Misinformation and the saga of ‘Paul is Dead’

December 20, 2021
Photo by Andrew Maclear/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It’s become both fashionable and unsatisfying to worry about disinformation and misinformation. Fashionable because the stuff seems to be proliferating, among other things inhibiting the vaccinations we need to stem the pandemic, and bolstering claims that the clear loser of the last presidential election somehow didn’t lose at all. Unsatisfying because significant efforts, private and public, in the press and by government, to expose and refute the nonsense doesn’t seem to be slowing the proliferation.

Part of the challenge in understanding this, as people are increasingly recognizing, stems from the fact that an enormously disproportionate amount of the nonsense is coming from one side of the political spectrum. 

How could we think about disinformation outside the context of our current political polarization? Then I remembered: “Paul is Dead.”

In October 1969, the western world was swept by a story that Paul McCartney had died in an automobile accident three years earlier, been secretly replaced by a double chosen in a lookalike contest, and that clues to this were strewn throughout recent Beatles albums. The story had amazing specificity: the date of the accident (just ten weeks after the last concert), the manner of death (decapitation); the clues were everywhere, from stray comments on or lyrics in some songs (John Lennon does seem to say “I buried Paul” just after “Strawberry Fields Forever,” apparently because he worried he had played over the work of his bandmate on that take) to other tracks that needed to be played backward.

On Wednesday, October 22, this was the subject of more than a hundred newspaper stories. It made the network evening news on ABC that night and the next, while NBC News ended with a report on the 23rd in which John Chancellor said Paul might or might not be dead, before both ABC and NBC broadcast new photos of McCartney that had been transmitted by AP on Wednesday night. McCartney, who had gone on vacation at his Scottish farm, was forced to give interviews and pose for photos over the course of five days for the Glasgow Herald, Life magazine (which, more than a week later, put McCartney and his family on the cover with the headline “Paul is still with us”), the BBC, the Financial Times, the Liverpool Daily Post, and a Portland, Oregon radio station. Even as the controversy waned, WOR-TV in New York broadcast a one-hour special at the end of November, with attorney F. Lee Bailey leading the inquiry.

As you may have had occasion to learn or recall with the recent release of Peter Jackson’s Get Back film, the Beatles last performed in concert in October 1966 in San Francisco. The sessions we see in Get Back took place in January 1969, and Paul and Linda Eastman and John Lennon and Yoko Ono married two months later, just eight days apart, with Paul’s wedding surprising many fans, who thought McCartney was still involved with Jane Asher. It was a very unsettled time for the band, and its millions of fans.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

In the fall of 1969, a woman at a party at Drake University in Des Moines told a male student that she had heard that McCartney had died in a crash and been replaced by a double. The young man told a friend, the sports editor of the student newspaper.

On September 17, the Drake Times-Delphic published “Is Beatle Paul McCartney Dead?” It set out clues the author said could be found on the cover of the Sgt. Pepper album from 1967: there is a hand above Paul’s head in the cover photo montage, said to be a sign of death, the flowers on the cover were assertedly grave-like in part, Paul is wearing a black armband in one photo from the album, he alone has his back turned in another, if you play “Revolution 9” from the White Album backward you may make out something that sounds like “turn me on dead man,” Paul’s death is the secret meaning of “the walrus was Paul” in the lyrics of “Glass Onion.” In all, it’s almost certainly the most enduring sports story ever published by the Drake paper.

In those analog days, rumors moved slowly. A couple of days later, a Drake student told a friend at Ohio Wesleyan University about the story. Three weeks later, it had spread to Eastern Michigan University, and students there began calling in to radio stations playing popular music, first one in Ann Arbor, then another, with a stronger signal and greater listenership, in Detroit. When the Detroit disc jockey took one of these calls on air, he was immediately visited in the studio by a student who lived nearby and who had found the “I buried Paul” clip on “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The Detroit jock placed a call to Apple Records in London, where a publicist denied that Paul was dead.

One of the Detroit station listeners, Fred LaBour, who was enrolled at the University of Michigan, and had an assignment to write a review of “Abbey Road,” which had been released nine days after the Drake paper’s story. LaBour and a friend spent a few days studying Beatles albums. He decided to do something more interesting than a traditional review and published “McCartney Dead: New Evidence Brought to Light” in the Michigan Daily.

LaBour added new “clues”: a name (William Campbell) for the ostensible lookalike substitute Paul, the meaning of the letters looking like “OPD” on McCartney’s Sgt. Pepper uniform patch (“Officially Pronounced Dead”; they were actually “OPP,” an item worn by Ontario Provincial Police) and a raft of elements from the cover of Abbey Road, where he saw John dressed as the officiant at a funeral, Ringo as an undertaker, George as a gravedigger, the barefoot Paul signifying death, and a license plate on a Volkswagen Beetle parked nearby (“28IF”) as a reference to McCartney’s supposed age “if” he had lived (although he was actually 27).

Now the rumor moved into a higher gear. A student at Michigan State placed an ad in underground papers seeking additional clues. In New York, another jock, on WMCA radio, took an on-air call from a student at Hofstra who denominated himself as president of the Paul McCartney Dead Society. 

The original Detroit station broadcast a two-hour special on the controversy on October 20. Late that night in New York, WABC disc jockey Roby Yonge—having taken a call earlier in the week about Paul is Dead from Indiana and one that evening from Georgia—started to discuss the matter himself. WABC’s program director, alarmed, personally came to the studio in the early hours of the morning and took Yonge off the air—permanently. 

But it was too late. ABC’s own network Contemporary Radio picked up the story that morning, although they did elicit another denial from Apple in London. By the afternoon, the evening edition of the Chicago Sun-Times ran with “Paul McCartney Dead? Campuses Swept by Beatle Rumor.” The next day it was everywhere.

I  remember well, at age 12, furiously debating the question of whether Paul was or was not dead in my middle school corridor. My wife says she and her friends were all completely convinced—there were so many clues, and Paul had aged quite a bit from the 24-year-old at the time of his last tour date, not to mention his having married someone they didn’t even know he was dating. No one seemed to tarry on details like the fact that the rumor was first published weeks before “Abbey Road” had gone on sale, making the cover “clues” suspect even if you didn’t know that LaBour had made them up (which he readily admitted he had).

Here’s the funny thing, though, and it brings us back to why I think all of this has been worth canvassing: even those of us who ostensibly believed Paul was dead didn’t act as if he was. We were confused, but not sad. My wife and her teenage friends talked about little else for days, but they did not cry over their loss. There were no memorials to Paul, no candles on the street, no flowers left in public places, no vigils, no retrospectives on the talent lost.

Being honest about it, the clues were a game, not only for the students who crafted them, but for the rest of us as well. That’s why, when the interviews piled up as Paul insisted he was alive, many shifted easily into a twist on the original conspiracy: Paul was alive, but the Beatles had been playing with us, littering those clues across four albums. Lots of people my age who either haven’t read the history of this, or just don’t want to spoil the fun, will still tell you they believe this version, what we might call Paul is Dead 2.0. 

A 2013 poll on various “conspiracy theories,” found that the Paul is Dead thing had faded. Just 5 percent of respondents believed it, behind the faked moon landing at 7 percent, and ahead of the idea that the world is controlled by shape-shifting reptilians at 4 percent. 

When you dig into the poll, you see that Paul is Dead doesn’t split along partisan lines, or by ideology or gender. However, when you just look at the views of those who were alive and sentient in 1969 (in this poll, those 21 and older at the time), only 1 percent say they believe Paul is Dead—but one in four are “not sure.” My own guess is that Paul is Dead 2.0 comprise a big part of that 25 percent.

Since, as the last number suggests, this has long been a generational moment, we also know a great deal about how the Paul is Dead tale evolved. (Much of the detail can be found in this obsessive volume.) 

So what’s the point of all of this?

Maybe one way to put it is that some misinformation and disinformation, as with one of its leading purveyors, needs to be taken seriously but not literally. (Of course, some of the most threatening stuff needs to be taken both seriously and literally.) Some misinformation, even some disinformation (the difference being intentionality on the part of the creator), is shared and savored mostly for its entertainment value. We don’t think Paul is dead—we just love finding the clues. We don’t think William Crawford (or Billy Shears) wrote “Blackbird,” “Let it Be” and “Hey Jude;” but we do recall the ambiguity of October 1969 fondly.

Of course, if people aren’t taking misinformation literally, all the factual refutation and fact-checking in the world may not turn them away from it. That’s not a subtle plug for abandoning truth or facts, or for giving up on fact-checking. But it is a suggestion that confronting misinformation may be more complicated than we sometimes acknowledge, and may require understanding not only of what is being transmitted when, where and to and by whom, but also how it is being received.

Sometimes, it may benefit us to use a broader range of tactics in response to misinformation. Empathizing with “believers,” at least up to a point, may start them on a path back from error or fantasy. Paul is Dead 2.0, the version in which the hoax was being perpetrated by rather than on the Beatles, is at least a marked improvement on the replacement double version.

Beyond that, adopting a humorless approach may be self-defeating. Paul McCartney was, understandably, more than a bit put out in October 1969 when reporters invaded his farm, and the privacy of his wife and two small children (one just two months old), to insist that he repeatedly tell them he was still alive.  He nearly got into physical fights with at least two journalists, and angrily denounced others. But a quarter century later he mustered what was likely a more effective response. He titled a new concert album Paul is Live, and graced the cover cavorting on the same Abbey Road crosswalk. This time he had his shoes on, and the license plate on the VW bug was “51/IS”.



Update: This story has been corrected to indicate that the license plate on the cover of Abbey Road includes “28IF”, not “27IF”

Richard J. Tofel is principal of Gallatin Advisory LLC, and author of the newsletter Second Rough Draft.