Turn Me On, Dead Man
On October 12, 1969, Russ Gibb (above), a local disc jockey for Detroit station WKNR-FM, opened the phone lines for callers. He received one from Eastern Michigan University student Tom Zarski, asking that he clarify a rumor that had spread across the campus like wildfire.
Gibb: Who do we have here? What’s your name?
Zarski: Uh, this is Tom on the line.
Gibb: Yeah, hello Tom. What’s going down? Have you got your radio on?
Zarski: Yeah, a little bit —
Gibb: Well, turn it down, man, ‘cause you’re giving us feedback.
Zarski: I was going to rap with you about McCartney being dead and what is this all about?
Gibb immediately recalled a previous false rumor regarding the supposed death of Bob Dylan two years earlier. He attempted to explain to Tom that rock stars like Beatle Paul McCartney were always rumored to have died secretly. Tom insisted that the DJ play the Beatles song “Revolution No. 9” backwards. Forward, a voice repeated the words “Number nine” over and over again. Played backwards, Gibb clearly heard the same voice utter, “Turn me on, dead man.”
Figure 1. “Revolution No. 9” excerpt, forward and backward.
Tom finally had Gibb’s attention. The two discussed the rumor at length. Subsequent callers began to point out other ‘clues’ that were apparent on other Beatles songs and artwork indicating that McCartney had died in 1966, and had been replaced by a double.
Unbeknownst to Gibb, the station management had been receiving calls from all over the place, as listeners phoned to friends in other towns about the rumor. One-by-one, other radio stations patched into the WKNR broadcast, until it saturated the entire US. After his shift, Gibb found out that he had just done a live, coast-to-coast broadcast.
Gibb wasn’t the first to publicize the rumor. Three days earlier, DJ Larry Monroe of Ann Arbor Station WOIA discussed the rumor on air, when callers began to alert him to it. Almost a month earlier, on September 17, 1969, Tim Harper, a Drake University (Iowa) student, reported the rumor in the campus newspaper, The Times-Delphic. Harper said he had heard it from his roommate, Dartanyan Brown, who had heard it from some unnamed musicians traveling through town between gigs.
Gibb’s callers only pointed out a few clues. University of Michigan student Fred LaBour came up with more a couple of days later when reviewing the Beatles’ latest release, the Abbey Road album, for his campus newspaper.
Other WKNR personalities followed through on the story during the next week. The station managed to contact Apple employee Derek Taylor, John Lennon and Yoko Ono for radio interviews. All three vehemently denied the allegation. Perhaps by then, however, it was too late for some to believe. Roby Yonge, a disc jockey for WABC (New York), the most listened to radio station in the US at the time, received a pink slip from station manager Rick Sklar during the middle of his broadcast for repeating the rumor. Younge’s firing seemed to hint of cover-up, and before long, a full-fledge conspiracy investigation had sprung up, with famed attorney F. Lee Bailey offering his services to find the truth.
McCartney, at the time living in seclusion on his farm in Scotland, hadn’t heard the rumor until approached by Life Magazine reporters a couple of weeks later. Paul took the news rather well, actually: he angrily threw a bucket of water on the journalists.
Realizing that one of them had taken a picture of the assault, and realizing the damage to his image, McCartney agreed to a full interview in exchange for suppression of the photograph. It appeared in the magazine’s November 7, 1969 issue (left), with McCartney, his wife and his kids adorning the cover.
That should have ended the rumor right then and there. But curiously, people were digging deeper and deeper into their record collections, and finding more clues. Consequently, McCartney has lived most of his life under the suspicion that he isn’t himself, but rather an imposter. The rumor acquired new legs in 1980, after his arrest in Tokyo for marijuana possession. According to some, his fingerprints didn’t match those on file for when the Beatles first played Japan in 1964. The rumor began anew in 1984 when a German court dismissed a paternity suit against McCartney after forensic evidence excluded him as the baby’s father. Said some, “Of course his blood didn’t match. After all, the man tested wasn’t Paul.” Currently, a number of Internet websites have introduced photographic, and computer-analyzed evidence to “prove” that the man who recorded under the name Paul McCartney in 1965 was not the man who recorded under that name in 1968.
Gibb correctly surmised that celebrity death rumors had little merit, for they happened all the time. But the Paul Is Dead (PID) rumor was a very unique one, its singularity easily demonstrated by comparing it to the Dylan Is Dead (DID) hoax of 1967. The DID hoax was based on very public information, namely extensive documentation and news coverage of Dylan’s near-fatal motorcycle accident. The PID rumor had no documentation. In the DID hoax, Bob simply died, and that was that. In the PID rumor, McCartney had been secretly replaced. Furthermore, there’s very specific information about who replaced him and why. What’s more, there are these abundant clues. Most important: Dylan refused to come out of seclusion until his injuries had healed. Yet once he re-emerged, the rumor ended. Not so with McCartney.
So one has to wonder why all the controversy over the putative death of a man so obviously and provably alive.