Paul McCartney Admits Beatles Planned Death Hoax
by Bruce Spizer
(Originally Published April 1, 2004)
While on a recent quick vacation in New Orleans, Paul McCartney let his guard down and admitted what some Beatles fans have suspected for years. He confirmed that the "Paul is dead" clues found in several Beatles album covers and songs were deliberately planted by the group as part of an elaborate scheme dating back to the summer of 1966.
According to McCartney, the plan was formulated by manager Brian Epstein. "Brian dropped by the studio to hear the playback of our latest single, 'Paperback Writer.' He didn't like it one bit. 'Not a love song,' he said. He was concerned that the press and our fans wouldn't get it. He told us, 'People want love songs. They won't spend money for a song about a novel writer. You boys are gonna blow it with this one.' But by this time, we were running the show, not Brian. We insisted that 'Paperback Writer' would be our next single and told him that the song represented the new direction our songwriting was going in."
When contacted in London, former Beatles press agent Tony Barrow confirmed Brian's concerns. "Brian was into traditional love songs. He had told Paul to come up with another 'Yesterday' or 'Michelle' for the next single. Imagine his shock when he heard 'Paperback Writer' and 'Rain.' Not only were they not love songs, but they were so loud! We didn't know it at the time, but the Beatles had recorded the first heavy metal single. Not exactly 'Till There Was You' or 'A Taste Of Honey.' I was worried, too. I wondered, 'Had the boys gone too far this time?'"
Brian became even more concerned when he imagined an album full of unconventional songs. While a fan might take a chance on a single, an album purchase was a big thing in those days. Due to its higher price, youngsters, particularly those in the U.K., were very careful about buying albums. That is why the Beatles often issued an EP from an album containing four of its best tracks. So Brian came up with a plan to help sell albums in the event he was right about the dangerous new direction the group was heading in. Paul explained, "When I told him our future albums would be dominated by songs about interesting people and places, his heart sank. He didn't think people would buy such albums and came up with this great idea to push sales in the event he was right and we were wrong. The idea was that we would plant clues in our songs and album covers that one of us had died in a car wreck. If after a few albums, our records weren't selling well, we'd leak out word about the clues and let our fans and the press take over. People would buy the albums to see and hear the clues. We thought, 'Wow, that's an incredible idea!' We realized it would be great fun to have all those clues sitting there undiscovered until people started going nuts looking for them all."
Tony Barrow also thought the plan was brilliant. "Nothing re-energizes a singer's career like his death. Do you really think Buddy Holly would have been so famous had he not died in that plane crash? Same for Richie Valens and certainly that one-hit wonder Big Bopper with his 'Chantilly Lace' song. And how about Otis Redding? He never had a number one hit till after he died in a plane crash. The fact that Brian came up with a car crash shows his genius. Airplane crashes were the norm."
Having sold the group on the idea, the Beatles had to decide which one of them was to "die." Brian wanted the victim to be Ringo because he was the most popular Beatle in the all-important U.S. market, but the drummer wanted nothing to do with it. Tony Barrow recalls, "Ringo flat out refused to be the one. He said, 'Being painted red in a movie is one thing, but pretending to be dead's another. I'm superstitious. Those clues might make it happen.' Brian was disappointed because he knew Ringo was the most sympathetic Beatle. You know Ringo got more mail from America than the other members of the group combined." [Author's Note: Ringo was unavailable for comment.]
After Ringo turned down the "opportunity" to die, the honor of being a dead Beatle was up for grabs. According to Paul, "George said right away he didn't feel comfortable faking his death. But it sure got him thinking. A few days later he showed up at a session with a new song called 'The Art Of Dying.' We didn't think it was that good a song, so we never recorded it. George later improved the lyrics and included it on his first album."
Paul's recollections are backed by the original lyrics to the song, which appear in George's "I Me Mine" book. The 1966 version of the song referred to Brian Epstein, who was the mastermind behind the death clues. It contained the line "Then nothing Mr. Epstein can do will keep me here with you."
With Ringo and George not willing to "die" for the good of the group, it came down to John and Paul, with both thinking it would be fab to be "dead." Paul recalls, "John wanted to be the dead Beatle, but this time I didn't cave in to John like I did on the songwriter credits. I thought it should be me because I was the second most popular Beatle. Brian agreed it should be me because he was worried that once the clues became known, people might think it was a John practical joke if John was supposedly dead. But me...Brian thought, 'No one would suspect Paul for rigging his own death. They think John's the clever one.' So I got to die."
A few days after the "Paperback Writer" listening session, the group was at Brian's office when photographer Bob Whitaker dropped by with the pictures from the butcher session. Brian asked Whitaker to shoot a picture of Paul in steamer trunk to symbolize his lying dead in a coffin. Paul picks up the story. "Bob thought it was too direct, so he suggested we stand the truck upwards and have me sit in it with the other standing around. That way, it would only look like I was lying in a coffin if the cover was turned sideways. Bob had Ringo place his hand on the trunk lid like he was closing the coffin. Brilliant! Brian told us to throw some clues into our songs. Right away John came up with 'I'm Only Sleeping,' as if 'Paul isn't dead, he's only sleeping.' Pretty subtle. Most people missed that clue, and that was one of the first!"
The "coffin trunk" photo was sent to Capitol to serve as the cover for the American album "Yesterday And Today." But when Brian saw the cover mock-up, he began having second thoughts about using the photo so early in the game. He was concerned that people might suspect Paul was dead a lot sooner than the group wanted to clues to be discovered. So Brian sent Capitol the butcher photo, knowing that it might ultimately be rejected, but at least it would deflect attention away from the provocative coffin trunk cover. The plan worked to perfection with the Butcher cover causing so much controversy that when it was "replaced" by the trunk cover, no one noticed it showed Paul lying in a coffin!
One of the casualties of the plan was Robert Freeman's unused cover for "Revolver." Paul explains that, "For 'Revolver,' Robert Freeman came up with a great cover image, but there was no death clue in it. I asked Klaus [Voormann] to do a pen and ink with a photo collage so we could throw in some clues. I had him place an image of my face in my ear. That represented a 'beetle' crawling out of the ear of my buried corpse. You know, insects get into coffins and mix with the dead bodies, crawling through eye sockets, ear openings and the like. Very creepy and very subtle. And the other clue came from Klaus drawing my face in a side profile looking to the left. The others were drawn looking forward. When you turn the cover on its side, I'm looking upward, just like I'd appear on a morgue slab or if I were buried underground. We really were into having clues appear when you turned our covers sideways. I'm surprised nobody caught those 'Revolver' clues."
According to Tony Barrow, there was one other clue planted on "Revolver." "John had this really weird song that had no title, so he called it 'Mark I.' Later he came up with 'The Void,' to symbolize the void left in the group by Paul's death. Ringo thought that was too subtle, so he came up with the perfect phrase for describing the direction the group would go in if Paul really were dead. And that was 'Tomorrow Never Knows.' Ringo was great at stuff like that."
By the time the Beatles recorded "Sgt. Pepper," the plan really took off. Tony Barrow recalls, "Brian thought 'Tomorrow Never Knows' was way out there. You can imagine his fear of an entire album of songs like that. He was terrified that Sgt. Pepper would be viewed as pretentious nonsense! He told the boys to throw in a bunch of clues on that one!"
The first song recorded for "Sgt. Pepper" was "Strawberry Fields Forever," though it ended up being used as a single. At the end of the song, John was supposed to repeat "I buried Paul" several times, but that was too obvious, so instead he said "Cranberry sauce" and then slurred his words so that "I buried Paul" sounded like "I'm very bored." The plan worked as it took over two years before anyone realized what he was really saying.
Later songs also had clues. Paul admitted that "She's Leaving Home" contained the time the car wreck supposedly occurred-"Wednesday morning at five o'clock as the day begins." The line "Meeting a man from the motor trade" tied in the motor vehicle. And, of course, "A Day In The Life" was about a car crash. According to Paul, "The drug references were just a smoke-screen to deflect attention away from the car crash, you know. 'He blew his mind out in a car' could mean his head was crushed or he was doing drugs. Take your pick."
The cover was full of clues: the crashing car; Paul's bass made of flowers; Paul having his back to the camera on the back cover; the hand over Paul's head; and the infamous "O.P.D." patch on Paul's uniform, which was McCartney's favorite Pepper clue. "We had to work hard on that one. Someone told John that in America the letters OPD stood for 'Officially Pronounced Dead.' I remembered I had this patch with the letters "OPP," which I got in Canada. I think it stands for Ontario Police Precinct or something like that. So I got the idea to put the patch on my uniform's sleeve and shoot the picture so that the lower part of the second 'P' would not be visible, thus making it look like 'OPD.' I was quite pleased with the way it came out."
Although the sales of "Revolver" and "Pepper" made Brian realize that the clues probably weren't needed to sell records, the group kept creating more and more clues. According to Paul, "It was so neat coming up with clues that we kept doing them even thought we never thought they'd be needed to sell albums. It was great mischievous fun! When Brian died, we really went wild with it! For 'Magical Mystery Tour,' I wanted to wear a black flower on my jacket. The florist thought Alistair Taylor was nuts when he insisted they send us a black carnation. We became worried people would catch on when they saw the 'Magical Mystery Tour' booklet because the clues were so obvious. The 4 or 5 musicians, the "I was" sign. But no one caught on."
Paul stated that placing the clues was even more fun than the visual images. "Ringo had this old song, 'Don't Pass Me By,' which we had refused to record for years. But I realized it could be used for a clue. I gave him the line 'You were in a car crash and you lost your hair' And we did great stuff with backwards tape loops and mumbling. John going 'Paul is a dead man, miss him, miss him.'"
Some of the clues were easy and obvious. John's "Glass Onion" even told the fans what was going on with its line "And here's another clue for you all, the Walrus was Paul." But some were quite intricate.
According to Paul, the toughest one was "Revolution 9." "We had to come up with a phrase to go 'Number 9' when you played it backwards. Our plan was to have it go 'Number 9' on the record, but when you played it backwards it would sound like 'Paul is dead.' When we recorded 'Paul is dead' and played it backwards, it didn't go 'Number 9.' It sounded more like 'Pythagorian Theorem.' The phrase 'Macca is dead' sounded like 'Thermo nuclear' when we played it backwards. We experimented for hours until Alan Parsons came up with 'Turn me on dead man.' When we reversed the tape, it sounded like he was saying 'Number 9, number 9.' So that's how we did it."
Abbey Road engineer Alan Parsons remembers the session well. "We spent hours recording different phrases until I lucked into 'Turn me on dead man.' When I played the tape backwards and heard 'Number 9,' well, it was one of the greatest moments of my life! We were all sworn to secrecy about the clues, but now that Paul's let the cat out the bag, I can talk about it. I later recorded my own song about looking for clues, 'Eye In The Sky.'"
The last batch of clues were planted on the album cover to "Abbey Road," which was designed by Paul. McCartney came up with the idea to stage his own funeral. George, in the role of the grave digger, dressed in work clothes. Ringo, the funeral director, wore a black suit. John, the angel, wore white. Paul was barefoot, as it is the custom in several cultures to bury people without their shoes. In a subtle touch, the left-handed McCartney held a cigarette in his right hand. This was to imply that the Paul who had been with the group since mid-1966 was a right-handed imposter.
Paul recalls the other major "Abbey Road" clue with fondness. "I've always liked puns, so I wanted to have a Volkswagon Beetle represent me. Alistair Taylor arranged for a friend of his to park his VW Beetle on the street by the studio. Alistair and I placed a special license tag we had made the night before on the car. It said '28 IF,' meaning that I would have been 28 if I had lived. Unfortunately, I out-thought myself on that one. I was only 27 at the time, but I told Alistair to paint it as 28 because I didn't think "Abbey Road" would come out until I was 28. That's because I was sure that the "Get Back" album would come out first. By the time we decided to put out "Abbey Road" first, I had forgotten about that clue, so we didn't have the picture altered to have the tag read '27 IF.'"
When John told the others he was quitting the group, Paul began thinking it was time to expose the clues. "I was always nervous before a record came out, you know. Would people like it? And, in this case, what if word leaked out that John had quit? We were all worried that the album would bomb, and when word spread that John was out, we'd be forgotten. No one would buy our latest LP or our old records. The clincher was a pair of bad reviews published in 'The New York Times' and 'Rolling Stone.' I thought, oh sh*t, no one likes the long medley on side two. So I had Mal [Evans] go to Detroit and tell some college kids about the clues. One of the guys phoned in some of the clues to a radio station there. That was all it took."
Once people started looking for clues, they were easy to spot. The American press was fascinated with the story. Brian's plan worked to perfection. Not only did sales for "Abbey Road" take off, but people began buying "Sgt. Pepper," "Magical Mystery Tour" and "The White Album" to see and hear the clues. Paul hid away at his farm in Scotland to further fuel the hoax. When a reported from "Life" magazine finally caught up with him, Paul dead-panned, "If I were dead, I'd be the last to know."
The Beatles and their inner circle kept the clue caper a secret for over thirty years. Not only do we now know that the Beatles deliberately planted the clues, but we also know that it was part of a brilliant marketing plan formulated by manager Brian Epstein back in 1966. As for why Paul finally revealed the secrets behind the scheme, we may never know if it was an accidental slip up on his part or a plan to reignite sales of the Beatles catalog.
Bruce Spizer is a well-know Beatles author and historian who has not only written a series of critically acclaimed books on the group's American records, but also has been known to tell a tall tale or two for April Fool's Day. This article originally appeared in the April 1, 2004 issue of Goldmine Magazine.