On November 9, 1966, Beatles bassist Paul McCartney was killed in a car crash at approximately 5:00 AM. When the band and their management heard the news, they quickly worked out a way to cover up the tragedy.
Before Paul's Death
At around 3:30 AM, a recording session for the Beatles' upcoming album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, ended with a heated argument between McCartney and the other band members. McCartney stormed out of the studio and got into his car. While driving aimlessly through London, he noticed a teenage girl, whose name was later found to be Carolyn Rita Northam, on the side of the road. She walked over to the car to ask Paul for a ride and immediately recognized him. She had been walking home, and since it was raining, Paul agreed to take her home.
Paul was under the influence of LSD. This, combined with Carolyn's excitement at meeting Paul, distracted him from the road. At 4:38 AM, he went through an intersection, not noticing the light was red. Someone going through the intersection from the left slammed into the car, not having time to stop or dodge. The collision sent Paul—and Carolyn—veering head-on into a telephone pole. Carolyn's face went into the windshield, killing her within minutes. Paul's mouth and nose hit the steering wheel, knocking out all of his teeth and crushing his nose and right eyeball socket. He also crushed his fingers—and his entire right hand—against the dashboard. Finally, he broke both his right knee and thigh. (Thigh fractures are potentially fatal as the muscles can move the pieces of the bone around, causing severe internal bleeding.) The driver who had hit them pulled over to help them, but upon recognizing Paul he was so overcome with shock and guilt that he drove away, seconds before the car caught fire.
Because of his injuries, Paul was unable to get out of the car, so he started screaming, "Get me out! Get me out!". Several people came over, but there was nothing they could do since the car was on fire. Paul himself caught fire at 4:42 AM. An ambulance, fire engine, and two police cars arrived at 4:47 AM. The blaze was extinguished within a couple of minutes, but by that time, Paul had died. His hair, clothing, and most of his skin had been burned away. Much of Carolyn's body had been burned all the way to the skeleton, so she could only be identified by her dental records. Both were pronounced dead at 4:56 AM.
At 6:30 AM, Brian Epstein called the three surviving Beatles and asked them to come into the studio immediately. Once they arrived, George Martin and Brian Epstein told them what had happened. After several minutes of just thinking about their friend, Ringo asked what this would mean for the band. They thought about announcing Paul's death publicly, but feared that it would send fans into chaos. They considered disbanding both out of respect for Paul and because they feared their fans would not accept them if they brought in a new member to replace him. Epstein reminded the group that splitting at that stage would be too much of a legal headache given the amount of agreements and contracts which the band were tied into while John believed that the group were at their creative peak and wanted them to carry on. Then John suggested covering it up. George Martin and the other two surviving Beatles were initially disgusted, but John managed to talk them into going along with his idea. With that consensus reached, the five of them quickly worked out a way to cover up Paul's death.
The first thing that had to be done was deal with the people who already knew. Epstein offered liberal sums of money to the police, the fire department, and the paramedics who had been at the accident in return for them keeping quiet. All of these parties accepted Epstein's bribes, albeit after Epstein promised follow-up installments every six months (assuming the cover-up worked). All this was accomplished by 9:00 AM. Having convinced the emergency personnel involved to remain silent, the band and the management now had to deal with the press.
It turned out that the first reporter to arrive at the crash site had arrived a couple of minutes after Paul was pronounced dead. He had interviewed all eighteen witnesses. Eight had claimed that he looked familiar, but none of them realized that it was Paul. Only two of them had arrived before Paul caught fire. The police had not identified Paul until after everyone had left the site. The police and medical personnel had agreed to "conclude" that the driver was a John Doe. Thus, there would not be any issues with the media.
The last immediate problem to be taken care of was Paul's car. One police officer offered to buy the same type of car Paul had crashed provided the band reimburse him. Epstein agreed, but advised him to wait at least two or three days to make it look like a coincidence. The police would see that the license plates for the old car would go on the new one and that all records of the plate numbers for both cars were altered in such a way as to make it look like the plates for the new car legitimately went with the old and vice versa.
That evening, the media reported that a car had "crashed into a telephone pole and caught fire, burning both the driver and passenger to death". According to the news, Carolyn had been identified, but the police had "failed to identify the driver". Four days later, a young detective named Harvey Malloy bought a car exactly like Paul's. By that time, George Martin, Brian Epstein, and the remaining Beatles were already working on how to replace Paul.
When John first suggested covering up Paul's death, he recalled Paul telling him that one time when was in Ottawa, he had seen a young policeman talking to another person. Both of them happened to look very much like Paul.
With the help of the authorities, they managed to track down the cop (who worked for the Ontario Provincial Police). In any case, the person they hired would have to permanently disappear from his old life. The Beatles and their management were hoping to hire the person the cop was talking to, believing that his disappearance would get less attention. However, the cop did not even remember the conversation, and the OPP had no records relating to anyone who looked like Paul. Since the latter person could not be found, Epstein invited the cop to replace Paul. The cop, whose name was Michael Willard "Mike" Campbell, accepted the offer. On December 3, the evening news on stations throughout Canada reported that an officer in the OPP had disappeared.
As soon as Mike was back in London, he underwent plastic surgery in order to look exactly like Paul and speech therapy to learn to speak with a Liverpudlian accent. He could play bass guitar reasonably well but, unlike Paul, was right-handed. This wasn't as much of a problem as it would have been considering that the band had stopped touring the previous August so nobody other than those in their inner-circle, who already knew about the deception, would notice him playing right-handed in the studio. Nonetheless he would need to pretend to play left-handed for appearances in promotional photographs and films. Mike's playing style was noticeably different from Paul's, so John had to teach him how to play like Paul. Mike was never able to perfectly duplicate Paul's bass style, but because of John's help the difference became small enough that it could easily be attributed to a minor change in Paul's style. Finally, the Beatles and their management had to teach Mike how to walk, talk, and act like Paul in his daily life.
By January, everything was as close to the way it was before as possible.
From Death to Discovery
Finishing Sgt. Pepper
By January, the Beatles had resumed work on Sgt. Pepper. The band finished recording on April 21, 1967. The album was released in June. By that time, the public was still unaware of Paul's replacement, and the band's management had paid out the first wave of follow-up bribes. By this time, Mike had grown comfortable pretending to be Paul. None of the witnesses of the crash had come forward and claimed to have realized that Paul was the driver. The media had not said anything about the crash since Carolyn's memorial. It looked as if Paul's death would never be revealed.
However, George had never been fully comfortable with the cover-up. He thought about simply coming clean on what the band had done, but instead decided it would be best to drop subtle hints about what had happened. So he filled his track on Sgt. Pepper, "Within You Without You", with clues to Paul's death. He claimed that the song was about Hindu philosophy, and he carefully wrote the lyrics so that it could easily be taken that way. None of the other members realized that George was making subtle references to Paul's death. What George didn't know was that Mike and John, who had suggested the whole cover-up in the first place, had both been doing the same thing. A further irony was that neither Mike nor John knew the other was dropping clues.
John left many clues on the front cover of the album, including the idea of a funeral service, 1 ONE 1 X HE ^ DIE (a famous "clue" to the myth in OTL), the yellow flowers positioned in the shape of a left-handed guitar and in such a way as to spell out "PAUL?", Paul's rugby trophy, and the open hand over Paul's head. He also left clues in the lyrics of "A Day in the Life". Mike placed clues in several songs, including "Getting Better", "She's Leaving Home", and "Lovely Rita".
Sgt. Pepper was released on June 1. It was well received by the public even before then.
On August 27, Brian Epstein died of a drug overdose.
One morning in September, Mike and John were talking about everything that had happened over the previous ten months. Mike mentioned that he had made a couple of references to Paul's death in his songs on Sgt. Pepper. John was briefly shocked, but Mike explained that he had worded those lyrics in such a way that there was little chance that anyone who didn't already know what had happened to Paul would even consider that the lyrics were about his death. Mike told John that he had wondered how he could slip Paul's death into a song without anyone noticing. After Mike told this to John, John revealed that he was doing the same thing for the same reason.
Magical Mystery Tour
In late 1967, the Beatles made and starred in a TV movie titled Magical Mystery Tour. They released a soundtrack as an EP in Britain and an album in the US.
John injected subtle references to Mike's integration into the band and the life Paul had lived into "All You Need Is Love". Meanwhile, Mike's song "Hello Goodbye" was a reference to the other Beatles saying goodbye to Paul and himself saying hello to them. The inner sleeve of the album said that in the sky, there were "four or five magicians". The first four magicians were the Beatlemania-era lineup, the fifth was Mike, and the magic they were referring to was that no one had found out.
The movie contained a scene with Mike at a desk dressed up as an army sergeant. There was a sign on the desk that said "I you was", and behind the desk, there were two crossed flags (which is how flags were presented in military funerals). Later in a movie, there was a scene in which all four band members were dressed in white and wearing roses. However, Paul was wearing a black rose, a symbol of death, while the other three were wearing red roses.
Contrary to what people would later claim, John did not intend for the Walrus to be a clue. At that time, he had not heard that the Walrus might have been a symbol of death.
The Beatles (aka the White Album)
In the spring of 1968, the Beatles traveled to India for a three-week transcendental meditation course with the Mahirishi Mashesh Yogi at his spiritual retreat in Rishikesh. The visit turned out to be highly productive creatively for the band as Mike settled further into his role as the new Paul. He had managed to learn to play left-handed to an extent that would fool news cameras and fellow guests at the retreat. Later that year, the Beatles recorded the songs written in India and put together their self-titled album, which would go on to be informally known as the White Album. The cover was plain white, hence the informal name. There were no clues to Paul's death on the album cover. There was one clue on the inner sleeve, however. The inner sleeve contained a picture of Paul dancing. The negative of the picture was folded over to create the image of two skeleton hands reaching out behind Paul. All the other clues from the White Album were located in the lyrics.
Since the Walrus from Magical Mystery Tour was not intended to be a clue, the lyric, "here's another clue for you all, the Walrus was Paul," from "Glass Onion" was not a deliberate clue either. As Mike would later explain, John inserted this lyric to throw off anyone who would attempt to find a deep, profound meaning in the song.
Ringo Starr's composition contained two references to Paul's death. One line mentioned a car crash (not the crash, of course) in which the driver's hair was burned away. The second reference could be revealed by playing the chorus backwards. When the chorus was played backwards, it revealed a message that pointed out that Mike was not the band's first choice. In order to get people to play the track backwards, Ringo muttered, "Reverse, anyone?" at the end. (In OTL, he did not say this in the track).
John Lennon saturated "Revolution 9" with references to the crash. The words "number nine" were intended to become "turn me on, dead man" when reversed.
The dialogue throughout the track mentioned a number of details about the crash, including:
- The fact that he hit a telephone pole
- His teeth getting knocked out
- His fingers getting crushed
- His hair and clothes getting burned away
Also, John included sounds of a car horn, a crash, and fire. He also included a choir singing "Oh death", which, when reversed, became "Paul is doomed". He included a man screaming. When played backwards, those screams clearly became "Get me out," which was what Paul had screamed after his car caught fire. During this part of the track, Lennon said, "I'm not in the mood for wearing clothing". Playing this backwards would reveal the intentional statement, "There were two, there are none now". Finally, John uttered the words "Paul died".
Mike and George Martin did not want "Revolution 9" on the album. It didn't take Mike long to realize that it was about Paul. There was a heated argument between Mike, John, and George Martin. John explained that he was starting to wonder if the cover-up was worth it. George Martin reminded John that he initially found the idea of the cover-up sick, but that John had talked him into accepting it, and that if the public found out, everyone involved would probably go to prison for a very long time, including John. Mike reminded John that he himself had told him that if he were to replace Paul, there would be no turning back. John told them that he didn't know what to do, so he thought it would be best to drop hints that were not impossible, but nevertheless hard, to detect and let the chips fall where they may. Mike and George Martin were not persuaded, so John threatened to simply "walk outside and start shouting, 'Paul died and we've been covering it up for two years!'". With this, Mike and George Martin agreed to allow "Revolution 9" on the album.
It's perhaps worth noting that in OTL, Paul and George Martin did not want "Revolution 9" on the album, for fear that it would be something that not even the Beatles could get away with.
At first, Mike was very angry at John for threatening to come clean. This was a major factor in why the Get Back sessions were a disaster. Nonetheless people remained none-the-wiser about the deception and Mike's left-handed bass-playing had become so convincing by the time of the Apple rooftop concert in January 1969 that it managed to fool everyone in the crowd of bemused onlookers in the street below. However, Mike also began to think that maybe he should come clean.
In June 1969, John left the band, but the other three Beatles and George Martin talked him into keeping it a secret until the end of the year. (In OTL, John secretly left the band that September. John's departure was revealed when the band broke up).
The Elephant In The Room
That summer, while the band was working on Abbey Road, Mike wrote a song called "The Elephant In The Room". This song was loaded with clues to Paul's death. One lyric was, "I've been a Beatle for a long time. Was this who I was in a past life?". The next line was, "I've got money in my pocket so I'll find Santa neon lights for his workshop". When the words "pocket so I'll find Santa neon" were reversed, they would become, "No, in a past life I was a cop.". Later (played forward) there were sounds of a car crash, fire, and a man yelling "Get me out!". Approximately thirty seconds after that, a line went, "First there were two, then there were none, now there is one.". The chorus contained the words "sing it forwards, sing it backwards, I'll understand you either way" and "you just need to look past the surface and you'll see the elephant in the room". Finally, at the end of the track, Mike said the words "hello everyone" in an accent that was obviously not British.
George (who had grown comfortable with the cover-up by the end of 1967), Ringo, and George Martin were shocked when they heard the song. They immediately knew the song was intended to do everything but reveal the truth about Paul. George (Harrison) demanded to know why Mike was doing this. Mike said to the three of them, "It goes back to the argument George and I had with John over 'Revolution 9'. At first I was furious, but then I realized he was on his way to the right idea. The only problem was at that point he wasn't sure telling the truth was the right thing to do. But now I'm ready to tell the truth. Look, covering up a person's death is just wrong, especially if it's your friend or someone famous. The world deserved to know what happened. They deserved the chance to say goodbye to Paul instead of being led to believe he's still alive." George Martin responded by telling Mike he should have thought about that before agreeing to impersonate Paul. Mike said that the three of them and John should have realized it before trying to cover up Paul's death at all. George Martin then told Mike that he was not letting "The Elephant In The Room" onto the album. So Mike said to him, "Then I'll reveal the what happened some other way. One way or another, I'm coming clean." Seeing that Mike was serious, George Martin agreed to allow the song on the album.
The Other Songs
Other songs on Abbey Road included "Come Together", which John had initially written for Timothy Leary's campaign for governor of California in 1968, "Something", and Mike's medley. There were few lyrical clues apart from "The Elephant In The Room". "Come Together" referred to the fact that only three original members were left and the Paul was considered the cute member. "She Came In Through The Bathroom Window" referred to Mike quitting his job as a cop. "You Never Give Me Your Money" referred to the fact that the driver of the car that hit Paul had driven off.
The album cover was intended to represent a funeral procession. John (dressed in white) represented a preacher, Ringo (dressed in black) represented a person attending the funeral, Mike (barefoot) represented the corpse, and George (dressed in work clothes) represented the gravedigger. Contrary to popular belief, Mike's being out of step with the other Beatles was not intentional.
A piece of paper was stuck on top of the license plate of the car in the background. The paper read "LMW 28IF". LMW was intended to stand for "Linda McCartney Weeps". This was a reference to widow Linda McCartney, who had fallen into depression when Paul died. 28IF meant Paul would have been 28 had he lived to see the release of Abbey Road (which was actually a mistake on their behalf. Paul would've been 27.)
On the back cover, there were eight dots to the left of the word "Beatles". Those dots were intended to be connected to form the number 3.
Releasing Abbey Road
Abbey Road was released on September 26, 1969. By this time, George Martin, George Harrison, and Ringo had fully accepted that the truth had to be told. The three of them and Mike sat back, waited, and braced themselves for the discovery. All four of them knew it would come soon.
Just four days later, the London Times reported that a man named Thomas Suffman had told them that "The Elephant In The Room" was intended to reveal that Paul McCartney was dead and that his death had been covered up. Suffman claimed that the car crash in the background sounded very similar to a real one he had witnessed several years before. He recalled Carolyn's presence, the car catching fire, and the driver screaming "Get me out!". Of course "there were two, then there were none". At first he thought that either it was a coincidence or Paul had deliberately included that particular crash just for the sake of doing so. But that provided no explanation for the words "now there is one". Then it occurred to Suffman that the lines "I've been a Beatle for a long time. Was this who I was in a past life?" were connected to the crash and the following lines in some way. Then, after listening to the chorus, he suspected that Paul was saying that he was not really Paul, and that the real Paul had died. This, he thought, would explain why the song would end with Paul speaking in an accent that wasn't British. Then he remembered that the driver had looked familiar. At that point, he realized that the driver he saw was none other than Paul McCartney.
Around 8:00 AM, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were eating breakfast. Yoko saw the article and showed it to John. John revealed to her that the man was correct. Tears of horror poured down Yoko's face as John began to tell her the details. Before he could get very far, she slapped him several times, then ran out of their house and drove away. Moments later, Mike called to ask if he had seen the article. John told him what had just happened. Mike and John spoke for an hour. John told Mike he did the right thing by coming clean. Mike said he should never have impersonated Paul, and that he was going to tell the press exactly what happened very soon.
All morning, John thought about everything that happened over the previous three years. He also remembered the early days of the Beatles, before Paul had died. Grief over Paul's death, guilt over the whole cover-up, and awareness of what was coming built up inside him. Then at 10:38 AM, he left to go out for lunch and a walk only to be murdered by a hired hitman to stop John from telling the truth.
Word of John's death spread instantly. As soon as Mike heard what happened, he called the London Times and asked for an immediate appointment. That evening, the police arrived at the paper's facility to arrest Mike. Meanwhile, news stations across the world were reporting Thomas Suffman's claims, and stations in Britain were reporting that a man named Edmund Powell had admitted to hitting Paul McCartney that night and driving off.
On October 1, 1969, the London Times reported that Paul McCartney was indeed dead and that the person who had been impersonating him had revealed his true identity. The article discussed the crash, the known (to the Beatles) events that occurred before the crash, the initial steps taken to cover up Paul's death, the process of integrating Michael Willard Campbell into the Beatles, and what led him to reveal the truth. Mike explained that John had talked him into it. He had told Mike, "Look, everyone loves Paul. Just imagine how terrible it would be if people learn what happened."
The other two surviving members and George Martin were arrested that morning. Over the next few weeks, all OPP and British emergency personnel who had been involved in the cover-up were arrested in their respective countries, as well as the plastic surgeons who had operated on Mike and the speech therapist who had worked with Mike on his accent.
Everyone involved was sentenced to ten to thirty years in prison. George, Ringo, and George Martin were given twenty years for bribery and fraud. Mike was given the same amount of time for obstruction of justice (by not revealing what the band and its management was trying to do), bribery, and impersonating Paul. All the police, firemen, and medical personnel involved were given twenty to thirty years for obstruction of justice, accepting bribes, and falsifying information. The plastic surgeon and speech therapist were each sentenced to ten years for obstruction of justice. Moreover, everyone involved was heavily fined.
Meanwhile, Edmund Powell was sentenced to eight years for not helping Paul and Carolyn after hitting them.
Effects on Culture
On December 6, a massive concert organized by the Rolling Stones was held at the Altamont Speedway in California. 300,000 people attended. Several groups, including the Stones themselves, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead were scheduled to perform. The concert was expected to be a repeat of Woodstock. Far from being such however, the Altamont concert was a disaster. The local chapter of the Hell's Angels was present, allegedly for crowd control, although both the leader of the chapter and the owner of the speedway denied this. Whatever their reason for being there, they became increasingly violent during the day, resulting in serious injuries and four deaths. One Angel even attacked Marty Balin from Jefferson Airplane (after which the Grateful Dead canceled their performance), and Angels' leader threatened to kill Keith Richards if he stepped off the stage.
This was too much for many people, given that it had only been two months since the cover-up of Paul McCartney's death. Many people became disillusioned with rock music over the following months. Rock came to be associated with drug use, conspiracies to deceive, and moral decadence. This trend was accelerated by the drug-related deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Within twelve months, even the most well-known singers and groups in the genre were enjoying significantly fewer record sales. Rock as a genre was particularly hit hard in the American South and parts of the American Midwest, where in 1971 no singer or band's record sales were more than a third of what they were in 1969, and the number of radio stations that played rock dropped by 50% in 1970.
As record companies struggled to re-brand several bands with a "rock" sound, they came up with several new labels for the "rock" genre, including "punk", "new wave", and "metal". Many bands, such as Led Zeppelin, that would have been called "rock" ten years before were now called "punk" or "metal".
Bands such as Jefferson Airplane changed their names and added synthesizers to their music, to detach themselves from the stigma of being "rock" (translation- underground, criminal, trouble). Other bands- such as the Clash and the Sex Pistols- embraced this stigma and managed to make it 'cool', like many gangster rappers OTL.
In the eighties, what had formerly been known as "rock" had disintegrated into umpteen different genres. Bands such as the Police and Blondie mixed genres of music; other bands focused on one tiny wedge of "former rock" (such as Duran Duran, which focused on New Wave.) Still other bands, such as the Guns and Roses, called themselves "rock" and tried to appeal to rebellious teenagers that wanted to seem "criminal". Wearing lots of black and getting lots of piercings became associated with "rock" to most people.