By Kevin Robbie
Thursday Review Contributing Writer
I remember 1967, or at least certain events from that year. My family went on a vacation in July that summer and I remember hearing music on the car radio. My brother and I were in the back seat of the car and listened to the music. It seemed like every radio station played the Beatles frequently. It was my first exposure to songs like “A Day in the Life,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and “Penny Lane.” Another 45 rpm record, “All You Need is Love” had just been released as a single and was also given extensive air time. As my father would adjust the radio dial, my brother and I would ask him to find another station playing the Beatles. That may be the reason why, even today, I usually have the Beatles on my car stereo when I’m driving anywhere.
In addition to the new music there were other developments impacting the group. The Beatles’ contract with Brian Epstein was due to expire in November, they were becoming involved in transcendental meditation and they were trying to get a new business, Apple, off the ground. The Apple project started out in a spirit of naive enthusiasm reflecting the spirit of the “summer of love.” The whole project was a mess from the beginning. Record sales, however, continued to be impressive.
Against this backdrop of swirling events, the Beatles made their final live-action movie, Magical Mystery Tour. That project began with much of the same enthusiasm as Apple. And like Apple, the group believed the movie would succeed because, well, they were the Beatles.
Brian Epstein had advised the group against the project or, in the alternative, contract with professional filmmakers, etc., to ensure a quality product. However, Brian died in August as the project was getting off the ground. His advice went unheeded. The Beatles proceeded to develop the project, a movie they’d call Magical Mystery Tour.” They also wrote new music for a record to accompany the film.
A touring bus was rented and a motley group of actors were hired to play the parts of various unusual characters who were also passengers on the tour bus. The film opens with Ringo taking his Aunt Jesse on an outing. She is initially reluctant to go but Ringo talks her into getting on the bus. We are briefly introduced to a few of the other oddball passengers—including a midget hired on the insistence of John Lennon—and the bus takes off for parts unknown. Beyond that point in the story it is difficult to describe how the plot unfolds because the film does not have a plot, screenplay or anything remotely resembling one. The idea was to rent a bus, hire some actors, drive into the countryside and see what happens—paraphrasing Paul McCartney. Spontaneity would inspire magic, or something akin to magic.
The Beatles encountered a serious problem, though. Nothing happened that was even slightly entertaining or magical. The movie is a mish-mash of close-ups, panoramic shots, slow-motion scenes, etc. The movie was roundly criticized in the press. Originally shown on BBC-TV in December 1967, the film was aired in black and white, a dull contrast to the vivid, swirling colors typically evoked in that age of psychedelia.
The soundtrack album, however, was much better than the film and included several new songs and a picture book affixed to the inside of the album cover. The best of the new tunes was “I am the Walrus,” a composition by John Lennon and the final track on Side One. The song opens with a simulated English ambulance siren and ends with snippets of a BBC radio production of King Lear—Act IV, Scene VI. Those lines from the radio play are used in the song’s long fade-out. In between, John gave full reign to his penchant for puns and wordplay. Much of the lyric is based on “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” a poem by Lewis Carroll. In the fade-out of the song, lines from King Lear are used which reference the words “dead” and “death.” This would become relevant approximately two years later when rumors began to circulate regarding the alleged death of Paul. But that is another story…
Paul’s composition, “The Fool on the Hill,” is more straightforward, about a man who is regarded as a fool but is actually a misunderstood visionary. The instrumentation consists primarily of an organ, flute and piano. In the movie, the song is played over a sequence showing Paul on a hilltop overlooking Nice, France. The term fool on the hill could also be a reference to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who the Beatles had recently met. The Maharishi, sitting cross-legged on a big pillow, could be analogous to a wise man (or fool) sitting on a hill.
“Flying” is essentially a two-minute jam session and is distinctive as being the only fully instrumental track ever released on a Beatles’ record. The only vocals are Ringo singing “la-la-la” in the background. The song is credited on the album as a group composition. It features a mellotron and backwards organ.
George Harrison’s song-writing contribution was “Blue Jay Way.” He wrote the song during a visit to California with his wife, Pattie, and Beatles’ assistant, Neil Aspinall. They rented a cottage on Blue Jay Way, in Hollywood Hills. They were expecting a visit from former Beatles’ press officer Derek Taylor. However, Taylor got lost in fog while driving to the cottage. In order to pass the time, George played around with a Hammond organ and wrote a song about, well, sitting in a house waiting for a friend who is lost in the fog. The organ gives the song an ethereal sound which evokes images of wisps of fog. A la John Lennon, George cleverly inserted his own pun into the song with the line “Please don’t be long…,” which can also be heard as “Please don’t belong….” Another line is “My friends have lost their way…” perhaps a reference to the Beatles seeking a new direction for their lives and careers. The other three Beatles were also not as deeply immersed into eastern religion and philosophy as George.
“Your Mother Should Know” was a Paul McCartney composition. It was a tribute to the English music hall music his father enjoyed and is similar in style to “When I’m 64” from Sgt. Pepper. In the film, “Your Mother Should Know” is used at the end. The Beatles are shown in white tuxedoes descending a staircase. John, Ringo and George are also wearing red carnations. Paul’s carnation is black and the flowers all appear to be painted onto the jacket lapels. When they reach the bottom of the staircase, a child approaches Paul and hands him a bouquet of dead flowers.
The title track, “Magical Mystery Tour,” was written by Paul to be a commercial for the TV program. The audience was invited to “roll up for the mystery tour.” The song was inspired by the British working class custom of organized bus tours where only the driver knew the destination. Paul was also inspired by Ken Kesey, who had earlier organized the famous California bus trip described so remarkably by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Side Two of the soundtrack album consists of previously released singles: “Hello, Goodbye;” “Strawberry Fields Forever;” “Penny Lane;” “Baby You’re A Rich Man;” and “All You Need is Love.”
The soundtrack album contained the usual diversity of great Beatles’ music, and it succeeded in evoking the spirit of 1967, and remains of the most evocative albums of the 1960s. The film, however, fell far short of expectations, and the only mystery is why the Beatles went through with the project in the first place!