Well I Knew What I Could Not Say: An Interview with William Campbell on Abbey Road

“So what were the clues supposed to be?” William Campbell asks me, scanning the front cover of the new deluxe edition of the album. I feel pretty sure he already knows, but I play along and point out that he’s not wearing shoes and he’s out of step with the others, which is supposed to indicate that he’s the corpse in a symbolic funeral procession on that famous zebra crossing. (John in white is supposed to be the minister, Ringo in his suit is the undertaker, and denim-clad George represents the gravedigger.) Furthermore, the license plate on the parked car reads “28IF,” which allegedly indicates that Paul McCartney would have been 28 years old if he were still alive when the photo was taken (although, like Campbell, he would have actually only been 27 at the time), and he’s holding a cigarette in his right hand, which leftie Paul supposedly would not have done.

“Like all the ‘clues,'” Campbell insists, “none of them were anything we were doing, at least not consciously. The stakes were too high to be cute about it, you know. It’s the right conclusion, but arrived at the wrong way round.”

I’m hesitant to start off an interview by disagreeing with or even questioning a subject’s statement—even if said subject were not a living legend of rock ‘n’ roll—but I’m compelled to point out that in our last conversation, he did claim that “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window” was, at one point, a lyrical “confession” that he deliberately rewrote into near-incomprehensibility…except for the line about quitting the police department, which survived. (Campbell was, for several years before leaving his old life behind, a cop in Athens, Georgia.)

I think I see a cloud pass over his face, just for a moment, at being contradicted, but it passes and he offers a polite chuckle. “Never would have got away with that under Brian’s watch,” he jokes, referring to the Beatles’ former manager Brian Epstein, who died only about a year after conscripting Campbell to secretly replace the recently deceased McCartney early in the initial recording sessions for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

It’s a bright late-summer, early-autumn morning by the pool. The sunshine turns Campbell’s hair a luminous silver; he’s mostly stopped dyeing it as he’s begun to concede his age and his real name. It’s the 50th anniversary of the release of Abbey Road, and I’m talking with one of the four men who wrote and performed it, finally under his own name.

AVOCADO: Following the tense sessions for the White Album and Let It Be, was it your idea, as the official story has always gone, to ask George Martin to make a Beatles album under his firmer guidance as producer, as on Sgt. Pepper?

CAMPBELL: Yeah, that was me, a bit of an apology, really. The Get Back project—which is what we were still calling it then—had been more or less my idea, so I felt the responsibility to right the ship.

AVOCADO: So you took the lead on both the Get Back project and the Abbey Road album, as you had on the Magical Mystery Tour project not long after you joined the band. Were you comfortable assuming not only the role of Paul McCartney but also, very quickly, leadership of the Beatles?

CAMPBELL: It wasn’t intentional, it was never intentional. I wouldn’t say I was the leader, more of a…just the guy trying to get everybody moving. I would say…it would have been awfully presumptuous of me to take over leadership of the Beatles, but I suppose everything about what I was doing at that point was awfully presumptuous. [Laughs.] After Brian died, there was no roadmap for where to go next. All I ever tried to do was to keep the Beatles together. “Why don’t we try this? Why don’t we try that?” Because I loved the Beatles, you know?

AVOCADO: So Abbey Road was explicitly conceived of as a way to keep the Beatles together rather than being a sort of “final statement” from the group?

CAMPBELL: Well, I suppose I can’t say about the others, but I wasn’t trying to make a “last album”. It’s nice that we went out on a song called “The End” and all that, but if we’d broken up after the White Album, everyone would be saying how perfect it was that we went out on a song called “Good Night,” you know.

But no, I…didn’t want to give it up. Again, maybe it seems presumptuous, but try to see it from my side and remember that I left behind my whole life when they asked me to take over for Paul, and all of a sudden just a few years later it looked like the whole reason for that was slipping away. I didn’t know what would happen to…to me or to “Paul” if the Beatles dissolved. So I tried to keep the band going.

I know John thought I was undermining him; he’d always thought of himself as “the leader of the band,” y’know, as part of his identity. And to him it looked like, “Well, why’s the new guy calling the shots all of a sudden?” But it was only ever because he never had any ideas for what we should do next. I would’ve done anything he asked, if he’d had a direction for the band! He just never seemed like he could be bothered, so somebody had to carry on.

AVOCADO: Speaking of John, just before starting work on Abbey Road, you’d done “The Ballad of John & Yoko” as a two-man act. [George Harrison and Ringo Starr do not appear on the recording of that single; Lennon and Campbell provide all the music and vocals.] Did this help strengthen your relationship at all?

CAMPBELL: We were really getting along when we put down that song, you know, rocking out and laughing. But then it was him calling the shots and I was his sideman. Which, again, I was happy to be. But once work on the album started, and there were things I wanted to do, it was tense again.

AVOCADO: “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is notorious for being highly contentious to record.

CAMPBELL: Honestly, I thought John would enjoy that one. It’s a nasty bit of humor. George as well, you know, he’d written “Piggies,” which is pretty black humor, but he didn’t care for my go at it.

AVOCADO: And where was your relationship with George at, at that time?

CAMPBELL: Well, I mean, you see it in the film [the documentary Let It Be, noted for a scene in which Harrison, on camera, airs his grievance at being told by Campbell how to play a guitar part on a particular song]. Whatever I agree or disagree with how the director [Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who Campbell claims was unaware of Campbell’s true identity], you know, created a narrative with the footage, that bit’s about right.

And today, you know, I understand it. Absolutely I do. Even when Paul was alive, George had felt like the little brother to the Lennon-McCartney team, having to fight to get his one or two songs on the record. And then—I don’t mean to suggest George was glad that Paul died or that he saw it as an opportunity, God no, but you can see how he’d resent that it was still Paul up here [raises hand about head-high, level to the ground] and George down here [lowers hand several inches], even though Paul was me, the new guy. You know, Paul was George’s friend too. He never resented Paul, but he certainly resented me.

AVOCADO: Well, you can probably imagine what I’m going to ask next, but Ringo…?

CAMPBELL: I never really got on with Ringo, I’m afraid, when we were in the group. We had to sort of play up being mates all those years before my secret was out—especially after George passed, you know, and then it was just the two of us now keeping it alive. There’s no animosity or anything between us. Ringo’s a lovely guy, we chat, we’ve played on each other’s records. But you know, we just never got that bond. We worked together; that’s our relationship.

AVOCADO: To change gears a bit and talk about the songs themselves…

CAMPBELL: Whew! [Laughs.]

AVOCADO: Last time we spoke, you dropped the bombshell that “Oh! Darling” was actually a piece you had written as far back as 1966.

CAMPBELL: More like ’65, actually. Yeah, I came in to the group with that already in my pocket. I offered it for Pepper, but obviously it wouldn’t have fit that. Things were different by Abbey Road, it was okay to try something a little more “back to basics.” John once complained that “Oh! Darling” was more, you know, his kind of song and I should’ve let him sing it, but I actually wrote it with Paul in mind back in Athens when it was just a song to sing. I was a fan. I still am, you know.

AVOCADO: And then the medley on Side Two…

CAMPBELL: This is me trying to keep the Beatles together. It’s so completely transparent, I think. I mean, on some level it was just…me wanting to do something like Pepper again—not the sound of Pepper, but the idea of making a good record as, like, a piece of art, a cohesive whole. But it’s really clear to me now that this was me saying, “Look how much stronger we are together!” George Martin, I think, had the same goal.

AVOCADO: What were his thoughts on replacing Paul?

CAMPBELL: George and I got on very well because we both had the same ambitions on how to make Beatle records. I think that’s what we both wanted more than anything, is to make more Beatle records, and to push what was possible with them.

AVOCADO: What about on the personal level?

CAMPBELL: George…you know, he looked the other way on so much in the Beatles’ early days before I got there—the drugs, the naughty little jokes they’d put into the songs—I sort of think his coping mechanism was to do the same with this. Sort of divorce himself from the idea. “Oh, the lads are just up to more of their shenanigans.” After he got over the initial shock—certainly by the time we’re making Abbey Road—he’d never say or do anything that indicated he thought of me as anyone but Paul McCartney. He went the rest of his life, I think, half-expecting me to admit at some point that it had all been a prank we’d pulled on him and I’ve been the real Paul the whole time.

AVOCADO: Getting back to “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” do you have the original “confessional” lyrics still?

CAMPBELL: No. I didn’t tend to hang on to much that would be incriminating.

AVOCADO: And yet the line about quitting the police department…

CAMPBELL: Well…maybe it was allowing myself that one bit of acknowledgement. Very unlike me, though, unlike any of us, no matter how bad blood there ever ways at any point between anyone. You know, John used to swear up and down he never told Yoko.

AVOCADO: Did you believe him?

CAMPBELL: I mean, even—not the last time I saw him, but the second-last time I saw him—John told me, “Just so you know, your secret’s still safe from the wife,” meaning Yoko. In a jocular sort of way, you know, but also sincere underneath. He’d made a promise to Brian, and he took it very seriously, John did, even when he was mad at me.

AVOCADO: So as far as you know, Yoko found out when everyone else did?

CAMPBELL: No, I’d told her by then—long before then. After John died, you know, I felt I couldn’t keep up the pretense after that, couldn’t try to console her in her grief by…pretending I had all these memories of him from childhood when I didn’t.

AVOCADO: How did she react, when you told her? That is, did she seem like she already knew, or—

CAMPBELL: I don’t know! She said she didn’t, and she still maintains she didn’t know until I told her, but she didn’t seem all that shocked when I came out with it. I mean, I find it hard to believe, but I don’t know.

I mean, I told Linda [McCartney, nee Eastman, Campbell’s second wife and “McCartney’s” first]. Pretty much the moment that we became serious, early in the relationship, that first night. That was very dangerous, but I had to, you know, I felt I had to be completely honest in that moment, that’s how strongly I knew I felt about her. Maybe that’s why I left in the police department line; maybe it was for Linda. Or maybe a way for me to tell myself, “No matter what happens with the Beatles, Linda is more important even than that, and I’ll prove it with a risky line.”

Now I wish John had told Yoko. I don’t like that he felt—we felt—he couldn’t share that with her. That’s…on my conscience.

AVOCADO: Is the burden of keeping this secret in general what “Carry That Weight” refers to, or am I leaping to an overly obvious connection that isn’t there?

CAMPBELL: Yes, it probably is as easy as that. John did the whole primal scream thing on [Lennon’s 1970 solo album] Plastic Ono Band; this was mine, of a sort.

AVOCADO: And then “The End” is the sort of apex of that idea of trying to demonstrate that you’re stronger together? Each of you taking a solo, including Ringo, and then coming together at the close.

CAMPBELL: Yeah, I suppose.

AVOCADO: Was it a warning? “This could be…the end!

CAMPBELL: No, I mean, if it was, it wasn’t conscious. Besides, that sort of vague threat is more the sort of thing Paul would write. You know, “There’s a chance that we might fall apart before too long” [in “We Can Work It Out”] or “You Won’t See Me.”

“The End,” ending on that lovely sentiment about the love you take being equal to the love you make, I mean it’s nice, but that was just me saying “The End” to the album, the way you would at the end of a book and leave it on a clever last line.

AVOCADO: With “Her Majesty” to deflate it.

CAMPBELL: Yeah. [Pause.] I don’t have an insightful anecdote about that one. They’re not all clues, like I said.

AVOCADO: Going back a bit in the tracklisting, then, “You Never Give Me Your Money” is famously about financial disagreements with the rest of the group at that time, with the others wanting Allen Klein to represent the group as business manager, and you wanting to go with John Eastman.

CAMPBELL: Oh, I know people hate hearing rock stars talking about money. It’s balanced out with reminding myself of how good I’d actually got it. “One sweet dream, pick up your bags and get in the limousine,” well, I’d done that. “One sweet dream came true.”

AVOCADO: The Klein-Apple conflict, though, is pointed to as one of the main drivers in breaking up the Beatles. Is that true as reported, or is there more to it involving your replacement of Paul?

CAMPBELL: No, Klein didn’t know. John Eastman either, Linda didn’t reveal it to him, so all the legal stuff was just assuming that I was Paul McCartney. That part of the story matches everything you’ve read in the Beatle books.

AVOCADO: So maybe not directly, then, but, if Paul had still been alive, do you think that same disagreement would have happened?

CAMPBELL: Well, it probably wouldn’t be over John Eastman, obviously. But, I know what you’re getting at. Mick Jagger famously called the Beatles with Paul a “four-headed monster” because of how they sort of marched in lockstep together. I was pulled in—and remember, it’s not like this crazy thing was my idea, they sought me out—but I was pulled in and they could never be in lockstep again. It—it would never be quite the same. And that’s maybe what the Klein situation was really about. If Paul had been in that situation, maybe he would’ve sided with them, maybe he wouldn’t. But the fact that it was me making this stand, I think, really reminded them that I wasn’t really part of the four-headed monster, no matter how committed we were to the story and how rarely we tried to mention it even when we were alone.

AVOCADO: So, I have to ask: Do you think the Beatles would have stayed together if Paul had survived?

CAMPBELL: I can’t even answer that. Don’t think I haven’t asked myself that countless times over the past fifty years, and I’m not closer to having an answer now than I was then, and I never will be. His…personality or his history with the others versus mine wouldn’t have mattered because it’s a butterfly effect thing, and him dying and me stepping into his life, you know, that’s a pretty damn big butterfly wing flapping! Because it…well, it changed everything, didn’t it, me being there? He wrote “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Yesterday,” but I wrote “Blackbird” and “Hey Jude,” and everything else after the Beatles broke up. That’s 100 percent me, William Harold Campbell, not the Paul McCartney who met John Lennon and George Harrison and Ringo Starr and went on tour for years and made movies. I mean, those four guys, that bond…how else do you explain what happened?

Great Boos Up is a freelance writer from Wisconsin who contributes to The Avocado.