The One-and-Only Billy Shears: An Interview with William Campbell on Sgt. Pepper

This interview was originally published in the May 2017 print edition of The Avocado and is now made available online for the first time.

The moment I walk in the door, he’s asking me how my drive over was in that famous Liverpudlian accent, but he stops himself midway through the first sentence. “Sorry,” he says, in a different voice. “You just do this for so long, you know, it’s hard to break character.”

His “real” accent is a curious blended stew of his native Ontario with a whisper of Southern twang acquired from the years spent in Athens, Georgia. But you can hear the Scouse coming through constantly, and it’s not always clear whether he’s having trouble “breaking character” or if this really is just how he pronounces these words after fifty years.

“I do think in, I suppose, ‘British English’ now,” he admits. “Biscuit, lift, lorry, all that. Funnily enough, of all the pitfalls involved in what we were doing, the lies and paying people off and the cosmetic surgery, the biggest thing Brian [Epstein, the Beatles’ manager] used to worry about is that I’d keep slipping into ‘American’ and give the whole thing away that way.”

We’re meeting today on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. His name is William Campbell, and beginning with Sgt. Pepper, he became The Man Who Would Be Paul McCartney.

AVOCADO: So The Beatles had already started recording Sgt. Pepper when Brian Epstein recruited you?

CAMPBELL: Well, you have to remember it wasn’t called Sgt. Pepper at that point. The idea for Sgt. Pepper wasn’t even there. The original intent that John and Paul had had was to write an album themed around their own childhoods, kind of going back to where it all began. That’s where “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” came from, of course; those were places in Liverpool they used to know.

So those two songs were already written and recorded by the time I came in. There was also “When I’m 64,” which is the only McCartney song on the album that isn’t me. It was an old song of his he decided to revive as part of the childhood idea. Paul had laid down a rough vocal that they built the, you know, the clarinets and all that around. But they had me re-record it. Maybe it was a test, I don’t know.

AVOCADO: Did you pass the test?

CAMPBELL: Well, the thing is, right, it was actually John’s idea to do the song. I think it was…well, you know his humor. I suppose he thought it was funny, in a way. His friend had written a joke song about what it would be like to be an old man, and it turns out he’d never even make it to 30. So to have me sing that…I think he got a weird kick out of it. But that was how he processed the pain, I suppose, and all the other surreal stuff going on with the situation, was to embrace the darkly funny side, at least as he saw it from a certain perspective.

AVOCADO: So John was on board with the switch pretty much right away?

CAMPBELL: Yeah, people assume he wasn’t. But when Brian would be talking to George and Ringo about it and trying to convince them that this was what they needed to do, John was always, “That’s right, Brian’s right.”

AVOCADO: Did George and Ringo need convincing?

CAMPBELL: I mean, they were all in a state of shock, and it’s a pretty ludicrous idea on the face of it.

AVOCADO: Imagining what the recording sessions must have been like…what did they actually call you? “William”? “Paul”?

CAMPBELL: At first they didn’t call me anything at all! [Laughs.] ‘Cause they didn’t know. It was, you know, “Hey.” Funnily enough, it was George who was the first one to call me “Paul.” It was a total accident. He was tuning his guitar, focusing on that, and absent-mindedly said, you know, “Paul, would you hand me this or that” or whatever it was. The tea. And we all just froze there, you know? I mean, George was the most skeptical of anyone about the idea. He liked it the least. But he still went along with it, of course.

AVOCADO: And then all of a sudden, you were writing songs as part of the greatest songwriting partnership of the 20th century like nothing had happened.

CAMPBELL: I mean, I was in shock too! But I had to pretend like I wasn’t, of course. The thing is, that was why Brian kept calling it such a miracle stroke of luck, finding not just someone who looked a lot like Paul and sounded like him and could play left-handed, but was also this, you know, not to be immodest, but this undiscovered songwriter.

Because Paul didn’t leave behind a lot of material, you know. That was the first assumption everyone makes, is that he had drawers and drawers with everything from Pepper and the White Album and Abbey Road and the singles for me to play and sing, but he didn’t. There were the hundreds of songs he and John had written as kids, but they couldn’t go back to those, and John couldn’t write a whole album at that point, and George was kind of preoccupied. So they asked me what I could contribute being supposedly this songwriter, and the first thing I offered was “Oh! Darling.”

AVOCADO: Really?

CAMPBELL: Oh yeah, I mean…it was a song I had written back before this whole thing, and I’d written it with Paul sort of on my mind, I suppose. But when I played it for the others, they thought it was a bit too old fashioned at that point in, you know, The Beatles’ musical progression, because it was. So instead, I went back and wrote “Getting Better” from scratch, which was me listening to “Penny Lane” and trying to do something along those lines, you know. That, they liked—I think it surprised them how much they liked it—and so John worked on the lyrics, helped out some.

AVOCADO: So was Pepper all new material you wrote or co-wrote with John?

CAMPBELL: It was a mix of new tunes and some older things I had written before in Athens. “Fixing a Hole,” that was one I had in my back pocket maybe a year or two, that I just changed a couple lyrics to. People assume that was some kind of a little joke or clue, looking back: me coming in to “fix” the “hole” in the Beatles. Honestly, it’s almost embarrassing, but it actually just was literally about Mary [Campbell, nee Smithers, William Campbell’s estranged first wife and father of William Jr.] bothering me to fix some hole in the roof of our house when I wasn’t in the mood and turning my grumbling over it into this song.

“Lovely Rita” was maybe half-written by that point; John and them, they didn’t know the word “meter maid” because they’re called “traffic wardens” in Britain. They thought it sounded a bit cheeky, you know, like a French maid or whatever, and I then sort of fleshed it out along those lines.

AVOCADO: “She’s Leaving Home”?

CAMPBELL: That was…I guess that had been a sort of fantasy when I was living with Mary and Junior in Athens. I suppose that doesn’t reflect well on me.

AVOCADO: So at what point did the Pepper concept actually come together?

CAMPBELL: Well, that was sort of a Brian notion, and you know, worked out with George Martin once he was let in on what had happened. The music had been getting more psychedelic and using more studio trickery anyway on Revolver, so on some level it was a progression from that. But the sort of idea of Pepper comes from wanting a bit of smoke and mirrors. The thing about wearing “musical costumes” and being a “different band,” so if I don’t sound exactly like Paul McCartney, you can wave it away saying, “Oh, well they’re  just trying something new.” And all the strange effects on the voice and instruments, it’s there to disguise things a bit. But then we leaned into that creatively.

And you know, literal costumes as well. There’s the mustache, just so if someone thought I didn’t look quite right, you could put it down to that, and the costumes, and the cover where we were quite small but there was a lot of other stuff to distract you.

AVOCADO: You’re facing backwards on the back cover.

CAMPBELL: Exactly! Exactly. You play it off as being cheeky, those wacky lads, but it really was, just, maybe don’t encourage people to look too closely. But then we ended up shooting that gatefold anyway, and it turned out just fine. They’d done excellent work, the doctors.

AVOCADO: You mentioned “clues” earlier. Fans have, of course, been picking up on those for decades. Were these intentional or coincidence, or—?

CAMPBELL:  Some of them were just made up and coincidences, or people hearing stuff that wasn’t there in the background. Maybe some of it was subconscious on our parts, or maybe the fans had picked up on the switch and it was affecting their subconscious? At any rate, it actually just is “cranberry sauce” John’s saying, you know.

AVOCADO: There’s the supposed “OPD” badge. [Campbell wears a badge in the Pepper photoshoot that says “OPP,” standing for Ontario Provincial Police.]

CAMPBELL: And they thought it was “Officially Pronounced Dead” but it wasn’t. Although that was an entirely different joke, me having been a cop and having come from Ontario. That was John’s idea. Again, dealing with grief through jokes. The big one that was actually intentional was “Billy Shears,” which means, “Billy’s here,” of course, although I hate being called Billy. But then the character of Billy is actually Ringo, so it doesn’t mean anything.

AVOCADO: Given the stakes of what you were doing, it’s hard to imagine Brian tolerating you and John leaving clues that could possibly undermine everything.

CAMPBELL: Well, those he didn’t even know about or catch. He was busy with, you know, paying people off and covering up and arranging a secret funeral and a million other large-scale concerns, he didn’t have time to pore over the lyrics sheets like the fans did or play tapes backwards.

But some of those things, you know, it’s not “clues,” it wasn’t a game we were playing, it’s just that you’re a songwriter and you draw from your life, and it just so happened that my life was particularly strange. [Laughs.] Later on, “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” was almost a full confession, but I walked it back and obscured it, and pretty soon even I didn’t know what it was about anymore.

AVOCADO: So Pepper is released and is immediately celebrated as a landmark achievement in rock music. And it’s in large part because of your contributions. How did that feel?

CAMPBELL: Extremely validating. [Laughs.] I mean how else could it have felt? I mean, to be perfectly honest, despite the unbelievably elevated stage I suddenly found myself on, I was confident in my abilities as a songwriter and a performer. All those dead-end years in Athens where I was haunted by this sense of being cheated by the way my life had turned out, that my potential had been smothered by my responsibilities. So to have this million-to-one—I mean, trillion-to-one, really—opportunity and take it? To put out a record with my songs and be told they’re brilliant? “Actually, you’re as good as you always thought you would be.”

AVOCADO: Do you feel now that it was dishonest to do it under the name “Paul McCartney”?

CAMPBELL: [Pause.] No.

AVOCADO: Can you explain why not?

CAMPBELL: I would ask… [Pause.] I would ask why I should feel it was dishonest. If you want to tell me it’s dishonest to play “Yesterday” or “Penny Lane” at my live shows, I mean…I would argue it’s tribute but I don’t think I’d ever convince you. Agree to disagree.

But Sgt. PepperI wrote those songs, with the exception of “When I’m 64.” Whatever my name is, if it’s William Campbell or Paul McCartney, that’s my work. Every Beatle album after that is my work, every album credited to “Paul McCartney” is my work.

And I’m not saying I’m better than Paul or that he wouldn’t have developed into a totally different songwriter and musician than I turned out to be. Maybe The Beatles would never have broken up if Paul had been there, but maybe they would have anyway. I was a fan, remember, of his Beatles songs, and I just happened to look like him and both of those contributed to how I got caught up in this scheme.

So if I come off as conceited or ungrateful, or disrespectful and a deadbeat dad for so many years or whatever you think of me…I’ll take that. I’ve been privileged with an amazing life. If that’s the price I pay now in the court of public opinion, I’ll pay it.