Original publish date: June 8, 2015
Reissue date: April 18, 2019
It has been over half a century since one of the most famous hoaxes in Rock-N-Roll history began. On Wednesday November 9, 1966 at 5 am, Paul McCartney, while working on the album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, stormed out of the studio during a recording session after an argument with the other members of the group. He jumped into his Austin-Healey and sped off down the road, lost control of his sportscar and crashed into a telephone pole. Paul McCartney was dead. Well, that was the rumor anyway.
Although teen-agers and music fans all over Britain began to panic upon circulation of the shocking rumor, Paul’s bandmates and the band’s management quickly discovered that there was absolutely no truth to it at all. As the Beatles’ Press Officer Derek Taylor found out when he telephoned Paul’s St. John’s Wood home and the voice responding on the other end of the line was Paul himself. Paul calmly explained that he had been at home all day and his black Mini Cooper (NOT an Austin Healey) was safely locked up in his garage. The Beatles management addressed the rumor in the February 1967 issue # 43 of “The Beatles Monthly Book” (the Beatles’ official fan club magazine) with a short blurb that appeared in the “Beatle News” section, entitled “FALSE RUMOUR”. Far from calming nervous Beatles fans, this only intensified the ferocity of the “Paul is Dead” rumor.
Suddenly, the “Paul is dead” urban legend spread throughout the world. Now, not only was Paul dead, he had been secretly replaced in the band by a look-alike. The rumor could not have come at a worse time for the band. To say the Beatles were going through a rough patch would be an understatement. After releasing “Revolver” in August 1966, the band quickly grew tired of touring. They were frustrated with not being able to hear themselves onstage, due to the incessant shrieks and screams of their female fans at shows. The band had been touring and recording in the studio non-stop for nearly 2 years. They were growing tired of life on the road and not being able to play the songs they liked, to say nothing about debuting new material on stage.
During that last tour, the airplane they were traveling in was shot at as they landed in Texas, and a prankster threw a firecracker at the stage during their Memphis show which everyone thought at first was a gunshot. The Beatles were burnt out and the band had had enough. The band’s attitude and message became darker and soon, concerts became dangerous as the Beatles’ started to receive death threats after some comments made by John Lennon at a press conference that year. John’s quote “the Beatles are bigger than Jesus” was taken out of context and according to John Lennon, “upset the very Christian KKK”. In the Philippines they unintentionally offended Imelda Marcos, a former beauty queen, by not meeting with her privately before their show. Filipino citizens took this as an excuse to rob, harass and threaten death to the Beatles. They stopped touring soon after the show at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on August 29, 1966. Less than six months later, the McCartney death rumor had reached a fever pitch worldwide and just like Paul himself, it refused to die.
Okay Baby Boomers, go dust off your “Sgt. Pepper’s” album for the rest of this article. For it is that cover and the songs found on it that fueled the mania. Released on June 1, 1967, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was rife with “Paul is dead” clues. Turns out, it was Paul’s idea that the Beatles immerse themselves in a new identity for the album’s release. The original idea behind the album cover was to show the Beatles assuming a new identity while laying to rest their earlier “Fab Four” image. The wax images of the younger Beatles look mournfully on the gravesite because the Beatles were no longer the same band. The “Paul is dead” crowd interpreted the cover as representing a funeral for Paul.
Looking at the modern, psychedelic Beatles posed on the cover, one notices that, while three of the Beatles are standing at an angle, Paul is facing the camera as if his body was being propped up by his bandmates standing at his sides like a scene out of “Weekend at Bernie’s”. John, George & Ringo are holding shiny gold band instruments, but Paul’s cor anglaise woodwind instrument is black. A disembodied hand appears above Paul’s head, as though he is being blessed by a priest before being interred.
Across the gravesite is a bass guitar oriented the way that left-hander McCartney would have played it. The strings of the bass are made of sticks but there are only three sticks rather than four, representing the three Beatles without Paul. Some rumorists claimed that the yellow hyacinth flowers spell out the name “PAUL?” or that when the album is turned sideways, the flowers form the letter “P”.
Another rumor claimed that if you held the album cover up to a mirror, the words “LONELY HEARTS” written across the front of the bass drum reflect back as “IONEIX HE<>DIE”. When arranged as “I ONE IX HE <> DIE,” this image suggests the date (11-9, or November 9, 1966) that Paul died and the diamond between the words “HE” and “DIE” points directly at Paul. Another interpretation suggests this could also be read as “1 ONE 1 X”, meaning that one of the four is gone, and then the “HE DIE” along with the ever present diamond / arrow pointing to Paul as the missing Beatle.
The Shirley Temple doll at the right of the picture wears a sweater that reads “WELCOME THE ROLLING STONES”. Hinting that the Rolling Stones were involved in the conspiracy. After all, without the Beatles the Rolling Stones would have been the undisputed leading rock and roll band. A model of an Aston-Martin, the type of car that Paul was supposedly driving at the time of his fatal accident, is leaning against the doll’s leg. The interior of the car is red, symbolizing Paul’s bloody accident. Also, the doll rests on the lap of a cloth draped figure (which is creepy all by itself) that is wearing a blood stained driving glove.
The Japanese stone figure at the feet of the wax images of the younger Beatles has a line on its head, rumored to represent the head wound that Paul sustained in the fatal accident. The four-armed Indian doll at the front of the picture is Shiva, symbol of both destruction and creation. Two of the doll’s arms are raised, one pointing at the wax image of the younger Paul and the other pointing at Paul himself. The television set on the ground to the right of the Beatles is turned off, suggesting that the news of the tragedy had been suppressed.
The “Paul is Dead” controversy is not the only thing that the Sgt. Pepper’s album cover is known for. It was one of the first to feature a center gatefold sleeve and it was also the first album to have the song lyrics printed on the cover. Of course, a bi-fold album had never been seen before so rumors began that it was made this way to resemble a prayer book or funeral program. Naturally, clues were found within the folds of the album as well.
On the inside photo, Paul is wearing a patch on his band uniform with the letters “O.P.D.” that theorists interpreted as “Officially Pronounced Dead.” According to tradition, this British Police jargon “O.P.D.” phrase is the equivalent of American police forces use of “D.O.A.” (Dead On Arrival). (Much later, in a Life magazine article Paul stated, “It is all bloody stupid. I picked up the O.P.D. badge in Canada. It was a police badge. Perhaps it means Ontario Police Department or something.” Actually, the badge Paul was wearing reads “O.P.P.”, which stands for the Ontario Provincial Police. The angle of the photograph makes the final “P” look like a “D”.)
On the original album the song lyrics are printed on the back cover over a picture of the Beatles. Unlike the rest of the Beatles, Paul has his back turned to the camera which, by its very appearance, further fueled rumors that he was dead. Furthermore, the three black buttons on the waist above the tail of Paul’s coat are supposed to represent the mourning of the remaining Beatles. Although John, Paul and George were all about the same height (Ringo, much shorter), in the gatefold photo, Paul appears taller than the other Beatles, suggesting that he is ascending to the heavens. Another clue points out that next to Paul’s head are the words “WITHOUT YOU” from the song title “Within You Without You”.
Also, George appears to be pointing at the words “Wednesday morning at five o’clock as the day begins”, which was supposed to have been the time of Paul’s fatal accident. In reality, George deliberately positioned his hand in this way not to point to the printed lyrics, but to make the letter “L”, the first letter in the word “LOVE”. His fellow Beatles appear to be spelling out the word “LOVE” with their hands as well. John’s hands are arranged in a “V” shape, and Ringo’s clasped hands form an “E”. The “O” is missing as Paul’s hands are not visible.
The lyrics themselves added to Paul’s death legend and to his replacement by a look-alike. The title song introduces Billy Shears (Paul’s alleged replacement) in “With a Little Help from My Friends”. Insiders hint that Paul’s rumored replacement, a man named William Campbell Shears, was still working on perfecting his singing voice. This theory was again referred to in the same song with the line: “Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song/And I’ll try not to sing out of key”.
Several other “Sgt. Peppers” songs purportedly make reference to Paul’s tragic accident. “Good Morning, Good Morning” opens with the line “Nothing to do to save his life call his wife in.” One version of Paul’s fatal accident story was that he had picked up a female hitch-hiker named Rita and she became so excited when she realized she was in a car with Paul McCartney that she threw herself on him, thereby causing the wreck. As told in the song “Lovely Rita,” “I took her home/I nearly made it”.
In “A Day in the Life” John sings “He blew his mind out in a car/He hadn’t noticed that the lights had changed/A crowd of people stood and stared/They’d seen his face before/Nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords”. This last lyric was, at the time, perhaps the most convincing argument that Paul McCartney was dead. Years later, John Lennon revealed that the inspiration for the spooky song lyrics was the death of Tara Browne, the 21-year-old heir to the Guinness fortune and close friend of Lennon and McCartney, who had crashed his Lotus Elan on December 18, 1966 in Redcliffe Gardens, Earls Court. Producer George Martin however, believes that the entire song, including this morose verse, is a drug reference and that Lennon was imagining a stoned politician who had stopped at a set of traffic lights.
Regardless, the album did nothing to quell the rumor that “Paul was Dead.” The Beatles, who were by this time totally fed up with dealing with the press, did little to dissuade the discussion of demise. Some pundits have speculated over the years that the entire affair was a ploy by the Beatles’ and their management designed to sell more albums. Which makes sense when you consider that the McCartney death rumor would continue to swirl around future album releases by the Fab Four in the coming years.
What cannot be denied about “Sgt. Pepper” was its impact on music history. The album regularly appears at the top of most music critic’s lists of “Greatest albums of all time.” The influence obviously extended beyond the music itself, as our short analysis of the cover art suggests, by changing the way the jackets containing the music told a story of its own. In pop-culture, the heavy moustaches worn by all of the Beatles band members swiftly became a hallmark of hippie style. The brightly colored parodies of military uniforms worn by the band on the cover have been, at least in part, attributed by cultural historians as fueling the anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment movement of the hippy era.
Nearly 3 months after Sgt. Pepper’s release, an incident occurred that further fueled the death rumor, changed the Beatles forever, and drove them further into seclusion. In August 1967, the band was informed of the death of the man responsible in large part for their success; manager Brian Epstein. The coroner ruled Epstein’s death an accidental overdose, but it was widely rumored that a suicide note had been discovered among his possessions. Epstein worried that the band might not renew his management contract, due to expire in October. Epstein’s death left the group confused and fearful about the future and did nothing to extinguish the rumors of Paul McCartney’s death. In fact, Brian Epstein’s death just added fuel to the fire.