How Paul McCartney Dispelled the Myth of His Own Death
Allan Kozinn and Adrian Sinclair on One Beatle’s Reaction to the Band’s Impending Breakup
It was a bad move, probably the worst thing he could have done at the moment. Paul McCartney, the most publicity-savvy of the Beatles, knew that the instant he hurled a bucket of kitchen scraps at a pair of unwanted visitors to High Park, his hard-to-find, harder-to-reach farm in the Scottish countryside, near Campbeltown.
As the vegetable scraps, dirty water, and dinner leftovers flew through the air, Paul focused on his targets and realized that he knew one of the intruders. Terence Spencer, a photographer best known for his war coverage, had shot the Beatles periodically, starting in 1963.
Now on assignment for Life magazine, which had chosen him because of his relationship with the Beatles, Spencer was tagging along with Dorothy Bacon, who had been assigned to track down McCartney and get his response to a rumor sweeping the globe, to the effect that the doe-eyed bassist, singer and songwriter had been killed in an automobile accident in 1966, and that the Beatles, having suppressed word of his death, filled their post-1966 recordings with “clues” pointing to the truth.
Bacon had tried telephoning McCartney from London, with no luck, before driving to Scotland with Spencer. They arrived on Saturday, November 1, 1969, but their first attempt to reach High Park was fruitless. To get there, they had to cross the neighboring Low Park farm, whose owner, Ian McDougall, had agreed to prevent fans and reporters from reaching Paul’s highland sanctuary.
McDougall sent them packing, but later that afternoon, as they sat in a Campbeltown pub weighing their options, Spencer and Bacon overheard one of the locals tell another he would see him in church the next morning, and they realized that McDougall would likely be in church, too, leaving the way to High Park unguarded. So on Sunday at about 11:00 am, they tried again.
“Parking our hired car on the small road we started walking,” Spencer wrote of the encounter. “We trekked over the hills, through bogs and waded across fast-flowing streams, arriving at the lonely farmhouse as unshaven Paul walked out of the front door carrying a slop pail. He took a startled look in our direction and the angel face distorted in creases of rage as he slung abuse at us. I had preset my camera and, when he turned to re-enter the house, I took a quick shot, knowing it would be my last. He heard the click, turned, and threw the slop pail at me. I took another shot of it in mid-air or rather tried to, since at the moment he charged me with flailing fists, and I was hit for the first time in twenty years of covering trouble around the world—by a Beatle!”
Paul may have felt that his response was justified, if perhaps over the top. But it was also inconsistent. Nine days earlier, on October 24, he had granted an interview to Chris Drake, of the BBC, and it was probably Drake’s report, broadcast the same afternoon on the topical news show The World, that put Bacon and Spencer onto Paul’s whereabouts.
Where the Life team turned up unannounced, Drake had telephoned Paul and secured an invitation, arguing that the best way to short-circuit the rumor was to be heard robustly denying it, his voice recognizable to virtually anyone listening.
Paul gave Drake a brief but wide-ranging interview in which he asserted his continued existence and discussed a few of the clues that conspiracy theorists advanced. He added that he enjoyed being in Scotland with his family, and that since he was finished with his work as a Beatle for the year, he might not return to London until March.
“I always used to do, sort of, an interview a week almost, for a newspaper, or for something, just to keep my name in the headlines,” Paul explained, “because, I don’t know, you just go through a phase of wanting to be up there in the limelight. But I’m going through a phase now where I don’t wanna be in the limelight.”
Now he wanted what he came to Scotland for—peace and quiet, time to think. Paul had flown to Scotland on October 22 with his wife of just over seven months, Linda Eastman McCartney, their two-month-old daughter, Mary, and Heather, Linda’s daughter from her first marriage (whom Paul adopted shortly after marrying Linda), hoping to get away from reporters and photographers, the other Beatles, and the staff at Apple, the Beatles’ supposedly utopian company. Over the past year, Apple had been transformed into a spider’s web of machinations, negotiations, and emotionally fraught battles with the other Beatles.
Looking back over the last 12 months, the Beatles seemed almost bipolar to Paul. They had released The Beatles, the eponymous double-LP better known as the White Album and had recorded two more albums and a couple of singles. During this same period, though, they had engaged the American businessman Allen Klein to manage them, and Apple, over Paul’s vehement objections, and instead of Paul’s choice, the upscale New York lawyers—and, not incidentally, his father- and brother-in-law—Lee and John Eastman.
Klein had negotiated a substantially improved contract with EMI and Capitol Records, but thanks to squabbling between Klein and the Eastmans, and the Beatles themselves, they had lost bids to acquire Northern Songs, their music publisher, and NEMS, the management firm founded by their late manager, Brian Epstein.
Getting control of Northern Songs and NEMS would have been financially significant for the Beatles: in both cases, percentages of their composing royalties and record sale income that were paid to others would instead remain in their pockets.What he and only a few others knew was that the Beatles were finished.
But all that paled beside their main source of pain for Paul. What he and only a few others knew was that the Beatles were finished—or at least, that was John Lennon’s seemingly implacable view, and since unlike most bands, who could replace a member and carry on, the Beatles could only be those four guys. The death rumors were proof of that: inherent in it was the belief that instead of trying to carry on without their supposedly departed bassist, they had drafted a look-alike to preserve the impression that all was well.
Paul was in Scotland to tend to the psychic wounds that those battles left. So far, that tending took the form of anesthetizing himself with whisky and marijuana, which meant that the other major task at hand—sorting out his next chapter—was on hold. His funk was understandable: he had been a Beatle his entire adult life and being a part of that globe-striding phenomenon—the biggest, most beloved stars of the musical world—was not like holding a normal job. So the band’s disintegration over the past year, and now its apparent collapse, felt like the earth evaporating under his feet.
Given the venom flowing through the corridors of Apple over the past year, he couldn’t say he was surprised. And yet, Abbey Road, released on September 26, 1969, showed the Beatles at the height of their powers, sounding as together as a band could sound. There were those rich vocal harmonies on John’s “Because” and “Sun King,” and the symphonic heft of the “The End,” with its three-way exchange of guitar solos, and its charismatic drum break—both firsts for the Beatles on disc. And there was that exquisitely harmonized, philosophical finale: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” This was not the sound of a group on the verge of breaking up.
But that sound was a performance—an illusion. When the red recording light was on, the Beatles’ musical connection was magical. That much they all admitted, even at their angriest. But outside the studio, Paul’s relationships with John Lennon and George Harrison had frayed, especially when the future of the Beatles and Apple were discussed. There had even been a tense encounter between Paul and Ringo Starr, with whom everyone got along.
And then, on September 16, ten days before the album’s British release, John announced that he was leaving the Beatles. “THE END,” Paul declared in his diary—the two words, written in large, ballooning letters and flanking an Apple motif—before a scheduled dinner date with talent manager and friend Justin de Villeneuve, and his model girlfriend Twiggy Lawson.
John had been saying things like that all through the year, and until now, everyone thought he was just being John—provocative and happy to shock. They had all walked out at one point or another. Ringo quit in frustration during the sessions for the White Album, in 1968, but was coaxed back. George quit in January, during the sessions for a television special and album, provisionally titled Get Back. He also returned, but only after John and Paul agreed to redress several festering grievances. And though Paul never actually quit, he had walked out on sessions in fits of pique on a few occasions.
But this was different. John was, more than ever, a wild card, someone who did as he wanted— and what he wanted, now, didn’t involve his old friends from Liverpool. A keen observer of John and his moods in the 12 years they had known each other, Paul knew it was possible that John might change his mind again, and he held on to that for a while, as did the others. But John seemed to mean it this time; in fact, he seemed energized by his decision. All four agreed to say nothing publicly for a few months, until a lucrative new contract with EMI was ratified.
Having hightailed it to Scotland to get away from all that, the last thing Paul needed was a reporter quizzing him about the Beatles’ business issues or their future plans. He was even less interested in discussing the idiotic “Paul is dead” rumor—although the rumor’s upside was that it distracted reporters from getting to the real news.
This combination of circumstances taxed Paul’s long-standing ability to project an image of friendliness and accessibility. Though the others had soured on the scrutiny that the Beatles’ fame had brought them, Paul had always been comfortable with it. Under better circumstances, he took a different view of the Beatles’ fame.
“It’s what we wanted, for Christ’s sake,” said McCartney. “We came from Liverpool. We wanted to get out of Liverpool, number one—get out of the sticks, as we then perceived it. Get where the action is. Get famous. Get rich. And when that happens to you, it’s very difficult to turn ’round and say, ‘No, that’s not what I meant.’ We wanted to become legends. If you could get everything without the sort of overkill of the legend, maybe it would be better, but you kind of have to accept it as it’s squeezed out of the tube.He knew that no matter what he was going through, this was not the Paul McCartney that he wanted the public to see.
“If you were that good, as the Beatles were, and if you were that interesting, as the combination of our four talents was, if you were that diverse—Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Starkey* —and if you had the chemistry we had, you’ve got to expect to be picked over. I don’t see too many bad sides to it. It certainly is what I set out to achieve. So having achieved it, I think it would be churlish to say, ‘Oh, I don’t want it.’”
This public, gregarious side of Paul reasserted itself within seconds of hurling his bucket of kitchen slop at Spencer.
“They went away, and I thought, ‘They’ve got a picture of me throwing a bucket; this is not what I want in my life,’” explained McCartney.
He knew instantly how he would look if Spencer’s photographs were published. Unshaven. Unkempt. Angry. Hungover. Maybe even a bit unhinged. And he knew that no matter what he was going through, this was not the Paul McCartney that he wanted the public to see.
He watched Spencer and Bacon hoof it toward the property line for a moment, then hopped into “Helen Wheels,” his light blue Land Rover and caught up with them. By way of apology, he explained to the now wary Spencer and Bacon that he had come to Scotland for necessary and long overdue private time, to which, he was sure they’d agree, he was entitled. But he could offer a deal: Bacon could have a brief interview, and since Paul was not up for a photo session just then, he promised to provide Life with some family shots taken by Linda. In exchange, Spencer would hand over the compromising exposures in his camera.
Spencer surrendered his film, with its shots of an enraged Paul and a flying bucket. Bacon got her interview. And within a few days, a package of Linda’s photographs arrived at Life’s New York headquarters.
Excerpted from The McCartney Legacy: Volume 1: 1969 – 73 by Allan Kozinn and Adrian Sinclair. Copyright © 2022. Available from Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.