The rumor that he was dead actually started in 1966, when college kids heard that he’d been killed in car a crash and replaced by a look-alike. This led to conspiracy theorists poring over all the Beatles cover art and songs for clues, and they found lots of them: there are five suspicious messages on the front cover of Sgt. Peppers alone, and a big one on the back – Paul standing backwards. There are the “audio hints” in songs, whether you play Strawberry Fields forwards or Revolution #9 backwards. And here’s another clue for you all: the Walrus is Paul.
But the most obvious evidence of Paul’s demise is found right on the cover of the very last album the Beatles recorded (though it was released before Let It Be.) When Beatles fans ran to the record store in September 1969, they picked up an album with no front title, and featuring a funeral procession. Can’t you see it? As the band crosses Abbey Road, John is the Eastern-style spiritual leader in white, Ringo follows as the congregation in black, the Paul look-alike (holding a cigarette in his right hand, hmmm) is the barefoot corpse, and gravedigger George brings up the rear dressed in denim. And look! The VW on the left has the license plate LMW 28IF, which clearly means “Linda McCartney Weeps, Paul would be 28 IF he were still alive.”
Well, the fact is, in September of 1969, Paul was 27 – so much for that. The working title of the album was “Everest,” and the original idea for the art was to shoot it in Nepal. But that was a long way to go, so at the last minute Paul sketched an idea for the cover. The band went outside, and while a policeman held up traffic, photographer Ian McMillan hopped up on a stepladder, and took just six shots of the band crossing the street. Take number five made the cover.
Paul claims his shoes didn’t fit, so he just took them off. George was not partial to suits, so he wore denim instead of the Tommy Nutter designer threads the other three are wearing. The VW just happened to be sitting there, and the poor owner was later tormented by a series of thefts of the license plate by Beatlemaniacs. And the other folks in the shot – the three pedestrians at back-left are decorators returning to the studio from a lunch break; the man at right is an American tourist named Paul Cook – all attest that the shoot took just a minute or two.
What is true about the album is that it was a huge initial success: it sat at the top of the charts for 17 weeks, and its single – “Something” backed by “Come Together” – is the band’s second-biggest hit, behind only “Hey Jude.”
But if fans looked closer, they may have detected trouble brewing. The band reportedly enjoyed playing together on some of the sessions – at least to a greater degree than the misery of crafting the White Album – but problems were festering. John wanted to have all of his songs on one side, Paul’s on the other, but then what to do with George’s two compositions? Paul was also writing like a fiend, so what to do with all his output? Out of this discord came a tactical compromise: a flip-side mishmash medley that ironically resulted in some of the band’s most iconic musical moments, including Ringo’s only recorded drum solo, and a ridiculous 18-bar, John/Paul/George 3-guitar attack extravaganza.
It was sonic genius, but it also hid a secret that would be revealed in less than a year: Paul was still alive, but the Beatles were dead.
Fans who were really paying attention may have seen it coming. Indeed, the lasting symbol of the Abbey Road album – released 50 years ago – isn’t that front cover photograph. It’s hiding in plain sight, on the back.
On a simple brick wall framed by the swipe of a blue mini-dress are two embedded street signs. The lower one, “Abbey Road” went on to become a world-famous phrase that signifies an album, a street, a moment in time, and even the studio where the music was recorded (“EMI Studios” was renamed in its honor).
But the upper street sign says, simply, “Beatles.”
And running right through the last letter of that word, right through the S that makes a singular a plural, is a large crack.