Hoaxes used to be fun, I imagine, before the internet turned them into weapons of mass disinformation. One shudders to think what kind of lunacy might have resulted had the Paul McCartney-is-dead-and-has-been-replaced-by-a-lookalike hoax first spread on Facebook instead of college newspapers, local radio stations, and good-old word of mouth. The hoax is emblematic not only of how misinformation spread differently fifty years ago, but also how the counterculture figured out information warfare, and used it to produce reams of satirical proto-viral content.
Whether the author of the original 1969 article—“Is Beatle Paul McCartney Dead?,” from the Drake University student newspaper the Times-Delphic—intended to fool the public hardly matters. His speculation reads like parody, like a star chart crossed with lurid tabloid gossip that, through a strange twist of fate created a network of people who believed that Paul was killed in a 1966 car crash and the band found an imposter named Billy Shears to replace him.
It should be noted that Paul McCartney is very much alive and has not been played by an impersonator for fifty years. There are no “two sides” to this story. There is the life of Paul McCartney and there is a strange and amusing rumor that never harmed anyone, except the Paul McCartney of its imagination. "Paul is Dead" ranks highly among “music’s most WTF conspiracy theories,” also the title of the Rolling Stone video above, which aims to explain “the original insane rock n’ roll conspiracy theory.”
The Beatles had a lot of fun with the conspiracy, doubly hoaxing their fans by playing along occasionally. McCartney responded with his classic wit: “If I were dead, I’d be the last to know it.” But publicly confirming or denying Paul McCartney’s body snatching didn't matter. Like those who claimed Stanley Kubrick staged the moon landing and left clues in The Shining, true believers found evidence everywhere they looked.
The cover of Sgt. Pepper’s supposedly represents Paul’s funeral; his doppelgänger allegedly wears a patch with the letters O.P.D.—officially pronounced dead.” (It’s actually O.P.P., “Ontario Provincial Police.”); lyrics played backwards spell it out: “Paul is Dead.” As with most crackpot theories, there is one crucial missing element: motive. Why would the band not only cover up Paul’s death but leave trails of breadcrumbs on every subsequent record?
Why does the villain explain their entire plan to the hero as soon as they get the upper hand? Why do killers leave detailed, incriminating documents called “The Plan” on their hard drives on Dateline? Who can say? In the world of weird conspiracy theories, conspirators are compelled to place cryptic but decipherable clues all over the place. It’s like they want to be caught, or it’s like conspiracy fans desperately want to believe they do. Either way, as far as conspiracy theories go, “Paul is Dead” earns its “WTF” status. It also bears the distinction of never actually having involved anyone’s death.