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'Paul is Dead!' (said Fred)
November 11, 2009
In the fall of 1969 a strange and mysterious rumor was circulating on the fringes of college campuses in the Midwest: Paul McCartney of the Beatles was dead.
According to the rumor, McCartney had died three years previously in a horrific car crash. His death—so the story went—was covered up, the surviving Beatles found a double to replace him, and ever since had been hiding clues in their songs and album covers that revealed the truth about their ex-bandmate's grisly fate.
No one knows for certain how the rumor started, or where. But in mid-October it exploded on to the national scene, sweeping the ranks of youth from coast to coast in a matter of days. Suddenly it seemed as if everyone under the age of 30 was either debating the possibility of McCartney's demise or poring over their Beatles records, searching for clues.
The power of the rumor was such that, four decades later, plenty of Baby Boomers still vividly recall the tingling sensation they felt when they first heard an eerie backwards voice emanating from their turntables, and began to consider that Paul might actually be dead.
What many do not know is that the rumor might not have come to their attention at all except for a mischievous young U-M natural resources student named Fred LaBour. Indeed, if the McCartney death rumor can be called a modern myth, then Beatles expert Devin McKinney may be correct to identify LaBour as its Homer.
Today, Fred LaBour is best known as "Too Slim," bassist-cum-jokester for the country and western act Riders in the Sky. Forty years ago he was an equally jocular staff writer for the Michigan Daily who had been assigned to review "Abbey Road," the Beatles' latest album.
On October 12, 1969, LaBour was tuned in to radio station WKNR from Detroit when disc jockey Russ Gibb took a call from a listener who wanted to talk about a rumor going around that Paul McCartney was dead. Gibb was skeptical at first, but became intrigued when the caller explained that there were clues pointing to McCartney's death hidden in the Beatles' music.
For the next hour thousands of listeners, including LaBour, stayed glued to their radios as Gibb and his callers discussed the supposed evidence and what could be behind it. The following day LaBour got out his Beatles records, lined them up on his desk, and sat down to write one of the oddest and most influential record reviews ever printed.
On the morning of October 14, the university community awoke to the shocking and incredible report that one of the world's most popular and beloved entertainers was no more. The headline blazoned across the second page of the Michigan Daily proclaimed the awful news:
"McCartney dead; new evidence brought to light."
"Paul McCartney was killed in an automobile accident in early November, 1966," began Fred LaBour's accompanying full-page article, "after leaving EMI recording studios tired, sad, and dejected." McCartney was found four hours later, "pinned under his car in a culvert with the top of his head sheared off. He was deader than a doornail."
What LaBour had written was less record review than conspiracy-age fable. He related in detail how the accident had been covered up and a look-alike found to replace the dead musician—not as a rumor, but as if it were fact. The mysterious clues were held to be part of a strange and disturbing plot orchestrated by John Lennon, who had it in mind to found a new religion with himself as god and the "reborn" McCartney a Christ-like figure at his side.
LaBour's story electrified the campus. The Daily sold out its entire run by mid-morning, and a second printing was ordered to meet demand. "I remember walking down Ann Arbor streets hearing Beatles music from every single apartment and house," LaBour says. He also recalls occasionally hearing someone trying to play a record backwards—listening for clues.
Indeed, the enigmatic clues seemed to draw most people into the rumor's web—and LaBour's article contained an abundance of evidence for clue-hungry readers to digest.
For instance, the inside cover of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" features a photo in which McCartney is wearing an arm patch that seems to read O.P.D.—according to LaBour, an abbreviation for "Officially Pronounced Dead," the British equivalent of DOA. On the album's back cover is a photo in which McCartney is the only one of the Beatles facing away from the camera.
LaBour also pointed out that on the front cover of "Abbey Road" McCartney is barefoot, signifying death because that is how corpses are buried. Furthermore, in the photo Paul holds a cigarette in his right hand, whereas the "real" McCartney is left-handed.
Then there were the now-famous clues to be found by playing certain songs backwards. When reversed, "Revolution 9" reveals something that sounds eerily like "Turn me on, dead man," while from the outro of "I Am the Walrus" seems to emerge a creepy chorus of "Ha ha! Paul is dead."
"I cannot tell you how many times I listened to those records backwards," says actress Christine Lahti ("Chicago Hope"), who in the fall of 1969 was a nineteen-year-old U-M theater student. Dubious at first, after many repetitions—and the encouragement of friends—she found herself more willing to believe. "After a point you started to hear it," she explains, "just by the power of suggestion."
Lahti suspects that this Rorschach-like nature of the clues accounts for much of the rumor's appeal. "It might also have had something to do with the mind-altering drugs that many people were involved with," she adds with a laugh.
Filmmaker Ric Burns ("New York: A Documentary Film"), then a teenaged Beatlemaniac attending Ann Arbor's Pioneer High School, remembers spending hours hunting for clues and debating the rumor with friends. Like Lahti, he believes that a major part of the attraction was the ambiguity of the purported evidence.
"It was not some 'x-marks-the-spot' clue," Burns explains. "You could sort of hear it, but you couldn't. It was like you were seeing the tip of the iceberg of a larger reality."
But most people did not realize that many of the clues were nothing more than a college prank.
Fred LaBour's article in the Daily presented more than two-dozen clues, most of which he originated himself. Of those, many went on to become an integral part of the rumor.
But LaBour admits—and has always admitted—that he made up his clues on the spot, as a joke. A prime example is his assertion that "walrus"—as in the lyric "the walrus was Paul"—is Greek for "corpse." (It isn't.) LaBour also brazenly fabricated many other "facts": identifying, for instance, McCartney's replacement as a Scottish orphan named William Campbell. (He had considered calling the impostor "Glen" Campbell, after the country singer, but decided it would be too obvious.)
LaBour never expected his article to be taken at face value, and was astonished when the national press picked it up as a serious piece of news. "The story was quoted extensively everywhere," he recalls. "First the Detroit papers, then Chicago, then, by the weekend, both coasts."
After this the rumor truly seemed to catch fire. Suddenly LaBour's playful inventions were being soberly discussed on the evening news of all three major television networks, and in prestigious national magazines such as Time and Life.
Exactly why LaBour's story was so influential is unclear. It was not the only article on the rumor, nor was it the first. The rumor was also being heavily promoted on alternative radio. But many agree with Beatleologist Andru J. Reeve, who opines that LaBour's story was "the single most significant factor in the breadth of the rumor's spread."
LaBour recalls being worried about his unintentional role in sending the rumor spiraling out of control. "But after a few days," he says, "the theatrical aspect became clearer to me, and, shy as I was in the face of all the attention, I began to enjoy the ride."
The culmination of that ride was being invited to Hollywood in early November to participate in an RKO television special that featured celebrity attorney F. Lee Bailey conducting a mock trial in which he examined various expert "witnesses" on the subject of McCartney's alleged death.
"I was a nervous college kid, way out of my league," LaBour recalls. "I told Bailey during our pre-show meeting that I'd made the whole thing up. He sighed, and said, 'Well, we have an hour of television to do. You're going to have to go along with this.' I said okay."
By the time the program was scheduled for broadcast, however, public interest in the rumor had cooled. It received only a single airing, on a local television station in New York City on November 30, 1969.
The popular mania surrounding the "Paul is dead" rumor was short-lived—but even today, despite the thorough debunking of nearly all the so-called evidence, it continues to circulate, mainly among conspiracy buffs and inquisitive Beatles fans.
Fred LaBour doesn't think his adoptive brainchild will ever completely disappear. "Like it or not," he says, "the rumor will be with us as long as the Beatles are with us."
Which will be a very long time indeed.