In early 1967 a whisper began spreading about the Beatles – specifically about Paul McCartney. By 1969 that whisper had become a roar, as the Beatles’ press people found themselves inundated with questions about the bizarre rumor. The gossip about McCartney was especially loud in the U.S., where college students scoured for clues to share with each other.
Of course, it was no surprise that people were talking about the Beatles. By the end of 1966 they were world-famous. Beatlemania had gripped the U.S. in 1963, and on their third tour of the country in 1965, they had broken the world record for a stadium crowd when more than 55,000 people had watched them perform at Shea Stadium in New York. Their most recent record, Revolver, had topped the charts, and they were so beloved that John Lennon could claim that they were “more popular than Jesus.”
However, in early 1967 people started to talk about clues pointing to a conspiracy theory that would come to capture the public imagination. Some fans played records backwards and heard what they claimed were hidden messages from the Beatles to fans confirming the story. Others saw in album covers what they believed was clear proof that the story was true. Perhaps most compelling of all, Lennon himself seemed to back-up people’s impressions in “Glass Onion,” when he sang, “Here’s another clue for you all, The walrus was Paul.”
The bizarre theory was that McCartney had died in a car accident at the beginning of 1967, and the Beatles had covered it up. People claimed that the dead star had been replaced by a doppelganger – a lookalike contest winner. Speculation was fueled by the Beatles no longer touring and the change in their image that coincided with the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in May 1967. Two years later, “clues” on the Abbey Road sleeve – which was interpreted as a funeral procession – seemed to confirm people’s suspicions.
Of course, it wasn’t true, and the Beatles’ press office confirmed that McCartney was very much alive. The star himself said that he could understand where the theory had come from, because he used to do a lot of press but had cut back. An interview that he gave to Life seemed to quell some of the doubts. However, the theory has never quite died, with one magazine even hiring forensic experts to “prove” that the shape of McCartney’s skull had changed after November 1966.