At the height of their fame the Beatles were some of the most recognizable faces on the planet. However, there is a long-running, persistent fan theory that suggests that Paul McCartney actually died in 1966, and was replaced by a look-alike. If true, this could be one of the biggest cover-ups in music history.
In the 1960s, Beatlemania had reached a peak, and the ‘fab four’ were met by hysterical, screaming crowds whenever they made a public appearance. This level of fan hysteria was unprecedented, and according to Time magazine, there were genuine concerns about the effect of Beatlemania on impressionable young women.
In the middle of this Beatles craze, so the theory goes, Paul was suddenly killed in a car accident. One night, after an argument with his fellow band-mates at a rehearsal, Paul drove off in his car. Fueled by his rage, he was driving erratically, and had a fatal accident.
His fellow band-mates were devastated, and racked by guilt, but most of all they feared the reaction of their fans. According to Time, it was thought that the shock news of Paul’s death would have a terrible effect on the bands’ legions of young female supporters. More cynical commentators suggested that the cover-up was motivated by concerns that Paul’s death would end the Beatles’ commercial success.
Either way, the theory suggests that in order to avoid the fallout, the remaining Beatles decided to conceal the truth from the world. According to Rolling Stone, they are said to have replaced Paul with a man called Billy Shears, who had recently won a look-alike competition posing as Paul. Shears both looked and sounded sufficiently similar to Paul to carry off the deception.
Around 1969, rumors of Paul’s replacement by the fake Paul McCartney (or ‘Faul’, as he is known by conspiracy theorists) began to circulate. Speculation was fueled by the appearance of ‘clues’ in the Beatles’ music and artworks.
The album cover of Abbey Road, featuring the iconic scene of the four Beatles walking across the street at Abbey Road studios in London, was thought to be a subtle tip to Paul’s fate. Paul is barefoot, and is walking out of step with the other three band members.
In addition, John, Ringo and George are all dressed in such a way to represent their supposed roles at Paul’s funeral. John, dressed in white, represents the priest, or holy man. Ringo is wearing black, and so represents the undertaker. Finally, George is wearing denim, which is thought to represent the gravedigger.
Ardent theorists also found clues in the Beatles’ later songs. When ‘Revolution 9,’ on the White Album is played backwards it allegedly sounds like “turn me on, dead man,” which is thought to be a direct reference to Paul’s death.
Similarly, at the end of the song ‘Strawberry Fields Forever,’ John can be heard saying “I buried Paul,” although he later stated that he had actually been saying “cranberry sauce.”
As the theory received more and more attention, Rolling Stone magazine reports that many people attempted to ‘prove’ that Paul had been replaced by analyzing photographs of him before and after the supposed car crash. According to these analyses, there were substantial differences in the face shape, position of the ears and size of the skull between pictures of the ‘real’ Paul and the ‘fake’ Paul.
Despite this frenzied speculation, the theory has never been proven, and the Beatles have repeatedly denied it. Paul has attributed the idea to the changes that were going on in the band in the late 1960s, as each one of the fab four began to look to their own solo projects.
In an interview in Life magazine in November 1969, Paul said that he thought that the rumor started because he hadn’t been in the press as much as before, adding, “I would rather be a little less famous these days.”
Despite this, there are many who refuse to abandon the theory entirely, and the ‘Paul is dead’ conspiracy continues to attract new proponents. In 1993, Paul even poked fun at theorists with his ‘Paul is Live’ album, which directly parodied many of the ‘clues’ found in Abbey Road.
However, according to Time, as recently at 2012 proponents of the idea were still turning up fresh clues in old photographs of the Beatles. It seems that this is one conspiracy theory that simply refuses to die.