Fifty years ago, on November 9, 1966 (9/11 in British usage), Paul McCartney was decapitated in a car crash, and was soon replaced, unbeknownst to the public, by a look-alike with equal or better musical abilities, the impostor ‘Faul’ we have lived with till today.
It was a rainy night and after a late session at their Abbey Road studios, ending in an argument amongst the Beatles, Paul got into his Aston Martin and picked up a girl named Rita (of ‘Lovely Rita’ fame) along the way, before crashing his car. The British MI5 believed that hundreds would commit suicide if the shocking news were revealed, and besides the Beatles were a national treasure bringing in untold revenues, so a man named Billy Shears (or William Campbell), a Scottish lad, was made to fill in, after quick plastic surgeries.
This new ‘Faul’ turned out to be an even better musician than the original Paul, but the Beatles, struck by bad conscience, kept strewing their albums, both aurally and visually, with a multitude of clues about what had happened; discerning Beatles fans would therefore know the truth. The man we know today as Sir Paul McCartney is actually Faul who has done an outstanding impersonating job for twice the length of the original Paul’s lifespan.
Numerous ‘forensic’ analyses compare the pre-1966 Paul with the post-1966 Faul.
Rumours that Paul McCartney was replaced by a lookalike in the sixties does, at some level, reflect society’s struggles with political changes
In late 1969, American college campuses were roiled by the anti-war movement, facing consequences of the election of Richard Nixon and the inevitability of the draft, at the same time as various liberation movements were finding their feet. The Beatles may have had a lot to say about social changes of the early 1960s, but new political realities were more intractable; the Beatles, with their wives and mansions, must have appeared quite tame by then.
In the annals of college newspaper writing, surely Fred LaBour’s essay for the University of Michigan’s The Michigan Daily ranks near the top. This masterly speculative essay, purporting to be a review of Abbey Road, laid out many of the details that became the cornerstone of Paul is Dead or PID.
LaBour later admitted it was all made up (at the mock television trial attorney F. Lee Bailey conducted on RKO TV), but LaBour was on to something when he wrote that the Beatles had a religious motive. Indeed, one of the reasons the Beatles ended touring was because their final American tour was marked by violence and record-burning, after John claimed that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. PID started soon after this confrontation.
Earlier, DJ Russ Gibb of the radio station WKNR in Detroit had heard from Iowa student Tim Harper, asking Gibb to play ‘Revolution 9’ from the White Album backward, which makes audible “Turn Me On, Dead Man.” LaBour took it farther by deconstructing the iconic Abbey Road cover, where Paul alone is barefooted (Paul often appears differently on album images than the others), John is dressed as a priest, Ringo as an undertaker, and George as a gravedigger. The license plate of the Beetle in the background says 28IF (meaning Paul would be 28 if alive).
Deejays around the country drove listeners to buy multiple copies of the same record, playing them backward to detect clues and destroying them in the process (all the better for record sales). Lennon’s gibberish at the end of “I’m So Tired” played backward as “Paul is a dead man! Miss Him! Miss Him! Miss Him!” The entire “Revolution 9” song turns into a step-by-step rendering of Paul’s car crash, his shrieks for help, the burning and explosion of the car, and the laments of the Beatles. Voices can be heard saying, “He hit a light pole and we better go see a surgeon,” and “My wings are broke and so is my hair.”
The Beatles may have had a lot to say about social changes of the early 1960s, but new political realities were more intractable; the Beatles, with their wives and mansions, must have appeared quite tame by then.
Similarly, the Pepper cover invites much creative interpretation. The Beatles, as we learn in George Martin’s With a Little Help from My Friends: The Making of Sgt. Pepper (Little Brown, 1994), wanted to make a major artistic statement and recruited designer Peter Blake for the job. The panoply of historical figures (for example Aleister Crowley, the influential occultist) only feeds into PID. They are all at a funeral, mourning Paul or the Beatles, the yellow hyacinth wreath spelling “Paul?” and laid out in the form of a left-handed guitar (Paul was left-handed).
It’s impossible to even briefly mention some of the key aural and visual clues, but Andru J. Reeve’s Turn Me On, Dead Man: The Complete Story of the Paul McCartney Death Hoax (Popular Culture, Ink., 1994) is a good place to start. There is endless fascinating material on the internet. Brian Moriarty sceptically covers the theory in the spirit of a computer gamer. A recent mockumentary, in the alleged voice of George Harrison (available at Netflix), covers the territory in an over-the-top manner. A documentary more reverential toward PID is The Winged Beatle. Nick Kollerstrom focuses on MI5’s investment in protecting the British national interest.
The historic Abbey Road cover, strewn with clues
A robust conspiracy theory leaves nothing out. Conspiracy theories feed on each other, so if we take the JFK assassination as a template, other theories make connections with that one and keep building on it. Lennon is said to have been assassinated in 1980 because he was about to go public with PID, and the same is alleged about Harrison’s attempted murder in 1999. Beatles handler Mal Evans’s inexplicable death — he was shot by Los Angeles police while acting strangely in 1976 — is said to have occurred because he’d finished writing a memoir about the Beatles; the manuscript, Living the Beatles’ Legend, disappeared after his death.
Once exposed to PID, it became possible for me to read all of the Beatles’ latter output, at the level of pure text, as one extended lament over the exact circumstances of Paul’s death and their guilty conscience about the cover-up. Pepper in particular yields a rich overlay of meaning, and everywhere the apparent gibberish becomes illuminating, a piercing cry of grief that is the perfect antidote to the earlier Beatlemania.
The Beatles had exposed, with Pepper and subsequent albums, the limits of the counterculture, music as a counter to political reality. Paul had to be seen as dead because in fact the Beatles were not who they used to be and the new experimentation (with music that was irreproducible on the stage) was inherently self-limiting as revolutionary strategy. We are up against the familiar phenomenon of the avant-garde always quickly decapitating itself.
I would argue that the counterculture (which has really been mass Western psychology for close to 50 years now) remains frozen where the Beatles left it, with vulgarised Eastern mysticism, self-improvement as a private code, and simultaneous acknowledgment of and distancing from political grievance, still the dominant parameters. PID was a way to formalise the counterculture’s own death to itself.
The second half of the Beatles oeuvre, and indeed their solo careers (Paul’s being suspiciously vapid — amateurish as he was in mistreating hirelings for different iterations of his Wings band — for a man who was the confident entrepreneur holding the Beatles together toward the end), can be read as a natural evolution from their origins as pranksters with roots in the British popular comedic tradition. Steven D. Stark explains this well in Meet the Beatles: A Cultural History of the Band that Shook Youth, Gender, and the World (HarperCollins, 2005).
I find myself utterly engrossed in the troubles afflicting Apple Corp., Paul’s utopian idea to revolutionise all aspects of the culture industry (and surely the inspiration for Steve Jobs’s name for his company). Whether to trust their affairs to rapacious but effective agent Allen Klein or Paul’s well-heeled father-in-law Lee Eastman (both New Yorkers) was a big reason for the group’s unravelling.
Peter Doggett’s You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup (HarperCollins, 2010) illuminates this, but the easy way around the financial labyrinth is to give Paul a heroic death and substitute him with an even greater talent, as though to make musical ability beside the point. This shifts the narrative back to the audience, whose task then becomes to decipher secret codes rather than confront the spiritual threat of the music. This can take a monstrous form, as in Charles Manson decoding Beatles records for his murderous agenda.
Precisely at the moment PID took off, the Beatles had in fact ceased to exist, for all practical purposes, though the world didn’t know it yet — and they had felt it for quite some time, which would explain why the songs after 1966 become self-reflective about their own (and particularly Paul’s) symbolic death, or why, for example, the walrus identification (as metaphor for death and inauthenticity) becomes so important, or why Lennon’s 1971 song ‘How Do You Sleep?’ can either be interpreted as the natural destruction of the musical group’s integrity against harsh realities, if you’re not a conspiracy theorist, or Faul’s continuing deception, if you believe in PID.
The Beatles intended Pepper as the first concept album (and it remains the most successful one to date). Paul’s idea was to distance themselves from their music, presenting Pepper as a self-conscious performative act, introducing — of course — Billy Shears, in the opening song. Even after the breakup Paul continued publicly questioning his past reality as a Beatle, and does so to this day — this feeds into the conspiracy theory but also lets us see them as early sceptics of their own charisma.
Perhaps, also, the college generation of that time felt that Paul, more than the others, had conned them with his earlier articulation of the primal feminine voice, which, in the wake of resurgent militarism, needed to be exorcised from the imagination. The task of conspiracy theory is always to explain the illicit usurpation of power by unseen forces, and in this case it was the aesthetic monopoly — androgynous and challenging to male norms — that was perhaps seen as usurpation by a Faul propped up by British intelligence.
Literary (deconstructive) textual analysis takes us to conflicts that resonate with us; sub rosa clashes of morality enacted by the critic in alliance with the reader (with the artistic creator standing at a distance). Likewise a conspiracy theory, with its proliferation of endless clues, allows us an alternative route of access to the deeper meaning of history. Lennon-McCartney’s words, in Pepper or Abbey Road or the White Album, are not meaningless gibberish. They’re either surrealistic masterpieces (if you’re a literary theorist) or clues to Paul’s death (if you’re a PID believer), but the process of exhumation and recovery is similar.
PID preempts focus on the psychological labyrinths the Beatles had entered, prompted by selfish parvenus who brought out the worst in their character. Thus we assimilate death not banally or procedurally, but as a matter of impossible, endlessly deferred detection, we make a mystery out of it (the Beatles’ widely-panned movie project in the period of suspension, littered with clues, was named Magical Mystery Tour). How, in the end, is PID any different from Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49?
Conspiracy is the imagination of excess, the acknowledgment that imagination cannot contain everything, the refusal that the work of art can ever be summed up. It is liberating for that reason, especially if we think of political performance as a work of art produced and engineered for the dormant masses, who refuse, however, to abide by the law and give up their creative agency.
So, either Paul is dead, or the Beatles crashed against the limitations of popular music as agent of change after the highly engineered sound of Pepper. The style of conspiracy theory is always to enact pseudo-science in a populist vein; its methods are technological, its procedures deductive, its empiricism the only saving grace — just like the official sciences of empire.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 15th, 2017