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In September 1969, American college students published articles claiming that clues to McCartney's supposed death could be found among the lyrics and artwork of the Beatles' recordings. Clue-hunting proved infectious and within a few weeks had become an international phenomenon. Rumours declined after a contemporary interview with McCartney was published in Life magazine in November 1969.
Popular culture continues to make occasional reference to the legend, and McCartney poked fun at it with a 1993 live album titled Paul Is Live, whose cover parodied "clues" allegedly on the cover of the Beatles' Abbey Road album.
A rumour that Paul McCartney had been killed in a car crash circulated in London after a January 1967 traffic accident involving his car. The rumour was acknowledged and rebutted in the February issue of The Beatles Book fanzine, but it is not known whether the rumour of 1969 is related to it. In the autumn of 1969, the Beatles, having just released their Abbey Road album, were in the process of disbanding; McCartney's public engagements were few and he was spending time at his Scottish retreat with his new wife Linda to contemplate his forthcoming solo career.
On 17 September 1969, the student newspaper of Drake University in Iowa published an article titled, "Is Beatle Paul McCartney Dead?" The article described a rumour that had been circulating on campus that Paul was dead. At that point the rumour included numerous clues from recent Beatles albums, including the "turn me on, dead man" message heard when "Revolution 9" from the White Album (1968) is played backwards. In wire reports published as early as 11 October, Beatles press officer Derek Taylor responded to the rumour saying "Recently we've been getting a flood of inquiries asking about reports that Paul is dead. We've been getting questions like that for years, of course, but in the past few weeks we've been getting them at the office and home night and day. I'm even getting telephone calls from disc jockeys and others in the United States."
On 12 October 1969, a caller to Detroit radio station WKNR-FM told disc jockey Russ Gibb about the rumour and its clues. Gibb and other callers then discussed the rumour on the air for the next hour. Two days after the WKNR broadcast, The Michigan Daily published a satirical review of Abbey Road by University of Michigan student Fred LaBour under the headline "McCartney Dead; New Evidence Brought to Light". It identified various "clues" to McCartney's death on Beatles album covers, including new clues from the just-released Abbey Road LP. As LaBour had invented many of the clues, he was astonished when the story was picked up by newspapers across the United States. WKNR-FM further fuelled the rumour with a special two-hour program on the subject, "The Beatle Plot", which aired 19 October 1969 (and in the years since on Detroit radio).
In the early morning hours of 21 October 1969, Roby Yonge, a disc jockey at New York radio station WABC, discussed the rumour on the air for over an hour before being pulled off the air for breaking format. At that time of night, WABC's signal covered a wide listening area and could be heard in 38 states and at times, other countries. Later that day, the Beatles' press office issued statements denying the rumour which were widely reported by national and international media.
Various 'clues' were used to suggest the following story: three years previously (on 9 November 1966), McCartney, after an argument during a Beatles' recording session, had angrily driven off in his car. He had crashed it and died as a result. To spare the public from grief, the Beatles replaced him with "William Campbell", the winner of a McCartney look-alike contest.
Hundreds of supposed clues to McCartney's death have been reported by fans and followers of the legend. These include messages perceived when listening to a song being played backwards, and symbolic interpretations of both lyrics and album cover imagery. One oft-cited example is the suggestion that the words spoken by McCartney's band-mate John Lennon in the final section of the song "Strawberry Fields Forever" are "I buried Paul". Lennon later explained the words were actually "cranberry sauce". Another is the interpretation of the Abbey Road album cover as symbolising a funeral procession, where Lennon, dressed in white, symbolises the clergyman or heavenly figure. Ringo Starr, dressed in black, symbolises the undertaker or mourner. George Harrison, in denim jeans and shirt, symbolises the gravedigger and McCartney, barefoot and out of step with other members of the band, symbolises the corpse.
On 21 October 1969, the Beatles' press office issued statements denying the rumour, deeming it "a load of old rubbish" and saying that "the story has been circulating for about two years—we get letters from all sorts of nuts but Paul is still very much with us." Rumours started to decline when, on 7 November 1969, Life magazine published a contemporary interview with McCartney in which he said,
Perhaps the rumour started because I haven't been much in the press lately. I have done enough press for a lifetime, and I don't have anything to say these days. I am happy to be with my family and I will work when I work. I was switched on for ten years and I never switched off. Now I am switching off whenever I can. I would rather be a little less famous these days.
In November 1969, Capitol Records sales managers reported a significant increase, attributed to the rumour, in sales of Beatles catalog albums. Rocco Catena, Capitol's vice president of national merchandising, estimated that "this is going to be the biggest month in history in terms of Beatles sales."
Before the end of October 1969, several records were released on the subject—including "The Ballad of Paul" by the Mystery Tour, "Brother Paul" by Billy Shears and the All Americans, and "So Long Paul" by Werbley Finster, a pseudonym for José Feliciano.
Terry Knight, a singer on Capitol Records, had witnessed the Beatles' White Album session during which drummer Ringo Starr had walked out and, in May 1969, released a song called "Saint Paul" about the impending break-up of the Beatles. The tune nosed onto the Bubbling Under Hot 100 chart at #114 in late June that year and was quickly forgotten until a few months later, when it was picked up by radio stations as a tribute to "the late" Paul McCartney.
A television programme hosted by celebrity lawyer F. Lee Bailey was broadcast on WOR in New York on 30 November 1969, in which Bailey cross-examined LaBour and other "witnesses" about the rumour, but he left it to the viewer to determine conclusions. When, before the recording, LaBour told Bailey that his article had been intended as a joke, Bailey sighed and replied: "Well, we have an hour of television to do; you're going to have to go along with this."
Both Lennon and McCartney subsequently referred to the legend in their music: Lennon in his 1971 song "How Do You Sleep?" (describing those who had spread the rumour as "freaks"), and McCartney with his 1993 live album titled Paul Is Live (parodying the Abbey Road cover and its 'clues').