Original publish date: June 15, 2015
Reissue date: April 25, 2019
Last week, we revisited the famous “Paul is Dead” rumor swirling around the Beatles rock band during the last few years of the turbulent sixties decade. The rumor that Paul McCartney died in a November 1966 car crash seems silly to us now, but it was pervasive back in the day. As we covered in Part I of this series, the album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was released in June of 1967 to much well deserved fanfare. Both for the music it contained and the supposed references it made to the death of the Beatles’ heartthrob bass player.
Magical Mystery Tour was released on December 8, 1967. After the success of Sgt. Pepper’s, Paul McCartney wanted to create a film based upon The Beatles and their music. The film was to be unscripted and would “star” various “ordinary” people who were to travel the countryside on a bus and experience “magical” adventures on film. The Magical Mystery Tour film was made and included six new Beatles songs. The film was universally panned and largely forgotten, but the resulting album / soundtrack is considered a classic. Produced by George Martin, Magical Mystery Tour was packaged by Capitol records as a full LP with a 24-page companion picture booklet.
The booklet was eagerly devoured by the “Paul is dead” theorists and the clues it supposedly offered only fueled the ever-growing conspiracy. So, dear readers go and dust off your copies of Magical Mystery tour as we thumb through it and decipher the clues. On page 3 of the booklet, Paul is dressed in a British military uniform posed seated behind a desk with a nameplate that reads “I Was” in front of him. Further interpretations of the nameplate claim it reads either “I You Was” or “I Was You,” both suggesting that Paul had disappeared and been replaced by a double. Also, the British Union Jack flags behind Paul are crossed as they would traditionally appear at a military funeral.
On page 6, John Lennon appears as a carnival barker manning a ticket booth with a sign reading: “The best way to go is by M&D Co.” According to the “Paul is dead” rumor, M&D Co. was a funeral parlor, but such a place never existed. Theorists also note that in the picture, a departure time is given but the return time is blank.
On page 9, “Fool on the Hill” is shown next to a cartoon image of Paul who appears to be standing on a grave shaped mound of grass. The second “L” in the title extends above Paul’s head and dribbles into his scalp as though his head were split open. This picture hints at the devastating head injury that Paul allegedly sustained in his fatal accident.
In the band photos on pages 10, 11 and 12, Paul appears without shoes, which would become a recurring theme among the “Paul is Dead” crowd in years to come. Also, on Ringo’s bass drum between the word “Love” and the name “The Beatles”, the numeral “3” can plainly be seen which seems to spell out the cryptic phrase “Love the 3 Beatles”. Eerily, in that same photo, blood appears to be dripping from Paul’s shoes resting next to the drum. Theorists assert that “empty shoes were a Grecian symbol of death.”
On page 23, the Beatles are all wearing stark white tuxedos with carnations in the lapels. Paul’s flower is black while the other Beatles have red flowers. Years later, Paul denied that the black carnation had any significance at all; “I was wearing a black flower because they ran out of red ones.”
And on the final page of the photo booklet, once again, a hand appears over Paul’s head. Although this instance of a hand over Paul’s head isn’t nearly as dramatic as the Sgt. Pepper’s cover photo because several people have their hands raised above their heads in this picture. But it certainly did nothing to ease the conspiracies.
However, there is one compelling image in the pages of the pictorial book that, when analyzed, virtually screamed out to all those looking for signs of death in the Beatles’ works to substantiate the rumors of Paul’s premature passing. On page 8 of the booklet, a dining scene, at the left of the image (but on the right as the image is rotated one turn clockwise), with a little imagination, you can see a skull in this picture. It occupies the left side of the picture, with the beret of the person seated at the table forming the eye and the hair of the woman seated next to him the mouth. Like a “Magic Eye” painting, once you’ve accepted it as a skull, it’s easy to see the damage to the top of the head. This grisly image suggests the damage to Paul’s head as a result of his car crash. The fact that this picture, unlike all of the other images in the booklet, does not appear in the movie again only encouraged the “Paul is Dead” crowd as proof of his passing.
Then there’s the cover image. The bandmates appear on the cover, as they did in the companion film, dressed in outlandish animal costumes. The animal costumes were in keeping with the predominantly psychedelic themes of the music on the LP. It’s a common misconception that Paul was the walrus, no doubt made famous by the lyric in Glass Onion on “The White Album” and the song’s innumerable references to it in the ‘Paul is Dead’ conspiracy. However, Paul isn’t the walrus, John is. This can be seen in the ‘I Am The Walrus’ segment of the Magical Mystery Tour film where the walrus is seated at the piano singing the song (just as John was at the start of the song). The hippo is standing in front playing left-handed bass guitar. In truth, Paul was the Hippo, John was the Walrus, George was the Rabbit and Ringo was the Chicken.
Theorists would claim a connection between Paul’s supposed Walrus costume and the death rumor, but the real controversy revolved around the word “Beatles” above the lad’s heads that purportedly reveal a secret phone number. As Rolling Stone famously pointed out, it’s not exactly clear what that phone number is supposed to be. Depending on whom you ask it could be read as “231-7438, 834-7135, 536-0195, 510-6643, 546-3663, 624-7125, no telling what city, maybe London.” If you turn the album cover upside down and hold it in front of a mirror you can see the numbers 8341735, which is a stretch because the threes, the seven and the five are backwards. If you simply hold the album cover upside-down, the numbers could be 5371438. Of course, there is no area code. The rumor claimed that when this number was dialed, the caller would receive information about Paul’s death, or the person would be able to take a trip to “Magical Beatle Mystery Island”, or maybe even speak to Paul in the hereafter. Stories circulated about the strange responses callers were receiving from the voices on the other end of the phone line. Later it was discovered that one of the phone numbers belonged to a journalist who was nearly driven crazy by the numerous phone calls from people hoping to connect with the late Paul McCartney.
But it was the music contained on the album that offered the clue seekers the most tantalizing hints at Paul’s demise. One of the best known “Paul is dead” audio clues comes at the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. As the song fades out for the second time, John allegedly says “I buried Paul.”‘ This audio clue can be heard more clearly when the record is played at 45 rpm as John’s voice is slowed down to a virtual crawl. Years later, John admitted that he was really saying “cranberry sauce,” which became evident on the “take 7 and edit piece” version of the song that appeared on Anthology II in 1996. Paul explained “That’s John’s humor. John would say something totally out of sync, like ‘cranberry sauce.’ If you don’t realize that John’s apt to say something like ‘cranberry sauce’ when he feels like it, then you start to hear a funny little word there, and you think aha!”
The “Paul is Dead” theorists prophetically point to the song, “I am the Walrus” on the album as definitive proof of McCartney’s death. The very fact that theorists looked for clues in “I Am the Walrus” was ironic, since John’s intent was to write a song with nonsensical imagery to poke fun at all those people looking for clues in every Beatle lyric. Still, John’s explanation didn’t stop them from looking for “Paul is Dead” clues in the song.
According to the “Paul is Dead” rumor: Paul left the recording studio in anger on a “stupid bloody Tuesday” after a quarrel with his bandmates. The refrain “I’m crying” is John expressing his grief over Paul’s death. The references to “pretty little policemen” and “waiting for the van to come” refer to the police present at the site of Paul’s fatal accident. The opening line of the song, “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together” suggests that all of the Beatles were aware of the death and ensuing cover-up. In the “Paul is dead” mythology, the walrus is an image of death. But no evidence for this statement has ever surfaced to explain why.
The album, movie and pictorial booklet are arguably the most ambitious effort ever attempted by the Fab Four. Completed at a time when the Beatles were still having fun, but questioning their viability at the same time. Although they saw themselves as a rock band, their fans were looking at them as modern day prophets. Undoubtedly, this view was responsible in large part for the devastation perceived by the “Paul is Dead” rumors that continued to swirl around the band. The band’s next effort, “The White Album”, would do nothing to help end the controversy.