"Paul Is Dead" rumor fascinates, 40 years after it took off locally
Gibb, already well known around Metro Detroit as the impresario behind the city’s legendary Grande Ballroom, had a free-form radio show on the underground station WKNR-FM in October 1969. WKNR was a Detroit AM powerhouse, but its FM station was new and hadn’t yet attracted many advertisers. In fact, Sundays were so slow at the station that Gibb was often reduced to reading comic books on the air to fill time. So when the studio phone rang, Gibb said, he was glad for any kind of diversion. “Um, I was gonna rap with you about McCartney being dead,” the caller - who identified himself only as an Eastern Michigan University student named “Tom” - asked. “What is this all about?” Gibb, who was used to endless rumors of rock stars dying, didn’t give the caller much credence, until the caller asked him if he’d ever listened to the Beatles’ song, “Revolution #9” backwards. Of course he hadn’t. Who listened to records backwards? But it was a Sunday and he was bored. So he cued up the song — more of an experimental sound collage, really, produced by John Lennon and Yoko Ono and released on the band’s so-called “White Album.”
“Revolution #9” played backwards (some profanity): “What I heard shocked me out of my boredom,” Gibb recalled. “When played backwards, the beginning of the song very clearly — and I mean very clearly — says, ‘Turn me on, dead man.’ ” “I mean, I just I flipped. I recorded it and immediately played it over the radio.” Back in Ann Arbor, University of Michigan student Fred LaBoer was listening to WKNR-FM as he prepared to write a review of the Beatles’ latest release, “Abbey Road,” for The Michigan Daily. Instead of writing a straight review, he used what he had heard on the radio as the launching point for a treatise on McCartney’s alleged death. Two days later, on Oct. 14, LaBoer’s story ran in the Daily. The headline above the piece read: “McCartney Dead: New evidence comes to light.” According to LaBoer’s inspired-yet-fanciful “detective” work, McCartney was killed in a car accident and replaced by a lookalike, who had been taking his place since roughly 1967. The evidence, he said, could be found in clues sprinkled amid Beatles’ lyrics, backward-masked album tracks and visual hints on the band’s album covers. These “clues” ranged from plausible to ridiculous to downright eerie and included:
- The iconic cover of Abbey Road, which shows the band crossing the street. McCartney is barefoot, similar to how corpses are typically buried; while Lennon, dressed in all white, is theoretically the preacher; George Harrison, in denim, is the gravedigger; and Ringo Starr, in a dark suit, is the mourner. A license plate in the distance reads “28IF,” supposedly signifying that the bassist would have been 28 years old had he lived.
- Played backwards, a bit of gibberish between “I’m So Tired” and “Blackbird” on the “White Album,” appears to be Lennon’s voice saying “Paul is dead, miss him, miss him.”
- Lennon appears to utter “I buried Paul” during the outro to “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Years later, Lennon confirmed what close listenings suggest: Actually, he inexplicably says “cranberry sauce.”
- On the “Sgt. Pepper” album cover, wax effigies of the band members appear to be looking down on a flower arrangement in the shape of McCartney’s familiar violin-shaped Hoffner bass.
LaBoer, who went on to fame as “Too Slim” in the western swing band Riders in the Sky, said in an interview last year with True West magazine, that he took what he heard on WKNR and started inventing clues as a satirical response to over-serious music critics. “I wanted to poke fun at over-zealous critics who try to find endless meaning in every nuance of an art project,” he said. “I postulated that Paul had been killed in a car wreck and replaced in the Beatles, and that this information was released to the world via ‘clues’ hidden on album covers and within the songs themselves. “I thought then, and in fact still do, that this was funny. Almost everybody else took it seriously, and I had my 15 minutes of fame—which I’ve since managed to stretch into 17 minutes.” Within days, the “Paul is Dead” rumor had spread across the country, eventually gaining enough steam that “Life” magazine sent a reporter and photographer to McCartney’s farm in Scotland, where they found the singer — or was it his lookalike replacement? — living quietly with family. A New York City TV station aired a program in which celebrity lawyer F. Lee Bailey tried a mock case to get to the bottom of the rumor. Both Gibb and LaBoer appeared on the program, which yielded no definitive conclusion on McCartney’s alleged death. “I can remember my friends and I reading articles in fan magazines and poring over our record albums to find clues,” said Paul McGraft of Ann Arbor, who at the time was a 14-year-old Beatles fanatic. “To us, listening to those backwards tracks on the white album was as scary as any ghost story I ever heard at summer camp. “I remember being very frustrated that we would probably ever really know for sure whether it was true of not.” And four decades later, Gibb still fields several interviews a year on the rumors. “I’ve talked to press from all over the world,” he said. “It’s never completely gone away.” In hindsight, Gibb said he sometimes feels a little foolish for perpetrating such a ridiculous theory. On the other hand, he said, there are enough clues within the Beatles’ canon that he believes that band must have been trying to generate some kind of scandal. Probably, Gibb said, to boost record sales, which had begun to fall off after the initial wave of Beatlemania had passed. “Do I think that they were complicit in it at least to some degree? Yes, I do,” he said. “But obviously, this took on a life of its own that I don’t think anyone could have foreseen. “It’s one of the great conspiracy theories of the music industry.” When he looks back at it, Gibb said, he occasionally feels a pang of remorse for his role in staring the phenomenon. “Sometimes we forget that these people, these celebrities we read about and whose music we listen to, are real people with real feelings,” he said. “I don’t know that I caused (McCartney) any hardship, but I do sometimes feel sorry for the guy about it all. "But I do know that I helped sell a whole lot of Beatles records after those rumors started to circulate.” For his part, McCartney doesn’t seem to hold any grudges. Some years ago, when he was appearing in Detroit, he sent word that he’d like to meet with Gibb for some photos and chitchat. Gibb said he declined the offer. At any rate, Gibb said, Paul McCartney will never really die. “He is now with the immortals anyway,” he said.
Will Stewart is a free-lance writer for AnnArbor.com.