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The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour

Magical Mystery Tour


54 minutes

At 8.35pm on Boxing Day, 1967, 15 million turkey stuffed expectant Britons sat down to watch the BBC premiere of The Beatles' latest venture, Magical Mystery Tour, a 50 minute self-produced and directed TV feature. The morning after, the tabloid critics gleefully pounced, savaging the film, branding it "a colossal conceit" and "blatant rubbish", clearly relishing what was virtually the first opportunity to torpedo the LSD-advocating, underground culture-championing, pot-promoting Beatles.

In truth, while it was hardly a movie masterpiece - after all, apart from appearing in A Hard Day's Night, Help! and Paul's experimental 8mm shorts, The Beatles had no technical experience - it certainly didn't deserve the derision it provoked. Part of the problem stemmed from the BBC's decision to transmit it in monochrome rather than the film's intended psychedelic Technicolor. And although it was repeated in colour on 5 January 1968, very few people in Britain owned colour sets.

Very much a period piece, a phantasmagoric product of drug-induced imagination without conventional narrative or script, Magical Mystery Tour has the feel of an avant garde home movie and, realistically, was just not suitable for mass Christmas consumption. That said, The Beatles purposefully chose what Paul called the "Bruce Forsyth slot" to show it, and while they might not have anticipated the viciousness of the condemnation, they surely realised and secretly hoped that the majority of the great British public would be baffled by this eccentric and outlandish film.

Significantly, it served as the prototype for music video, and to this day the majority of pop promos take the song sequences in the film as a template. Its surreal comedy and sly satirical pokes at British class-led pomposity also proved a precursor to Monty Python's Flying Circus. The cast includes Beatles celluloid veteran Victor Spinetti, Ivor Cutler as Buster Bloodvessel and The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. And, of course, there was also The Beatles music. As Paul has rightly told Barry Miles, "If we do have to justify it, I think 'I Am The Walrus' alone makes it".

Magical Mystery Tour was the band's first project since manager Brian Epstein's tragic death in late August 1967 and, like 'Sgt. Pepper's...', the original concept was Paul's. On a visit to the US Paul had become fascinated by LSD prophet Ken Kesey and his disciples The Merry Pranksters, who criss-crossed the States in a psychedelically daubed day-glo bus, stopping randomly en route to create 'happenings' by freely dispensing LSD and filming the resulting encounters. As with 'Sgt. Pepper's...', Paul took his initial inspiration from the American counter-culture and added a dash of working-class Blighty. As George told Beatles documentary series The Anthology, "It was Paul's idea. It was basically a charabang trip which people used to go on from Liverpool to see the Blackpool lights and they'd get loads of crates of beer and an accordion player and all get pissed." And so McCartney sketched out the Marmite-thin outline of a film with a spontaneous plot involving a bus filled with oddball characters, including The Beatles themselves, taking a mystery journey through the English countryside.

Having just completed 'Sgt. Pepper's...', the other three, exhausted and creatively jaded, were less than enamoured. As John later recalled in Rolling Stone, "I thought, f-ckin' Ada, I've never made a film, what's he mean, write a script... And then George and I were sort of grumbling, you know, 'f-ckin' movie, oh well, we better do it', feeling that we owed the public, that we should do these things." Thus, within four days of putting the Sergeant to bed, The Beatles were back in the recording studio, working on the title track.

This drug-dulled torpor and fatigue is palpable on at least half of the six 'Magical Mystery Tour' numbers. The lead track itself is a slight, underdeveloped song that Paul, in an effort to rouse the troops to participate, had presented as little more than a title, a first line and a vague notion of a melody. Unfortunately, this impromptu ruse failed to incite much enthusiasm. In fact, so disinterested were the others that it was to be another four months before they returned to the project. Utilised as incidental music for the film 'Flying', is a mellotron-led doodle of an instrumental, and the only composition to be credited to all four Beatles.

'Magical Mystery Tour's nadir is George's sole contribution, 'Blue Jay Way'. This monotonous, soporific dirge, written by a jet-lagged Harrison in LA and sounding like it, gives no indication that he would on 'Abbey Road' emulate - if not exceed - his esteemed colleagues by composing the likes of 'Something' and 'Here Comes The Sun'. 'Your Mother Should Know', like 'When I'm Sixty Four' and the later 'Honey Pie', is another of McCartney's excursions into pre-war nostalgia, inspired by his dad's musical heritage. The title is taken from a line in the film A Taste Of Honey, and although basically a pretty corking song, the lack of a middle-eight exposes the lackadaisical nature of the song's conception and prevents it from attaining Beatles classic status. Thankfully, though, John and Paul's muse hadn't entirely deserted them and they managed to conjure a brace of immaculate conceptions.

'I Am The Walrus' is undoubtedly one of Lennon's most dazzling moments. The title refers to Lewis Carroll's poem The Walrus And The Carpenter, with John's ludicrous gobbledegook satirising the nonsensical likes of Procol Harum's 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale' and Dylan's opaque poetry. On the face of it, '...Walrus' appears to be playful bunkum but John's sneeringly sarcastic, snarling nasal whine indicates a desperate primal howl. Recorded within a matter of days of Epstein's death, Lennon, usually the least vulnerable Beatle, sounds in real pain.

Paul, meanwhile, continued to vie with his partner and his poignant, airy ballad, 'A Fool On The Hill' stands as one of his finest. The inspired use of recorder and flute adds to the aura of mystical, child-like simplicity as do the accompanying film scenes, shot at dawn on a hilltop in Cannes.

The six tracks recorded for the 'Magical Mystery Tour' soundtrack were released in Britain in early December as a package containing two seven-inch EPs and a sumptuous 24-page booklet featuring stills and cartoon adaptations based on the film. Ironically, the EP was held off the top spot by The Fabs' own blandly innocuous 'Hello Goodbye', surely their weakest single. For the American market, however, Capitol concocted an album by adding all The Beatles' 1967 singles - 'Hello Goodbye', 'Strawberry Fields', 'Penny Lane, 'All You Need Is Love' and its fabulous b-side, 'Baby You're A Rich Man'. Inevitably, the LP rocketed to the summit of the US album chart.

With 'Magical Mystery Tour' and the similarly LSD-laced and largely lacklustre 'Yellow Submarine' soundtrack, The Beatles bid farewell to psychedelia. From 1968's 'Lady Madonna' onwards, the band opted for a back-to-basics approach, eschewing the increasingly complex studio trickery in favour of the sparse and simple.

Chris King, Music 365

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