The Paul McCartney is Dead Conspiracy Theory, Explained

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How the “Paul McCart­ney is Dead” Hoax Start­ed at an Amer­i­can Col­lege News­pa­per and Went Viral (1969)

The Band Every­one Thought Was The Bea­t­les: Revis­it the Klaatu Con­spir­a­cy of 1976

Stan­ley Kubrick’s Daugh­ter Vivian Debunks the Age-Old Moon Land­ing Con­spir­a­cy The­o­ry

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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