Picking up where I left off last week, two of my all-time favorite albums — works that also are considered among the best of all time — celebrated the 50th anniversary of their release late last month. The previous post covered the first of those out of the gate, The Band’s self-titled second LP, issued Sept. 22, 1969
Four days later, Abbey Road by the Beatles was released. As a big Fab Four fan from their American debut, I might have been eagerly anticipating another album from my favorites, but I didn’t have a very good stereo system, and wasn’t buying a lot of LPs then.
Radio Free Madison, the “underground” station on Wisconsin capitol city’s WIBA-FM, introduced me to a lot albums and artists, but didn’t debut until Halloween of ’69. In late September, I was still getting most of my new music from Top 40 AM radio; the lone single off Abbey Road, “Something/Come Together,” wasn’t issued until two weeks after the LP, so that might have been my first taste of this classic album.
But before I delve into the music of the last LP the Fab Four recorded (although not the last they released), there was something else Beatle-related that caught my attention at that time. And the Abbey Road album cover figured in the phenomenon — in fact, might have been the icing on the cake.
In September of ’69, I was working for a Madison custodial company, cleaning offices evenings (when I should have been studying). One night, I was talking music with a co-worker, when the Beatles came up. “You know, Paul McCartney is dead?” he said, or something to that effect, and then began to explain the reasoning behind that extraordinary claim.
As far as I can recall, that was my introduction to a conspiracy theory that was inspired, retroactively, by music, album art and other tidbits from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on. According to Uncle Wiki, the original rumor — that McCartney had been killed in a 1966 traffic accident — resurfaced in September ’69, originating on college campuses and spreading therefrom, and being picked up by entertainment media.
The “clues” included the introduction of Billy Shears — the name of Paul’s supposed replacement — in the opening cut of Sgt. Pepper’s (although Ringo Starr does the lead vocal on the song introduced). The album’s concluding cut, “A Day in the Life,” includes the line “He blew his mind out in a car,” interpreted as a reference to McCartney’s being decapitated in the alleged crash.
Then there was the album art from Magical Mystery Tour, which alluded to one cut from the LP, “I Am the Walrus.” That is supposedly referenced in the lines from “Glass Onion” on The Beatles (the “White Album”): “Now here’s a little clue for you all/the walrus was Paul” — a walrus somehow being a dead person, in some context.
Also off the White Album was “Revolution No. 9,” some of the lyrics of which, if played backward, allegedly said “Turn me on dead man.” (The following year, some friends and I modified an old turntable to play the cut in reverse. We concluded that it did indeed sound like that — but, I must admit, we were seriously under the influence at the time.)
The cherry on this snow cone/snow job was the Abbey Road front cover photo, which showed McCartney barefoot, in a dark suit — signifying he was the corpse, and the other three were members of the funeral party. The license plate on the VW Beetle — what a coincidence, that car make and model! — in the background is “28IF” — which the conspiracy theorists claimed represented what Paul’s age would have been “IF” he’d lived.
The hoax proved hard to put to rest, and continued to be regurgitated, analyzed and debunked for years. (And parodied, by Eric Idle of Monty Python and Jose Feliciano, of all people, under the alias Werbley Finster.) The publicity it generated also apparently helped the increase the sales of Abbey Road (and earlier Beatles albums) that fall; the album perched at No. 1 on the Billboard chart for 11 weeks in the U.S.
Again, too much to say for one blog post, so I will continue in a few days.