Magical Mystery Tour – why the Beatles’ first failure is an enduring success

Critics don’t always get things right, even when they broadly agree with each other. The history of the arts in the twentieth century is littered with works which were panned, dismissed or subject to lukewarm contemporary reviews which have gone on to be hailed as masterpieces. Hitchcock’s Vertigo has been voted the best film of all time by the BFI’s Sight and Sound magazine despite the mixed reviews upon its initial release. The Rolling Stones were subjected to a range of polarising opinions of their 1972 album Exile on Main Street when it was first released and yet now it has cemented its position as their most celebrated work. To suggest that this 1967 effort made by The Beatles at the end of the Summer of Love and broadcast on BBC1 on Boxing Day of that year can be elevated to such heights would be very wide of the mark. However, forget what you’ve heard about this being a dreadful mistake, a terrible film, disposable nonsense or The Beatles going off the rails without the guiding hand of their manager, Brian Epstein, as it’s not only inventive, original and influential but, more importantly, as a record of Britain in 1967 and as a love letter to post war England, it actually stands up as quite an important piece of work.

The most enduring slice of conventional wisdom regarding this television special is that it demonstrates just how much The Beatles missed Epstein’s guiding hand and that they started going off the rails almost immediately without him. Epstein, so the story goes, would never have allowed them to make such a mess of a film and would have overseen something much more palatable to the general audience watching at Christmas. On the face of it, this theory seems to have something going for it, chronologically speaking, but it’s not really the case. While Epstein tragically took his life in August 1967 and filming commenced the following month, he was already on board with the early planning and had given his approval. However, it can also be argued that Epstein had long since ceased to be the guiding force behind the group anyway. As these young men expanded their creative boundaries as the 60s progressed so they began to leave behind those who had moulded them in the simpler days when they had been the Mop Tops from Liverpool. Now they were owned by the world and with the critical success of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band behind them they believed they could branch out their musical styles and even embrace other mediums. They were on the cutting edge and Epstein, who had astutely managed their early career, was not headed on the same path as they were. It must have been a blow to him when they had announced that they weren’t prepared to do any more touring after their gig at Candlestick Park in the US the year before and the direction of their music from Tomorrow Never Knows on the Revolver album onwards was one that Epstein knew could never be performed in front of screaming fans. Magical Mystery Tour therefore is where The Beatles were heading anyway, with or without the increasingly peripheral figure of Epstein.

It is a sign of the confidence in the group at the tail-end of the summer of ’67 that they decided to spend several weeks shooting a film, directed by themselves, with no script, adlibbing scenes and just seeing what would happen. They had a number of new songs composed for the occasion – all of them strong and all the more remarkable for coming in the same creative outburst which had already produced their most famous album that year. While the songs where an essential part of the special which the BBC had agreed to show there would often be only the most tangential of relations to what was going on in the film. Self indulgent? Perhaps. But watching The Beatles indulge themselves in an English summer at the height of their creative powers is still something that is, at the very least, of historical importance, above and beyond the other merits of the finished article.

In the immediate aftermath of the TV special’s broadcast it was clear that many of the viewing public hadn’t shared the group’s appetite for increasingly avant garde styles in music and film. Many of their old fanbase were perhaps disappointed not to see a string of the old hits performed when it was broadcast at peak viewing time at 8.35pm on BBC1 and even the establishment and older viewers who had come to adore the loveable Liverpool rogues would have been left cold by some of the more disturbingly surreal and nightmarish dreamscape sequences. There was also the fact that Magical Mystery Tour just screams “colour” from the screen and yet was broadcast initially in black and white, losing so many of its rich layers in the process. Even a colour repeat which was hastily scheduled would have been enjoyed only by the small fragment of the viewers who could afford the luxury of a colour television in 1967 when almost everything was broadcast in monochrome.

And yet, despite the negative reviews and a population left nonplussed by their efforts, The Beatles had created something which would only be fully appreciated in the years to come, when so much of what they were paying tribute to had faded from the culture of Britain and their film would stand as a testimony to what had been. Much like their contemporaries, The Kinks, whose Village Green Preservation Society album acted as a similar paean to a waning culture of old England and music hall entertainment, it was only when the object of their tribute had ceased to be that a record of it became all the more important. In this sense, it really doesn’t matter what people thought of Magical Mystery Tour at the time, the contemporary reviews almost worthless. What matters much more is watching it now. Like Dylan and many other stellar acts in the music scene of the mid to late Sixties, The Beatles were evolving at such a pace that many of their fans couldn’t keep up. History would be the true final arbiter of whether it succeeded as art.

Watching it now it’s hard not to be beguiled by the strong juxtapositions within the film – those of an old, seemingly timeless working class English culture with the wild imaginings of psychedelic pop culture. The latter almost appears to be the enemy of the former and yet the mish-mash of styles and sensibilities unites to create an even stronger bond of English culture in general. It’s now almost as far back to 1967 as it was then to the beginnings of the things they were celebrating with bus sing-alongs and boozy halls full of tupenny entertainment. As we advance through the 21st century it becomes easier to see 20th century culture as part of a glorious whole rather than what would have been seen as unconnected leaps from one thing to another at the time. Those who had listened to Sgt Pepper that year would already have heard The Beatles wallowing in the circus world of Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite and its kaleidoscope of sounds which faithfully recreated the listeners’ childhoods while blending it into the new psychadelia. Now they were doing it in visual form.

The idea of the tour at all was based heavily, according to George Harrison, on the old charabanc bus tours from Liverpool to see the illuminations in Blackpool where passengers would bring an accordion and beer and enjoy themselves singing along the way. The age in which The Beatles had grown up was one in which “whist drives” were popular and people still felt a sense of novelty about being able to drive out of their busy cities and into the countryside. In a time when car ownership was still a rich man’s game following the war mystery tours and bus outings to nearby locations were popular pastimes.

Setting the scene for this tour the opening of the movie essentially acts as its own trailer showing a whirlwind of images and characters from the forthcoming attraction with the joyous title track pumping out over the top, but we also see Ringo wandering into John Lennon’s little corner shop to buy his tickets for the outing. This grounding in the back street world of real England is continued through to the first scene after the titles as Ringo and his aunt, a very large and constantly complaining woman played to great effect by Jessie Robins, struggle up a steep hill of terraced houses. The bickering adlibbing between these two is wonderful, particularly the deadpan Ringo, obviously fancying already his later move into acting. In fact, as the film evolves and changes direction throughout its runtime it’s a pity we don’t get more of these two together.

The bus itself is filled with a wide spectrum of characters, many of them grotesque caricatures. Alongside the Beatles themselves are voluptuous dolly birds, a dwarf, a deeply boring old man by the name of Buster Bloodvessel and Derek Royle’s insanely chipper tour guide, Jolly Jimmy. It seems almost obvious in retrospect that this is a film with only the most casual of outlines, often made up on the spot, and their first stop on the mystery tour is, bizarrely, at an army barracks where Victor Spinetti (a veteran of previous Beatles films) plays an army officer who speaks at a thousand miles an hour in a never-ending scream to remain constantly unintelligible. It doesn’t really work, makes no real sense at all and you can imagine teenagers at home, who had forced their parents into watching the film on the one family television set, squirming under their perplexed gaze. Like a few segments of the movie it is far from successful but you can also see it as part of the changing world of British comedy at the time. John Lennon in particular was a fan of the absurdist strand of comedy which could trace a lineage back to Edward Lear through Spike Milligan. Milligan’s antics in The Goon Show would have been a huge influence on him, as they would be on Monty Python’s Flying Circus by the decade’s end. Already, the individual Pythons were trying out new formats in shows such as Do Not Adjust Your Set and At Last the 1948 Show. If some of Magical Mystery Tour doesn’t work either comedically or as part of the film it can still be forgiven when viewed in the context of the new face of British humour at this time.

But then, as with much of the film, something which doesn’t work at all is followed immediately by something which works superbly. Dissolving from the army quarters to an airfield, the passengers are all lined up for a race, despite the clear mismatch of little children, the dwarf, large fat ladies and other misfits. It turns into a glorious chase in cars and the tour bus itself, driven both in real-life and in the film by Ringo, before culminating in a group photograph taken on an old 19th century camera on tripod with the dwarf photographer turning into a bear in the process. It’s a fun slice of surreal mayhem with the added bonus of The Beatles tipping their hats to their past as an organ grinder churns out a primitive version of She Loves You.

A complete cutaway to a magical kingdom where the four Beatles are wizards surrounded by bubbling test tubes tracking the progress of the tour bus is followed by the unlikely love affair between Buster Bloodvessel and Ringo’s aunt. However, just as things are in danger of drifting off too far into the ridiculous once more, the film is brought crashing back into essential viewing by the showpiece musical event – I Am the Walrus. The song undoubtedly represents The Beatles at their most lyrically absurd, but brilliantly so. In between the choruses of eggmen and walruses we have disturbing turns of phrase referring to “yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye” and the seedy mention of “Crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess/Man, you been a naughty girl, you let your knickers down”. Lennon had never been more inspired in his string of nonsense and I firmly believe that as time goes by it will be regarded as the equal of Lear and Lewis Carroll. The filmed sequences which accompany the song are a fast-cutting swirling mix of images which are sometimes childish, sometimes disturbing and the backdrop is inspired. In a film which pays such heavy homage to a romanticised working class England turned several degrees into unpleasantness the huge brutalist concrete structures behind the airfield The Beatles are playing on represents a clash between the old and the new – a sunny day road trip through the rolling countryside smashed against the hideous architecture of post-war Britain with a string of London bobbies dancing gaily across the rim of the grey slabs. Now that we’ve moved beyond such formalist times these scenes in themselves can almost be nostalgic and represent a snapshot of 60s life and landscape. If you were paying to see this film in the cinema then this section – a perfect fusion of audio and visuals – would be worth the entrance fee alone.

From this point on the film actually hits the mark much more often than not and there are some wonderful, and sometimes unsettling, sequences which seem inspired, even if there is still no internal logic to the actual movie. Ringo’s aunt’s dream of food and of her sitting in a restaurant beside Bloodvessel as an oily waiter, played with delightful glee by Lennon, continues to literally shovel heaps of disgusting spaghetti onto her plate from a pile on the floor is almost stomach-churning. It’s difficult to imagine though that the Pythons were ignorant of it when they came to both refine it and out-gross it for their infamous Mr Creosote section of their 1983 film The Meaning of Life.

Scenes of the entire tour bus being ushered into a tiny two-man tent in the middle of a field, before emerging into a TARDIS-like much bigger space on the inside where they sit down to watch a film of George Harrison’s excellent dirge-like Blue Jay Way, are a throwback to the slapstick of silent movies and the subsequent drunken sing-song on the bus of old music-hall classics touches yet again into the early post-war childhood they would have had fond memories of. It’s somehow a touching scene where the drunken passengers are passing around beer and singing their hearts out and to see The Beatles – the world’s most acclaimed and cutting edge group, at the forefront of all that was new and pioneering in music – singing along to standards like When Irish Eyes Are Smiling is a pleasing sight which connects them to a past. They didn’t just drop out of the skies into a music studio and create history. They were very much a sum of their childhoods and upbringings and the entertainment forms which had gone before.

The denouement of the film sees the bus party arrive at a sort of working men’s club and the male and female halves of the passenger group are soon split apart into separate entertainments. For the men this entails a strip show (with a model provided by Soho’s Raymond Revue Bar and with “Censored” appearing across the screen to cover her modesty at the appropriate juncture) as they whoop and cheer from their seats. The musical entertainment at this stage is provided by the Bonzo Dog Dooh-Dah Band and the connection linking The Beatles and Magical Mystery Tour to Python is complete. Not only were the Bonzos the recurring band in Do Not Adjust Your Set which featured Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Eric Idle, with artistic contributions from Terry Gilliam, but Neil Innes would go onto spar with Carole Cleveland for the title of Seventh Python (in much the same way that there are several claims to being the Fifth Beatle). Apart from appearing in Python and contributing some musical pieces for the Monty Python and the Holy Grail movie Innes would then go onto be an integral part of The Rutles, the Eric Idle spoof of the rise and fall of The Beatles which he made for US TV and which also featured a cameo from George Harrison. The brilliantly parodied and pastiched songs by Innes were such a perfect touchstone to the different eras of The Beatles and they work both musically as well as comedically to this day. His appearance here in Magical Mystery Tour alongside Viv Stanshall and the rest of the Bonzos joins a number of lines in the British comedy family tree.

There’s no doubt that the film ends somewhat abruptly with no journey home, no real connection to what has gone before and with nothing at all tied up but it ends triumphantly nevertheless by launching into song and a big Broadway-musical-type piece of choreography. Filmed inside a gigantic aircraft hangar the tuxedoed Beatles step in time down a stairway as they are joined by the whole cast and lots more besides in the form of professional dancers from Northern dancehalls. Lennon was famously quoted in a late Beatles interview at the time of the release of the Abbey Road album as referring to some of McCartney’s songs as “granny music”. It’s a fair comment I feel for some of the increasingly whimsical and disposable numbers he was producing at that time (although far from the full story as he could still rock out with raw intensity when he chose to do so). The precursors of this “granny music” would be When I’m Sixty Four which they had released earlier in 1967 and this new track used as the finale – Your Mother Should Know. However, although it’s very much in the sentimental vein of some of McCartney’s later Beatles writing that shouldn’t distract you from its worth as it’s easily the best song he did in this style and manages even to eclipse, for me, his great song from earlier in the film, Fool on the Hill. Lyrically, there’s not much to it but it simply states, without stating much else at all, that we should get up and dance to a song your mother should know from long ago. It’s a splendid little love letter to music from another time and the sight of The Beatles stepping down the stairs to be joined by the throngs of extras and characters from the film is a fitting way to finish the television special.

Back in the last days of 1967 Magical Mystery Tour may well have bewildered a nation of older viewers and left some of their more pop-oriented fans feeling as though they were missing something but its enduring strength is in its collage of ideas, of throwing darts at the board to see what sticks and of mixing the old and the new to crash the tank tops of post-war Britain sported by McCartney with the Eggmen and other surreal psychedelic imagery. Now that even the “new” from 1967 is almost half a century past it can be viewed more as the old and the even older to create a beautiful time capsule of England at a time of change as one world passed over to another before being passed over itself. Forget contemporary reports of this film’s failure and watch it now in all its joy. It’s The Beatles flexing their creative muscles, free now to control their own destinies and present the art they wanted to. It’s The Beatles not being afraid to fail, to make a wrong turn, but to keep getting up in the hope that the end result will be worth it. I think history will judge that it was.

Postscript

Magical Mystery Tour exists as a number of different beasts. As well as the film, the music was released as a double 7″ EP with the six songs from the television special in an attractive gatefold with an extensive booklet of images from the movie. It was then later released as an album in the US. Although it was normal practise for both The Beatles and the Stones to have their UK albums chopped up and re-spliced into different albums with the addition of singles and other tracks for the US market, this had died out as the 1960s progressed and albums had come to be seen as works of artistic merit rather than something less important than a 7″ single. For The Beatles, Sgt Pepper’s was the first album to be elevated to this status and released with the same tracklisting on both sides of the Atlantic. However, Magical Mystery Tour presented their US label, Capitol, with the chance to squeeze out an extra album by combining the six tracks from the EP version with other singles they had released during the productive year of 1967. Thus, the Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane Double A-Side single (both songs having been incredibly left off Sgt Pepper) were added along with All You Need is Love and Hello, Goodbye. The addition of these four A-list songs plus one B-side to an already strong line-up of tracks from the EP actually makes the album version of Magical Mystery Tour an unbelievably powerful collection of songs. However, in the UK it has never really been seen as a proper album. Although it was officially brought into the canon of Beatles albums during the 1970s the British fans have always seen it as an American mish-mash packaged in a diabolically bad cover. It’s a fair opinion given that the songs were never meant to constitute an album or come together as a collective whole. However, if they had, then it would be considered something very special indeed.

In 2012 Apple decided to reissue both the film and the original EP in a very attractive box set. The film was available on both Blu-ray and DVD while the EP was available in its original double vinyl format with the booklet. The movie has been nicely restored and comes complete with a director’s commentary from McCartney and there are some extras as well including a “Making of” which also features Harrison and Starr looking back on the filming and production. It’s well worth splashing out on this beautifully presented set.

One slight disappointment with the box set was that it didn’t include the fantastic 2012 Arena special shown on BBC2. An hour long, this was the definitive documentary on this period of The Beatles’ history. It contains a heavyweight selection of interviewees which includes Martin Scorsese who tells his interviewer that whether or not it actually succeeded is “beside the point” and that some of the shots in the film have actually influenced his own career. Other interviewees alongside all four Beatles (Harrison being represented by archive video and Lennon by archive audio) include Paul Gambiccini, Neil Innes, Terry Gilliam, Paul Merton, Peter Fonda and the 1960s counter culture journalist Barry Miles. It all helps to lay the context for what was happening in 1967 London and how McCartney, as the driving force behind the film, was immersing himself in the London scene.

There are some great recreations of old 1960s living rooms with Christmas decorations and BBC continuity inserts for the holiday viewing playing on old TV sets overdubbed with the voices of young fans from the time now in their 60s and looking back at how they felt, many of them feeling let down that Christmas. The BBC audience research from the time is also narrated over these sequences – a mixture of scathing reports and others who loved it. We also get to hear Paul McCartney on The Frost Programme after being forced to go on and defend the film against its detractors. In among some great archive from the period we even get to hear from a couple of women who were teenage members of the fan club at the time, one of whom lost her job by going off to be an extra on the coach. Her immortality on film meant her sacking was probably a price worth paying.

Best of all though in the documentary are the outtakes and behind the scenes footage, much of the latter provided by Paul McCartney’s Super 8 home movie footage. So many of the outtakes look like they would have made great scenes in the film including shots of the passengers pouring into a traditional fish and chip shop. The homage to their working class roots would have been even greater and even more obvious if more of these scenes had made the final cut. My favourite outtakes though are more scenes between Ringo and his aunt which I could watch all day. In one such cut scene she talks about The Beatles, how they’re all smashing boys, especially Ringo, and how her nephew beside her should aspire to be more like him. Ringo in his wonderful deadpan tells her, “The Beatles? I could tell you things about them” as he tries to put them down.

It’s a great documentary and I’d highly recommend watching it alongside the movie itself. It can be found online here.

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