long Paul” (under the name Werbley Finster) and “Brother Paul” by Billy Shears & the All-Americans. The best of these tunes: “We’re All Paul Bearers,” by Zacherias and the Tree People. It was actually a decent Buffalo Springfield imitation, with the lament: “See the patch insinuation ‘O.P.D.’ on his sleeve / Wearing black sweet carnation while bringing mystery.”
Something about the Beatles had always inspired death rumors, even in the early days. As Mark Lewisohn reports in Tune In, when original bassist Stu Sutcliffe quit in 1961, “Mersey Beat printed a letter from a fan asking if it was true that this member of the Beatles had been killed in a car crash.” But this one was different. The novelist Richard Price, in a hilarious 1984 memoir for Rolling Stone, recalls listening to a 1969 college-radio show with fans sharing their off-the-wall theories. (“‘Here Comes The Sun’ played backwards at 78 rpm says, ‘Woe is Paul.’”) He calls the DJ, just for the kick of hearing his voice on the radio. “You know what eighty-four per cent of all the coffins in England are made of?…It might even be eighty-seven per cent…Norwegian Wood.”
At first, the Fabs’ long-suffering press officer Derek Taylor brushed off the latest hoax: “Ahh, they’re always trying to start one of those. It’s happened before. The calls will stop coming in a few days.” But this time, the calls didn’t stop. Richard DiLello’s book The Longest Cocktail Party gives an inside account of the chaos that hit Apple. With Paul off the grid in Scotland, Taylor kept denying the gossip with all his usual charm: “The Paul McCartney who wrote ‘And I Love Her’ still loves you, and is still alive, and has a lot to write. There are a thousand songs unwritten and much to do.” But in the Apple office, he added: “We’ll start our own rumor that the public is dead from the neck up, and they’ve been using a stand-in facsimile of a brain for the past three and a half years.”
Life magazine sent reporters out to stalk McCartney on his farm; after throwing a bucket of water on them, Paul agreed to an interview and photos, just to make this mess go away. In the November 9th cover story (“Paul McCartney Is Still With Us”), he casually added, “The Beatles thing is over.” But nobody noticed. That’s how over-the-top the whole hysteria was — Paul could drop a bombshell like this and people missed it, because they were too busy scrutinizing his chin or jaw for proof this was a fake. As he told Mojo in 2009, “I think the worst thing that happened was that I could see people sort of looking at me more closely: ‘Were his ears always like that?’”
By 1970, nobody seriously believed Paul was dead. But for some reason, the story remained hugely popular, long after it was debunked — it became a timeless ritual of fan culture to check out the clues for yourself. Countless Paul-bearers over the years have held up a butter knife to the back cover of Abbey Road, so we could see the reflection of a human skull. (It’s there, to the right of the “S.”) Or put on Side Two of the White Album, dropped the needle on the vinyl right after “I’m So Tired,” and spun it backwards to hear the words: “Paul is dead, man, miss him, miss him.” Hell, the cover of his first solo album was a bowl of cherries — as in “Life is just…” — but the bowl was empty, which could only mean Paul was starting the world’s first posthumous solo career.
As we all know now, John was saying “cranberry sauce,” not “I buried Paul,” and the “O.P.D.” patch said “O.P.P.,” a gift from the Ontario Provincial Police. But that didn’t spoil anyone’s fun. As Schaffner wrote, it’s “a genuine folk tale of the mass communications era.” The story outlived Russ Gibb, who died in April 2019. (Paul did not comment.) It also outlasted the band — as it turns out, something major really did happen to the Beatles on November 9, 1966. It was the day John met Yoko.
Fortunately, Paul is still around to celebrate this anniversary — he’s always been bemused by the whole thing, even calling one album Paul Is Live. It was more than just a rock-star rumor—it inspired ordinary fans to turn into detectives, and permanently changed the way people consume music. “Paul is dead” walked so “Tupac is alive” and “Stevie Wonder can see” and “there are 12 different Avril Lavignes” could run. Every time Taylor Swift hints you should count the palm trees in her new video, she’s tapping into the 28 IF legacy. (She buried John Mayer.) The whole phenomenon, however accidentally, shows how crazy and devoted fan love can get. And that’s really why the “Paul is dead” legend lives on. It’s a tribute to all the life in the music. Long live the Beatles — and long live Paul.