Though there are many bands, musicians and songs that help to define the teen years of the boomer generation, perhaps there is none more ubiquitous in the lives of boomers across this country as The Beatles. North, south, east and west, regardless of background, economic class or race, most boomers have memories of hearing and playing Beatles records. So it came as a real shock to boomer fans when rumors circulated that one of The Beatles, Paul McCartney, had died.
No one knows exactly where the rumors started that The Beatles’ Paul McCartney had died, but a British Beatles fanzine acknowledged and refuted the rumor in 1967. The first U.S. mention of the “Paul is dead” phenomenon came from an Iowa college newspaper in September of 1969. The article said that Paul died in a car accident in November of 1966, following a particularly contentious recording session for the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.
The rumor proffered that The Beatles covered up Paul’s death, replacing him with William Shears Campbell, the winner of a look-alike contest. Conversely, sometimes William Sheppard was identified as the replacement. It was said that the band then placed clues within their albums that substantiated the rumor that Paul was gone, with most clues supposedly only audible when the record was played backwards. Allegedly, the look-alike was the “Billy Shears” mentioned on the Sgt. Pepper’s album.
Mister Boomer first heard about the rumor as it circulated in anticipation of a radio program that was to discuss whether it was a hoax or the real deal. That was October of 1969. The buzz in the neighborhood piqued the interest of Mister B and his siblings, as two sisters on the block invited the group over to their wood-paneled basement to listen to the broadcast.
After hearing the so-called “evidence” clues on the radio, Mister B and his siblings remained skeptical. Someone mentioned that the pre-Halloween radio broadcast of War of the Worlds by Orson Welles could have been the inspiration for this radio broadcast that purported to discuss the controversy. None of those in attendance knew that rumors had previously circulated in Britain for years. Returning home, Brother Boomer — like thousands of boomers across the country — broke out his Magical Mystery Tour, Sgt. Pepper’s and White albums in an effort to play some of the songs backwards on his bedroom record player. One such clue, planted in the backwards-playing of Strawberry Fields Forever, was supposedly John Lennon saying “I buried Paul.” McCartney himself later revealed that the words Lennon said were “cranberry sauce.” To Mister B’s ears,”Paul is dead” clues weren’t what emanated from the speakers. Instead, it sounded like complete gibberish.
Boomers “found” clues in album covers and songs that, in their eyes, substantiated the “Paul is dead” rumor.
On October 21, 1969, The Beatles’ press office said the whole controversy was “a load of rubbish,” calling any and all aspects of the rumor a hoax. In November of 1969, Life magazine did an interview and pictorial with McCartney and his wife Linda at their home in Scotland. Though the rumor subsided after the magazine was published, for whatever reason it still persists on conspiracy Web sites to this day.
The phenomenon of people starting rumors about celebrity deaths is alive and well on the Internet. Dozens of famous actors and musicians have been the target of these hoaxes in recent years, including this year alone: Tony Danza, Jerry Springer, Denzel Washington, Ruby Dee, Eddie Murphy, Bill Cosby (five times in one year!), Mick Jagger, Keanu Reeves, Cher and many others — even contemporary British soul singer Adele.
In our day rumors circulated through fanzines and radio programs, but today anyone, anywhere in the world, can start a rumor that gains enough momentum to be brought to the public’s attention with a few keystrokes on their home computer or smartphone. With the “Paul is dead” hoax, were we seeing the tip of the iceberg in a strange trend that would span the decades?
When did you hear that “Paul is dead,” boomers?