September 17, 1969
On October 21, 1969, disc jockey Roby Yonge of the New York City
radio station WABC announced to mortified listeners as far away as
North Africa that reports were circulating that Paul McCartney,
beloved bassist-songwriter-singer for The Beatles, was dead. The
report was the culmination of a month's speculation that began in the
school newspaper of tiny Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. The
article, "Is Paul McCartney Dead?" (published on this date in 1969
and written by staff writer Tim Harper), pointed out that the Sgt.
Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album marked the "death" of the old
mop-top, "yeah yeah yeah" Beatles and represented something
completely new. His theory was that Sgt. Pepper sounded so different
because one of its principal players was different. Citing a liturgy
of signs on Beatles album covers and recordings, Harper theorized
that the evidence was indisputable: Paul is dead.
Harper claimed the evidence was everywhere. On the cover of Sgt.
Pepper, a mysterious hand is raised over his head, the death symbol
in many cultures. The "grave" at the band's feet is covered by a
left-handed guitar, clearly in reference to the dead Macca. On the
back of the album, as the rest of the band smiles for the camera,
Paul turns his back…on the living. In that same shot, George points
to the lyric from "She's Leaving Home" that says, "Wednesday morning
at 5 o'clock as the day begins" an obvious clue to the time of
death (Harper, incidentally, confuses this lyric with "A Day in the
Life" and conveniently rolls that line together with the "Day in the
Life" line, "He blew his mind out in a car." This lyrical puzzle was
meant to indicate that Paul had died in a car accident during the
recording of the album, with 5 a.m. being the time of death. The last
sign on that album is Paul's black armband in the center spread, the
sign of mourning. But Sgt. Pepper wasn't the end of it.
Magical Mystery Tour, according to Harper, gave just as many clues.
Of the four walruses (sic) on the front cover, one was black (the
color of death). The walrus, by the way, was the Viking symbol of
death, according to the writer. Just in case you didn't make the
connection between the "death walrus" and Paul, John drove the point
home on the "White Album" by telling us flatly that "the Walrus was
Paul," in "Glass Onion." On the same album, the track "Revolution 9"
reportedly says, "Turn me on, dead man" repeatedly when played backwards.
If McCartney really was dead, as the evidence seemed to indicate
(well, to Harper, at least), then all of the weirdness of the past
two years suddenly made sense. Why else would the formerly flamboyant
McCartney suddenly be upstaged by Lennon? (What with Lennon always
being such a wallflower in the past.) Why would the other three
Beatles attend the Isle of Wight festival without their pal, Paul?
Why would he suddenly drop the wonderful Jane Asher and quickly marry
"Jane Eastman" (sic)? Clearly, for Harper, there was a massive
cover-up, with not only The Beatles involved, but also the English
authorities and even Paul's brother, Mike. A very good impostor had
obviously taken his place.
Somehow, this story was taken seriously. It spread over college and
FM radio stations, gathering momentum from broadcast to broadcast so
that, by the time Yonge brought the rumor to WABC's superstation
airwaves, it was a full-blown news story that a doppelganger named
William Campbell (a.k.a. Billy Shears) had taken Paul's place after
his death in an automobile accident. The Beatles, themselves, thought
the whole matter was silly and refused to comment which stoked the
fires that they must be hiding something. In the end, Paul had to
issue a rebuttal in a Life magazine cover story.
"Anyway all of the things that have been, that have made these
rumors, to my mind, have very ordinary, logical explanations. To the
people's minds who prefer to think of them as rumors, then I am not
going to interfere, I am not going to spoil that fantasy. You can
think of it like that if you like. However, if the end result, the
conclusion you reach is that I am dead, then you are wrong, because I
am very much alive. I am alive and living in Scotland."
And Yonge? He was summarily fired.