“I was gonna rap with you about Paul McCartney being dead,” said a caller named Tom, a local student who had tuned in to DJ Russ Gibb’s show on WKNR-FM in Detroit, on Sunday, October 12, 1969. “What’s this all about?”

So it began. paul-is-deadThere had been a few murmurs around London of Paul McCartney’s death in 1967, but the rumor never really caught on. It had made its way to the States, first with an article in the Drake University paper, which then got picked up by a few college outlets and spread its way east. Now people were beginning to take note.

What fascinated them weren’t necessarily the facts of the death itself — though grisly, it was unremarkable: a car crash on an icy road in the early hours of November 9, 1966, which allegedly left the Beatles’ bassist lifeless and partially decapitated. It wasn’t even how the band had kept his death a secret, finding a look-alike bassist and continuing on as if nothing had happened.

What drew suspicious fans into obsession were the baffling clues that the remaining members supposedly slipped into the visuals of their album covers and in the lyrics and music of the songs.

So with Tom’s call on October 12 — and the on-air discussion that followed, along with the hour-long radio special WKNR produced later that week — the rumor of Paul McCartney’s death would become a phenomenon.

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However, it was mostly accepted as a hoax the following month, when Life Magazine trekked to the McCartney country home in Scotland. After a brief bout of rude behavior, a frustrated Paul consented to an exclusive. He refuted many of the clues with perfectly reasonable explanations, and pled with the public to let him “live in peace.” So it was put to rest, Paul McCartney was alive and well. If only you could stop seeing the clues everywhere you looked.

The Signs

Because Abbey Road had been released in September 1969, one of the focal points of the hysteria was the album’s cover: it had initially looked like the band heading into their studio, but on second glance…could that be a funeral procession? George the gravedigger, in blue-jean work clothes; Paul the deceased, shoeless, as it was the custom for corpses in England; Ringo the pallbearer, clad in all black; and John, the priest, leading the way.

There were three more records that had come out since the supposed date of Paul’s death, and they were rife with apparent clues: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in June of 1967. Another funeral, this time attended by their heroes — as well as a young-looking version of the Beatles, all in black, with fresh-dug earth in the foreground. Then there were the flowers, particularly the yellow motif in the front, in the shape of a left-handed guitar. If you squinted just right, it seemed to spell out “PAUL?” There was a hand over his head, supposedly a mystical sign of death.

Going back one more album, to the Magical Mystery Tour: Was that Paul dressed as the walrus, a folk symbol of death? Inside the album there was a picture of him in a military jacket, above a sign reading “I Was.” Then, the 25-page full color booklet that had accompanied the album: It was full of shoeless Paul, and Paul with hands floating above his head.

The Sounds

The remaining White Album didn’t offer much for visual clues, but there was plenty to read into in the songs. On the Lennon cut Glass Onion, John addressed the truthers directly: “I told you ‘bout the walrus and me, man / You know that we’re as close as can be, man / well here’s another clue for you all / the walrus was Paul.” John later said that he’d done this because he’d heard so many people talking about the rumor of Paul’s death; however, when the album was released in November 1968, most fans hadn’t even heard of it.

But more than lyrics, it was the band’s music that seemed to hold hidden meaning. Part of Revolution 9, when taped and played backwards, sounded like “turn me on, dead man, turn me on.” More terrifying, another part played in the same manor seemed to be of a violent car crash, and a voice could be made out saying, “He hit a pole! Better get him to see a surgeon.”

Even on Magical Mystery Tour, the soundtrack that accompanied a primetime television special, audio clues could be found. If you got to the end of Strawberry Fields and slowed the track down, John Lennon was clearly saying “I buried Paul.” Around 1967, the band had entered a new phase of their career — they retired from touring, instead focusing on experimental techniques in the studio. In particular, they were playing with recording vocal or guitar parts on tape, before looping them backwards into the songs. So while backwards messages might sound far-fetched, it wasn’t out of their technical ability.

The Legacy

So was Paul killed fifty years ago, and his closest friends covered it up? Or was he alive the whole time, and the band — with their devilish sense of humor — responsible for purposely planting these clues for the hype? Or was it all some sort of coincidence?

Heather Mills and McCartney were married for six years, but when they split in 2008 she claimed to have “a box of evidence” that would prove the former Beatle was not as he seemed. “I know everything,” she said. “I know the truth.”

In the years since, there have been repeated attempts to explain what could have happened — alternative histories such as George Harrison’s possible last will and testament, claiming that it was the MI5 who, fearing a national panic, insisted they keep the secret, upon punishment of death; and a Ringo Starr interview (later proved false) claiming he must tell the secret before his death, so it would not go to the grave with him.

But if you ask Paul, he’ll claim he’s still doing just fine. “All of these things that have made these rumors, to my mind, there are ordinary, logical explanations,” he told Life Magazine at the time. “To the people’s minds who prefer to think of them as rumors, then I’m not going to interfere. I’m not going to spoil their fantasy.”

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