The other day on my walk, the iPod served up “Jet,” one of the hits from Paul McCartney’s classic Band on the Run album.

The image from the DVD of Rockshow. Serious mulletage.

The image from the DVD of Rockshow. Serious mulletage.

Ah, Macca! Or, “Mr. Thumbs Aloft,” as the British music magazine Q liked to call him, because of his propensity to flash the old thumbs-up. People know him today as a great songwriter, singer, and bassist, and one of the original members of the band Wings. I’m not sure, though, how many people recall that back in the 1970s Macca was not only writing great songs like “Mull of Kintyre” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” but he was also rocking one of the western world’s finest mullets. I was forcibly reminded of this one night recently when, unable to sleep, I went channel surfing and came across Rockshow, the film made during McCartney’s 1976 American tour. There was Paul in all his be-mulleted majesty, with short bangs and long hair cascading down his neck.

According to Wikipedia (and when researching the history of the mullet, I see no reason to investigate any further), “The mullet is a hairstyle that is short at the front and sides and long in the back.” It was popular in the 1970s, although the name, surprisingly enough, didn’t originate until the Beastie Boys coined it in the 1990s. Go figure. Today the mullet is almost universally derided as one of the ugliest hair styles in recorded history, the kind of thing relegated to trailer parks and Billy Ray Cyrus videos. So why did Paul McCartney allow something like that on his head?

Well, documents from Britain that recently went public tell at least part of the story. And it’s quite a tale, too, with one of the great surprises—even bigger than the role of the Beastie Boys—the importance of the mullet in Cold War history.

People today might have forgotten the seismic shock that radiated around the world when a band from Liverpool called the Beatles exploded onto the scene with their catchy songs, high energy, insouciant wit and—most of all—their hair. Inspired, it was said, by a chance encounter George Harrison had with Moe Howard at a holiday camp in Wales, the Beatles’ haircuts made as big a splash as their music. At the time, when the buzz cut was still very much in style in the United States, people thought the Beatles’ hair was freakishly long. Wags compared the cut to the business end of a floor cleaner, and dubbed the hirsute Liverpudlians “mop tops.” Despite the scoffers, the haircuts created a sensation. People actually paid good money for Beatle wigs. More radical folks tried growing their own hair. As a result, scores of American barber shops went out of business, leading to encampments of well-groomed “barber hobos” across the country. More importantly, the Beatle cut sparked a youth revolution that led to drug use, anti-war protests, Peter Max, and the Banana Splits. The effects even radiated into the Soviet Union, causing an upsurge in youth unrest and a statistically significant increase in hair length among young Russian men.

This did not go unnoticed by British intelligence.

Cut to the mid-1970s. The moribund Soviet Union was showing unmistakable signs of decay. Leonid Brezhnev and his cadre had become ossified. Soviet technology was falling further and further behind the west. The Soviet people were becoming increasingly disaffected. Perhaps, with just the right push, the West could put even more cracks into an already fragile social and political infrastructure.

According to the reports made public by WikiLeaks last month, sometime in the mid-70s the finest heads in British intelligence (most of them, admittedly, bald) gathered to seek opportunities to attack the Soviet Union’s foundations. They all knew the huge social impact the Beatle haircuts had made in the 1960s. Perhaps, the boffins mused, they could create a similar effect on Soviet youth a decade later. The scientists put their heads together and came up with an idea. Someone scrawled it down on a handy cocktail napkin. The crude sketch, as it appears in the WikiLeaks documents, depicts a vaguely human head with straight bangs across the eyes, short hair on sides, and long cascades falling below the neck. As hairstyles go, it was something new, unique, and possibly even revolutionary.

The napkin sketch made by members of British intelligence.

The napkin sketch made by members of British intelligence.

Enter Paul McCartney. At some point members of the British government summoned Paul to a top-secret meeting. Much of the minutes from that encounter have been redacted, but enough remains to allow investigators to piece things together.

“We would like you to do something for Great Britain,” one member of MI6 told a reluctant McCartney.

“There are risks,” said another. “If you agree to this mission, I think it’s quite possible that no one will ever refer to you as ‘the cute one’ again.”

“That’s a risk I can take,” replied McCartney, with insouciance.

They showed him the napkin. “Would you be willing to wear this hair style? For Queen and country?”

“Well, Her Majesty is a pretty nice girl . . .” McCartney began.

“But she doesn’t have a lot to say in this matter,” the scientists said. “Deniability and all that rot.”

“Pip, pip! Talley-ho!” added another.

“Lord luv a duck, guv!” interjected a third. “Blimey!”

In the end, McCartney’s answer was obviously yeah, yeah, yeah, and he was dispatched to an underground lab for a high-tech makeover. Rolls Royce manufactured special shears (code-name “Billy”) from the same materials used to make jet-engine turbine blades. Utilizing the latest wind tunnel technology, a crack team of British scientists and one London dog groomer fashioned the finest mullet to ever grace a rock and roll stage.

The effects began reverberating inside the Soviet Union within weeks. Keep in mind that McCartney was an international celebrity and his mullet could cross international borders as easily as though it were stashed away in a diplomatic pouch. No one suspected its power, the way its very existence was radiating cracks through the Soviet hegemony. As the mullet effect spread, the KGB arrested hundreds and then thousands of young Russian men and had their hair forcibly cut. Protests began to spread across the Soviet Union. Something had to be done.

Before long the Russians were trying to concoct their own counter strategy. Details remain sketchy, but evidence indicates the Soviets set up a research facility in Kazakhstan. As cover, it operated as a hair salon with a name that loosely translated as “Curl Up and Dye, Imperialist Stooges.” What happened next remains a matter of conjecture. Sometime around April 17, 1976, a mysterious explosion seems to have leveled the entire laboratory. Satellite photos showed only a blackened hole where the “salon” had once stood. Researchers speculate that something went horribly wrong as the Soviet technicians attempted to fashion their own mullet with only the inadequate tools they had at their disposal. The dead may number in the hundreds; the smell of burnt hair lingered for weeks.

Satllite image

Satellite imagery showing the damage caused by the explosion at the Soviet “hair salon.”

We all know what happened later: Gorbachev, Perestroika, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War.

Since then, Paul McCartney has received a knighthood. He is Sir Paul McCartney now, and his famous locks, long de-mulleted, remain suspiciously free of gray, even though their bearer is now 72. What’s going on there? No one will say for sure, but some have speculated about a connection between McCartney’s preternaturally dark hair and falling oil prices. Others think there are links to Cuba. A few point fingers at Just for Men. Obviously, the full story has yet to be told.

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