Magical Mystery Tour

It’s Easy! All You Need is Love 🙂

Magical Mystery Tour, like Let It Be, exists as a cultural artefact that was under-prepared, it was rushed. In the Beatles canon their best work was nearly always properly prepped; Revolver, Pepper, White Album, Abbey Road. Mystery was a TV film made by four musicians, with a little help from their friends, who were inspired by the chaos and creativity that was going on around them in 1967, not least in the emerging psychedelic underground. What it does do really well, much better than Let It Be, is to capture the spirit of its time and, yet again, provide another cultural breakthrough. So roll up, roll up to this surreal slice of English holiday nostalgia inspired by The Goons, come with me on a fantastic cheery summer of love trip; Magical Mystery Tour;

The Beatles had stopped touring after their world tour in summer 1966 when governments (Philippines), the media (Chicago) and individuals (the Bible Belt) made it dangerous to be a Beatle; “thank God I’m not a Beatle any more” commented George after their last concert in San Franciso. They spent most of the following year in the studio perfecting the sound of Sgt. Peppers, alter-egos they assumed in order to cope with their ridiculous fame so that they could continue to be creative as musicians; the essence of being John, Paul, George and Ringo. The absence of live shows to publicise their music was the first consequence of their unprecedented decision to continue recording whilst not playing live. They needed to make promotional films instead. The first song they recorded as studio musicians was Strawberry Fields, and the ‘experimental’ promo film made for it in Knole Park in Sevenoaks, Kent could have slotted right into Magical Mystery Tour. Here is The Beatles first slice of psychedelic nostalgia Strawberry Fields Forever;

It wasnt just Lennon experimenting with Mellotrons and complex musical recording technniques. McCartney lived in central London with the musical Asher family and had a little music room, where he played the first version of I Wanna Hold Your Hand to Peter Asher, and collected tape recorders. Asher took McCartney to hang out on the underground scene in central London, such as the Indica gallery, and Paul was asked to produce some music for The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave which he did on January 5th 1967. In April Lennon would visit a similar happening, a key part of the London scene in 1967, the legendary 14-hour Technicolor Dream at Ally Pally. In the BBC 2 Arena documentary on Magical Mystery Tour Peter ‘I know what it’s like to be dead‘ Fonda – who would go on to direct Easy Rider – comments “we had our own music, poetry, happenings but we didn’t have our own films” Predating Lennon’s own tape-driven mashup Number 9 by 16 months this is McCartney’s experimental sonic happening Carnival of Light;

The early months of 1967, of course, saw the Beatles mostly working on the Sgt Pepper’s album. That was an official release with EMI backing, a complex multicoloured record sleeve to be prepared, along with huge interest from the media into what exactly they were up to. But the Beatles were inveterate creative musicians who loved making music, it was the business side that caused the frictions. When recording for the official EMI release finished The Beatles continued coming to Abbey Road Studio jamming on several tracks to get their playing chops back. One unreleased track went on for several hours as a jam. If they weren’t allowed to play in Abbey Road they headed off to De Lane Lea, Olympic or Trident studios, they just wanted to play & create. First up, from De Lane Lea, in May 1967 was George’s magnificent rock epic It’s All Too Much;

Sgt Peppers was released on June 1st and Rolling Stone journalist Langdon Winner, called it a decisive moment in Western civilisation. Well, at the very least, it was top of the album charts for the next 6 months and remained in the UK charts for the next 5 years; it was even bigger in the USA. It certainly seemed to offer a multi-coloured template for a new way of thinking, and laid the foundations for the rock music album to be regarded as a lavish cultural artefact in which every element mattered; music, lyrics, design, colour, clothes, toys. The moptops from the early sixties now seem to be occupying several time zones at once. The ever busy Beatles meanwhile were also prepping their next recording for June 25th, “there’s nothing you can do that can’t be done” the first global TV programme Our World All You Need Is Love;

It’s Easy! All You Need Is Love; sung live on the first global TV programme it went on to become the first hit single recorded in 7/8 time. Of course you can jump on a bus and make a film; there’s nothing you can make that can’t be made. However, as Geoff Emerick says in Here, There & Everywhere “the Beatles were a little too confident about their abilities at that point in time” The Beatles had already been experimenting with songs that sounded more like sound tracks than Beatles records, including one that McCartney claims as his favourite Beatles recording, and which would have been perfect in Magical Mystery Tour, from May 1967 You Know My Name (Look Up The Number);

Geoff Emerick thought that jamming was how they sought inspiration once they began working solely as studio musicians. EMI hated The Beatles jamming and, during Sgt Pepper, started a long-term war of attrition with the Beatles that ultimately ended up with Emerick being hired by McCartney to build a state of the art studio for Apple in 1969. With George Martin now a free-lance producer for his own AIR company he could no longer guarantee The Beatles a studio, so they ended up using the tiny Studio 3 a lot, or moving to one of the new, hip studios where, unlike at EMI, they were respected as musicians, not treated as interlopers. One of those Jams turned into Flying and was used in Magical Mystery Tour. Sounding like something from George Harrison’s soon come electronic Zapple album or Wonderwall, here is the long version of Flying;

The Monterey Pop Festival, the first Rock Festival, was held on June 16-18 1967 and McCartney was on the organising committee; McCartney recommended The Who & The Jimi Hendrix Experience, which became their breakthrough performances. Flying back from a meeting on April 11th he envisioned the cosmic circle that represented the Magical Mystery Tour script. He flew to the concert after the launch of Pepper and saw the festival magically come together despite the almost chaotic organisation. DA Pennebaker filmed the entire rock festival on the fly by using new 16mm film cameras & Wally Heider’s mobile sound recording truck. It’s Easy! Plus both British artists were in full auto-destruct art-school mode and went over a storm. If you’re going to San Francisco may as well steal some new ideas from My Generation;

You are either on the Bus or off the Bus; was a key phrase at the time, used to describe the growing generation gap; it derived from Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and their Magic Bus Further! (also honoured by The Who – and Dick Palmer). The Beatles had a contract with Universal studios for 3 films and they still owed them 1 having only completed Hard Days Night and Help. They were not interested in the cartoon Yellow Submarine, which was in production and would be rejected by Universal, because they felt that in HELP! they were “extras in our own movie“. To them this was another movie in which the real Beatles would just be extras. They were unhappy with some of the deals Epstein had made and disliked being followed by cartoonists capturing their mannerisms whilst they were recording in their inviolate studio. Emerick commented that when Martin was out of the studio The Beatles behaved differently, quite joyously as Yellow Submarine the song showed. This heady freedom was repeated on another new song, also finished before the release of Pepper which, perhaps, became their operational motto All Together Now;

And then Brian Epstein died in August 1967 and The Beatles thought “we were f***ed basically“. As workaholics they coped with grief by…working. They had been planning Magical Mystery Tour for some time, they had contracts to fulfill and Epstein was punctilious about that, not least because Lennon had said to him, “you take care of the business Brian, we’ll take care of the music“. They still needed to make a film for Universal and now the mix of avant-garde, experimental, psychedelic, underground, hippy-trippy ideas they had been imbibing and acting upon came together as a plan (an A4 sheet of paper with a circle on it) as they became a collective Fool on The Hill;

And so their collective grief therapy began with the sensible decision to do something they had never done before, create a long-form cultural artefact in a discipline in which they were dabblers. “It seemed like a novel but it turned out to be 6 pages” as Lennon said about his longest piece of writing to Kenneth Allsop on BBC’s Tonight on June 18 1965. But the Beatles had been cooped up since they had been signed by Epstein to EMI and their schoolmaster Martin. As Paul Morley said on BBC2’s Late Review, they had earned the right to experiment, and they did. Even before Kisses on the Bottom McCartney was hammering the joanna on the set piece Your Mother Should Know;

In fact Paul spent a night as the pub pianist; when they dropped in at Newquay and met the Spencer Davies Group. After the days shoot he took over the piano and played requests for sing alongs all evening, “evening all, I’m the pub pianist” according to roadie Tony Bramwell in Magical Mystery Tours. That night The Beatles commissioned Stevie Winwood to produce a song for Magical Mystery Tour and, allegedly, Traffic produced Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush as back up. However it was the appropriately Dada Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band who played Death Cab for Cutie in the night club scene with the stripper and became the band that The Beatles shared their film with – Death Cab for Cutie;

The real highlight was Walrus arguably The Beatles best home-made video, a song that moved Western harmony forward according to Howard Goodall, allowed Lennon to simultaneously express his grief and vent his anger at the British police, his most fully realised piece of Goonery, and my favourite Beatles song. Oh and kickstarted the career of the Electric Light Orchestra. This was what the Mystery was about, pushing the envelop, carrying out their own R&D into what they might do next, celebrating psychedelia and the coming of a new consciousness whilst loving mocking old ways on a charabanc trip. A joyful escape to the country on the edge of the zeitgeist, away from the confines of EMI-controlled Abbey Road and further contractual obligation. I Am The Walrus

The recorded music of Magical Mystery Tour was fantastically successful. Since 1963 The Beatles had been relied upon to provide the nations music at Christmas and, when albums were a luxury item, Beatles records were perfect presents. In the UK Hello Goodbye was the Number 1 single, The Magical Mystery Tour Double EP (19/9 – 3 times the price of a single) was Number 2 (it was my Christmas present) and Sgt Pepper was still at the top of the album charts. The black and white showing of Magical Mystery Tour on BBC2, which itself was still not widely available as it was broadcast in the HD of its day (625 lines), was not well received, apart from Nancy Banks-Smith, but it was a counter-cultural odyssey on mainstream media at Christmas. Nonetheless Paul showed that he could easily cut the musical mustard when he rustled up the hit single in his allotted 20 minutes, was this psychedelia Hello Goodbye;

So what was Magical Mystery Tour then? I see many journalists are calling MMT simply a drug-addled film, I don’t think so, it was fuelled by several factors as well as a belief in the value of the psychedelic consciousness, not least being nostalgia for the good old days out of their childhood. And The Beatles were at the centre of their own movie, not subject to contractual whims and producers. It was filmed in 24 days in the immediate aftermath of Epstein’s death and was one way of busily coping with grief and their sense of loss. It responded to many aspects of the sixties avant-garde (it’s real crime I guess); surrealism, Goonery, experimentation, playing with form. However it had the same flaw that Lennon & McCartney had demonstrated when they tried to write a play back in McCartney’s home in Forthlin Road. Their creative juices only run for 20 minutes; fine for a song, not enough for a screen play, even a circular one. Most importantly, as analysed by Tuomas Eerola, this was made in the middle of their most creative period musically & five of their most ‘creative’ songs were on the, still highly-rated Magical Mystery Tour Album (online journal Pitchfork give it 10). This was only released in America, but was enduring seller even when Beatles albums weren’t selling (there was a time). My brother bought an import copy and he isn’t even a Beatles fan. That intensely creative cycle can be dated as ending when Epstein died. However they had cleared their creative decks historically and, significantly, their next album would be on their own label Apple. It would simply be called The Beatles, signifying that it was the first time they had been in control of their creative output. They were still fulfilling contracts with Magical Mystery Tour, even so Universal rejected it after the early reviews, forcing them to record Let It Be as a contractual obligation filler instead; that sad ending is yet another hidden history from the sixties.

Full a fuller analysis of Beatles Psychedelia you might like Beatles Psychedelia 1966-67, part 4 of the Beatles Creativity series.

There is a YouTube Playlist of this blog post on Radio YouTube – Magical Mystery Tour


7 Responses to “Magical Mystery Tour”

  1. Blinking heck, Fred. Another masterpiece. Beware some mad US groupies don’t kidnap you, shake you by the ankles, and try to extract all this fandabbydoo-ness.
    One sideline… the only TV critic who liked MMT was Nancy Banks Smith in The Grauniad (as noted to young Kev by Keith Dewhurst – your Z Cars writer and another strand along with Stanley Reynolds). I loved her then and still do although her only very occasional Notes from Ambridge mean that young Sam Woolaston is stealing my heart away.
    Thanks for the memories, memes, themes and dreams.

  2. Thanks you sir; couldnt leave it to the essentially lazy rock journalists we now have dominating the airways with their “half-arsed opinions…

  3. […] savaging of the BBC TV showing of the black and white version of their psychedelic home movie Magical Mystery Tour The Beatles were on their own, this time running their own business. In fact they had all been […]

  4. Oh and Gerry, thanks for the like! Kevin, I’ve added in Nancy Banks Smith & “And The Beatles were at the centre of their own movie, not subject to contractual whims and producers”

    • All You Need’s A Pint… last weekend’s London visit allowed no time for catch-ups but it would be great to do so some time – before I’m 67. PS have you seen page 17 of this morning’s G2? Spooky….

  5. Reblogged this on That's How The Light Gets In and commented:
    I was going to write something about the Beatles festival on BBC 2 at the weekend – the first TV screening of Magical Mystery Tour since 1967, an Arena documentary about the making of the film, plus a workmanlike survey by Stuart Maconie of the cultural context of the Beatles first release, Love Me Do, in 1962. But Fred Garnett has done such an excellent job on his blog that I thought I’d simply repost his superb survey of this cultural artefact that

    captured the spirit of its time and, yet again, provided another cultural breakthrough … this surreal slice of English holiday nostalgia inspired by The Goons … a fantastic cheery summer of love trip …

    Suffice it for me to say that this overview rivals the Arena documentary for its musical perceptiveness, noting that

    it was fuelled by several factors as well as a belief in the value of the psychedelic consciousness, not least being nostalgia for the good old days out of their childhood.

    whilst at the same time

    It responded to many aspects of the sixties avant-garde (it’s real crime I guess); surrealism, Goonery, experimentation, playing with form.

    Best of all, Fred reminds us of that great overlooked psychedelic masterpiece, ‘It’s All Too Much’, which ranks alongside the Beatles greatest psychedelia – Strawberry Fields Forever, I Am The Walrus, Tomorrow Never Knows, and Rain.

  6. […] 1962. But Fred Garnett has done such an excellent job on his blog that I thought I’d simply repost his superb survey of this cultural artefact that captured the spirit of its time and, yet again, provided another […]

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