By Adriana Maria Perez (’22)
After their beginnings in the late 1950s, the English band the Beatles came of age during the 1960s, a decade when psychedelic frenzy, Cold War paranoia, and anti-establishment sentiment had ripened American consciousness enough for unbelievable conspiracy theories to take hold (1). These came to include a rumor that Paul McCartney, one of the four Beatles, had died in a car accident and been replaced by a lookalike on November 9, 1966. In 2009, Time magazine included the “Paul is dead” rumor in a list of the world’s most enduring ten conspiracy theories (2). This theory took off as the band went through a rough patch and its members started consuming drugs, particularly LSD. The lyrics and form of their initially carefree music had begun to change to include darker, frenzied undertones, and even senseless words. Against a backdrop of paranoia-inducing McCarthyism and the Red Scare of the 1940s and 1950s, speculation about John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, and new Illuminati conspiracies in the 1960s, Beatlemaniacs were led down a speculative path. In the band’s album covers and songs, Beatles fans frantically searched for clues that supposedly confirmed Paul’s death. The chaotic influence of drugs in songs during the 1960s and an anti-establishment sentiment combined to have an immense impact on the popular American consciousness that was more eager than ever to hold on to just about anything, as evidenced by the widespread belief that one of the most famous people in the world had died and was being impersonated.
Some of the more popular clues of Paul’s alleged death in 1966 were visual ones in Beatles album covers, specifically those of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) and Abbey Road (1969). In the gatefold picture of the Sgt. Pepper album, for instance, Paul is wearing a blue uniform with a patch that seems to have the letters O.P.D. etched onto it. O.P.D. stands for “officially pronounced dead,” so many thought this patch indicated the real Paul had died and that this was simply a lookalike. However, closer inspection revealed that the last letter in the patch is a “P” and not a “D”—OP.P. stood for Ontario Provincial Police—and had actually been gifted to the Beatles by an O.P.P Corporal in a visit to Toronto in 1964, according to Beatles historian and author Piers Hemmingsen (3). An abundance of visual clues seem to crowd the Abbey Road cover art as well . In it, Paul is barefoot, walking out of sync with the others, and—though he was left-handed—had a cigarette in his right hand (4). All of these details were supposed to serve as indication to fans that this was not the real Paul. In the background, a car’s license plate, “28IF,” seemed to indicate Paul would have lived to be 28 years old had he not died—though Paul was actually 27 when the album was released (4). Furthermore, John Lennon was wearing an all-white outfit, by which people likened him to a minister, whereas Paul (“the dead man”) was dressed in all black. Behind them, as if in a funeral procession, Ringo Starr seemed to be dressed as an undertaker, and George Harrison—in all denim—as a gravedigger (5).
Additionally, a substantial amount of evidence people thought they had found to back the rumors of Paul’s death was auditory, hidden in the Beatles’ music and lyrics. From John Lennon’s “A Day in the Life” (1967), many believed the line “He blew his mind out in a car” was a nod to the supposed car accident that killed Paul. Many also claimed they could hear the phrase “Paul is dead, miss him, miss him” when “A Day in the Life” was played backwards. This effect, people suggested, was deliberately achieved through “backmasking”—a technique used to encode audio messages so they can only be understood when a recording is played backwards (6). According to songwriter Bill DeMain, “The Beatles pushed backward sounds into the mainstream with such songs as ‘Rain’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows.’ Later, their audio reversals came back to haunt them with the Paul Is Dead rumors” (7). People have long drawn connections between backward messages—often found in rock music—and Satanism, but there is little evidence that subliminal back-masked messages can influence minds. Nonetheless, DeMain notes, “the brain will search for recognizable patterns in noise or gibberish. A song played backwards offers many possibilities, especially when you’re told what to listen for” (7). Other songs in which people claimed to hear back-masked phrases include “Revolution 9” (1968) and “I’m So Tired” (1968). When these songs are spun backwards, the words “Number nine, number nine” in the former sound like “Turn me on, dead man,” and something similar to “Paul is dead, man, miss him, miss him” can be heard in the latter (4).
Some Beatles songs in which conspiracists claimed clues were more obviously—and literally—spelled out included “Strawberry Fields Forever” (1967), “Glass Onion” (1968), and Lennon’s own, post-Beatles song “How Do You Sleep?” (1971). At the very end of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Lennon supposedly mumbled an almost imperceptible “I buried Paul” (4). But Lennon himself rejected this rumor, claiming the phrase was actually “cranberry sauce” and, in fact, meaningless (4). In “Glass Onion,” conspiracists claimed Lennon sang “here’s another clue for you all / the walrus was Paul” in reference to a previous song, “I Am the Walrus.” Many, such as Fred LaBour of The Michigan Daily, claimed the walrus was a Greek symbol for corpse or death; however, this assumption was wrong (4, 8). Lennon’s later solo song, “How Do You Sleep?” took several jabs at Paul, who Lennon felt had slighted him in the song “Too Many People.” In “How Do You Sleep?”, Lennon explicitly referred to the theorists as “freaks” who “were right when they said you was dead.” Even one of the most famous musicians in the world, thus, eventually gave in to exploiting and fueling the conspiracy theory after years of rejecting it—though just for the sake of irritating his former bandmate.
These types of conspiracy theories are irresistible; their obscurity appeals to an almost morbid interest in understanding the most unsettling parts of the world around us. American history is riddled with paranoia that has, time and time again, proved to be fertile ground for the spread of conspiracy theories and disinformation. The force of this paranoia and its appeal reveals something about the larger cultural context in which it developed. For example, a closer look into the conspiracies that circulated in the 1960s—such as “Paul is dead”—offers insight into the cultural and social idiosyncrasies of the decade that allowed for them to blow up. Even an understanding of the paranoia that gripped the U.S. in the 1950s—particularly in the form of the Red Scare, which led to many Americans being labeled as communists, thus losing jobs and being stigmatized—helps us understand how the minds of Americans had been made susceptible to accepting even more incredulous theories in the next decade. According to journalist Benjamin Wallace-Wells, it was not until 1963 that “in the frenzied speculation about who, exactly, killed John F. Kennedy, the modern conspiracy theory became itself” (9). Katharina Thalmann similarly points out that the 1960s were “an era in which conspiracy theories, in particular in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, ﬂourished and fostered a new cultural mentality of skepticism” (10). While she argues against the assassination as a catalyst, she acknowledges that the impact of Kennedy’s death, as well as the increasing role of media and official discourses in problematizing theories thereafter, might explain the influence of this event on the modern construction of conspiracy theories. The media—especially college student newspapers—played an important role in giving life to the rumor of Paul’s death. This “new cultural mentality of skepticism” Thalmann refers to is one of the conspiracy theories which originated in opposition to mainstream culture and discourse—counterculturally, if you will.
It makes sense. If conspiracy theories emerge in between fears, the fifties were the ideal stage to incite a disruption of “normalcy.” But in the 1960s, conspiracy theories were able to actually thrive. “The seduction of conspiracy is the way it orders chaos,” according to Wallace-Wells (9), and the 1960s were nothing if not chaotic. In the 1950s, the usefulness of these theories was preventative—though some found their origins in ordinary people, most were championed by authorities, who wanted to maintain order before chaos could ensue. One example is Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist campaign, which largely fueled the paranoia of the Red Scare. In the 1960s, however, the usefulness of conspiracy theories was more reactionary and grassroots—it was ordinary people who wanted to make sense of the chaotic world around them, which was threatened by what they could now recognize as authoritarian systems. New cultural and countercultural influences including drugs provided a vehicle for this endeavor, as did conspiracy theories. For example, according to Sophia Smith Galer of the BBC, this “era of counter-culture mania, LSD and interest in Eastern philosophy is largely responsible for the [Illuminati’s] (totally unsubstantiated) modern incarnation. It all began somewhere amid the Summer of Love and the hippie phenomenon, when a small, printed text emerged: Principia Discordia” (11). Galer explains this as “a parody text for a parody faith—Discordianism—conjured up by enthusiastic anarchists and thinkers to bid its readers to worship Eris, goddess of chaos” (11). Galer cites David Bramwell, who claims that Kerry Thornley, co-author of the Principia Discordia, and Playboy magazine editor Robert Anton Wilson spread false stories about the Illuminati through Playboy because they thought “the world was becoming too authoritarian, too tight, too closed, too controlled” and “wanted to bring chaos back into society to shake things up” (11).
Predictably, the frenzied conspiracy theories about McCartney’s death found a segue from the counterculture and into the public sphere through an American university campus—colleges had become some of the most important nuclei for protests and social movements in the 1960s. The first recorded mention of the rumor occurred on September 17, 1969—almost three years after Paul’s supposed death—in the Drake Times-Delphic, the student newspaper at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. An article penned by editor Tim Harper was titled “Is Beatle Paul McCartney Dead?” (12). From there, rumors spread through other U.S. universities, and were picked up by bigger radio stations and newspapers. In a later interview, Harper would say students had been discussing the topic as the academic year started because “a lot of us, because of Vietnam and the so-called Establishment, were ready, willing and able to believe just about any sort of conspiracy” (13). Almost a month later, on October 14, 1969, The Michigan Daily published a satirical review of “Abbey Road” by Fred LaBour—“McCartney Dead; New Evidence Brought to Light” (8). LaBour later admitted he had invented most of the clues, which centered around the songs and albums discussed above (14). Student broadcaster Vin Scelsa later explained that the rapid spread of this conspiracy theory was indicative of the countercultural influence of musicians such as Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones: Their songs “became a personal message, worthy of endless scrutiny … they were guidelines on how to live your life” (13). Christine Lahti, who in the fall of 1969 was a student at the University of Michigan, said the “Rorschach-like nature” of the clues could explain the rumor’s appeal (14). “It might also have had something to do with the mind-altering drugs that many people were involved with,” she added (14).
The students’ insights reveal why Americans in the 1960s were so predisposed to believe the world around them worked through incredible conspiracies: in the “Paul is dead” case, a combination of hallucinogenic drug use—on behalf of both songwriters and listeners—and competing ideologies of how to make sense of the world—a world where the establishment could not be trusted. In the late 1960s, “recent changes in the Beatles’ music and album covers had been puzzling to individual fans,” though these changes were likely due to the band’s increased use of LSD (15). Consequently, “each fan was a ripe target for the suggestions by friends or street corner gurus that McCartney’s death ‘explained it all’” (15). In a state of dissonance between “news” of Paul’s death and the shock it caused, Beatles fans easily fell prey to confirmation bias—the interpretation of “evidence” in the band’s songs and album covers as confirmation of a belief that had just come into existence, i.e. that Paul was dead and the other Beatles were part of a cover-up. But their (sometimes mumbled) strange lyrics, (almost sinister) recording techniques, and eccentric art were just a reflection of the “creative confusion” the Beatles had started embracing: most of their songs from 1966-1970 were shaped by “chance-determination,” or randomness, since LSD made them incorporate accidental creative occurrences into their music (16). The obscurity of references they included in some of their other songs was also random, yet suggestive. Thus, McDonald says, listeners were left—even encouraged—to make their own connections (16). While the Beatles were busy making random, confusing music, their listeners were busy trying to make sense of it; where the Beatles created chaos, society was seeking to find order.
In “Strawberry Fields Forever,” McDonald notes a “swoop from the airiness of the first chorus/verse into something more shadowy, serious, and urgent…” (16). A similar “swoop” occurred in the 1960s: The paranoia of the 1950s had spilled over and had eventually exploded with the chaos of the counterculture—a chaos that was, perhaps, as initially enticing and superficially innocent as the first chorus of the song. The discordance between what the Beatles meant to achieve with their songs and the conspiracies their listeners were discovering in their work point toward this clash, perhaps one of the most unique characteristics of the 1960s: “The essence of the confrontation between straight society and the counterculture was a clash between logical/literal and intuitive/lateral thinking” (17), or worldviews. The countercultural movement of the 1960s sought to liberate through intuition and enlightenment, yet some countercultural influences like psychedelic drugs and anti-establishment sentiment actually had the opposite effect: a desperate, frenzied need to find logic, reason, order. Conspiracy theories offered to satiate this need. The Beatles’ music and the “Paul is dead” rumors evidenced that tension and how overpowering this need to explain the world in such “logical,” yet dark terms became for many Americans. “The idea of an untouchable, secretive elite must resonate with people that feel left behind and powerless,” Galer says of conspiracists (11).
At a time when people were recognizing and revolting against oppression, the outcome was not always freedom, liberation, peace, and love: some people, perhaps more hopeless than others, chose to relinquish their power to what they believed to be conspiring, even faceless networks (9).
Adriana Perez is a Political Science major with a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy (JED). Her essay was originally written for Professor Peter Cajka’s American Studies course ‘Witnessing the Sixties.’
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- Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “backmasking,” accessed September 2, 2021, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/backmasking
- DeMain, Bill. “The Devil Wears Headphones: A Brief History of Backmasking.” Mental Floss, August 18, 2011. www.mentalfloss.com/article/28548/devil-wears-headphones-brief-history-backmasking
- LaBour, Fred. “McCartney dead, new evidence brought to light.” The Michigan Daily, October 14, 1969. https://digital.bentley.umich.edu/midaily/mdp.39015071754159/374
- Wallace-Wells, Benjamin. “The Truly Paranoid Style in American Politics.” New York Magazine, November 25, 2013. https://nymag.com/news/features/conspiracy-theories/50-years-of-conspiracy-theories/
- Thalmann, Katharina. The Stigmatization of Conspiracy Theory since the 1950s: A Plot to Make us Look Foolish. Andover: Routledge, 2019.
- Galer, Sophia Smith. “The story of how the myth exploded reveals how fake stories spread today and the secrets behind the psychology of their fiercest proponents.” BBC, July 11, 2020. www.bbc.com/future/article/20170809-the-accidental-invention-of-the-illuminati-conspiracy
- Harper, Tim. “Is Beatle Paul McCartney Dead?” Drake Times-Delphic, September 17, 1969. http://content.library.drake.edu/digital/collection/p15183coll1/id/701/
- Noden, Merrell. “Dead Man Walking.” MOJO Magazine Limited Edition: 1000 Days Of Revolution (The Beatles’ Final Years – Jan 1, 1968 to Sept 27, 1970), January 1, 2003, p. 114.
- Glenn, Alan. “‘Paul is Dead!’ (said Fred).” Michigan Today, November 11, 2009. https://michigantoday.umich.edu/2009/11/11/a7565/
- Bird, Donald Allport, Stephen C. Holder, and Diane Sears. “Walrus is Greek for Corpse: Rumor and the Death of Paul McCartney.” The Journal of Popular Culture 10, no. 1 (Summer 1976): 110-121. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0022-3840.1976.1001_110.x
- MacDonald, Ian. Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1994.
- Ibid, p. 250.