Last month saw the 50th anniversary of The Beatles‘ Magical Mystery Tour. VH’s very own Beatles expert, Josh Langrish, takes a look at how the band’s follow-up to Sgt. Peppers came to be….
With the creation of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles had – as was said in a famous quote – “opened the door, showing other musicians that there were other rooms to explore”. Having paddled in the shallows of musical experimentation with Revolver, The Beatles fully submerged themselves with regards to Sgt. Pepper – pushing the very concept of what an album can be as far as any group or band previously had done.
The Beatles worked on Sgt. Pepper for five straight months; a far-cry from the exceedingly terse 13 hours it took to record their debut album Please Please Me. The majority of The Beatles were emotionally, physically, and creatively drained – and not surprisingly either. Lennon and Harrison were utterly enamoured with LSD and the various psychological or, more accurately, philosophical revelations the drug had unveiled to them. Whilst Lennon was exploring himself, his burgeoning curiosity with Yoko Ono, and preoccupations with his own psyche, Harrison was looking beyond – ever fascinated with Indian music, Hinduism, and the phrase ‘Yogis of the Himalayas’ that occurred to his acid-fuelled consciousness after his first LSD experience with Lennon back in the Spring of ’65 after a dentist they had dinner with spiked their coffee. Ringo, naturally, was just having a good time. McCartney, ever the workaholic, noticed this, and saw that the band’s focus was dwindling towards the end of mixing Sgt. Pepper in the April of ’67. In order to combat the drug-induced malaise that he sensed was setting in, his plan to rouse the group from their stupor and maintain creative momentum after their magnum opus Sgt. Pepper was to dive head-first into another project; Magical Mystery Tour. McCartney, based on a few loose ideas, doodles, and a fistful of notes on napkins and restaurant menus*, was to formulate, organise, and film a feature length movie for the BBC of The Beatles, with an album of accompanying songs.
*As you can see here, the “script” consisted of a circle cut into segments, with vague concepts and ideas scrawled around it. Within just a few weeks, McCartney had to assemble a cast, crew, and sort out production, having never made a film or written a script in his life.
(Pictured: Filming of Magical Mystery Tour in the West Country, September, 1967)
The concept was rather simple. Inspired by Ken Kesey, The Merry Pranksters, and their psychedelic road trip in ’64 , as well as the afterglow of The Beatles childhood ruminations they delved into with Sgt. Pepper, McCartney envisioned The Beatles, accompanied by a bus-load of people, to have a road-trip across Britain, filming various psychedelic sequences, and surreal skits on the way. Whilst Ken Kesey’s variant was entrenched in the exploration of psychedelic Americana, this film would be a sort of tongue-in-cheek, mildly ironic parody, both lampooning – and yet celebrating – Britishness, and the culture of British holidays (back in the day); and all the imagery that conjures e.g. bank holidays, visiting the beach, donkey rides, vaudeville, funfairs, British eccentricity, sing-a-longs, etc.
Filmed over a couple of months, and broadcast (much to the chagrin of The Beatles) in black and white on Boxing Day in the same year, the film at the time was critically panned by both critics and audiences alike – the main complaint being its incomprehensibility. Having watched the film, it’s quite understandable as to why audiences were just left flummoxed by what is essentially a mishmash of bizarre scenes, music videos, interconnected with segments of them on a bus. Having said this, the film is well worth watching – just given the spectacle, and is utterly in tune with the internet’s hunger for the surreal, and the bewildering.
In years since the release of the film, various film critics and notable directors (Such as Terry Gilliam, Peter Fonda, and Martin Scorsese) have been high complimentary about Magical Mystery Tour and its influence on film history. There’s also a handful of scenes that will just stick with you forever, and mostly for the better. For one, there’s a scene where John Lennon, as a pencil-moustached, smarmy, devilish waiter (inexplicably called ‘Pirandello’) is serving a large lady mounds of spaghetti using a shovel in some dream-like restaurant where a topless sailor is drinking glasses of milk from a stuffed cow, and guests who are arriving enter the restaurant by casually walking across people’s tables. Great stuff.
McCartney’s enthusiasm to start the project (beginning with the album then the film) in order to “maintain the momentum” after Sgt. Pepper resulted in McCartney corralling the rest of The Beatles to Studio 3 at Abbey Road to begin work on a whole new album just three days after completing Sgt. Pepper – specifically the run-out groove at the end of ‘A Day in the Life’. Considering that they had been working for five months solid mere days before McCartney insisted they begin working on something new, his tactic to “maintain momentum” actually achieved the opposite effect. Simply put, they needed a holiday. As a result, The Beatles were half-heartedly producing sub-par work – mostly due to drugs, tiredness, free studio time with no restrictions, a lack of enthusiasm, and overindulging in the musical practice of indeterminacy (a practise – which served them well during Revolver – that involves taking advantage of spontaneity or mistakes). This lead to lots of aimless, fruitless jamming sessions and throwaway songs, such as ‘You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)’, ‘All Together Now’, and ‘Only a Northern Song’.
The opening track to the album (of the same name) is ‘Magical Mystery Tour’. Although a definite step-up from the relative dross (by Beatles standards anyway) of the weeks before, the song – which attempts to create the excitement and frisson of a magical mystery tour grand opening – doesn’t result in anything particularly astounding, and sounds outright artificial in its energy when compared to its predecessor of a similar style vis-à-vis the opening track of Sgt. Pepper made three months earlier. The Beatles’ harmonic singing of “Roll up, Roll up for the mystery tour!”, McCartney belting “The magical mystery tour is waiting to take you away”, and Ringo’s driving drums means there is something to be enjoyed from this otherwise forgettable album addition.
(Pictured: Filming the music video for ‘I Am The Walrus’, West Malling Air Station in Maidstone, Kent, Saturday 23 September 1967)
After trudging through the recording of the opening track, The Beatles took a much needed month-and-a -half-long break in the July of ’67 in which they visited Greece and LA for various reasons*. In late August, refreshed and rested, The Beatles returned to work on the new album with the McCartney track ‘Your Mother Should Know’. The song is a send up to the type of music McCartney’s father played to him as a child; of that old-timey, George Formby/Cole Porter, war-time ilk. It was a style that McCartney – throughout The Beatles discography – clearly had a soft spot for**. McCartney visited this genre in Sgt. Pepper with ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’; so, as you can imagine, it has a similar light-hearted, jaunty, and plodding feel. In short, it’s inoffensive and kind of charming, and the type of song you’d start mumbling to yourself when trying to find your keys.
Around this time, The Beatles – in search of a spiritual itch that drugs weren’t scratching – went to Bangor, Wales for a seminar held by Transcendental Meditation guru Maharishi. Strangely, considering the timing of The Beatles’ need for spiritual direction in their life, Brian Epstein – their long-time manager, guide, and friend – was found dead due to an overdose of prescription drugs. If one were to pick a small handful of the most important moments from The Beatles entire career, this moment would certainly be one of them***. Judging by this video taken moments after they found out, The Beatles – and Lennon in particular – look utterly lost, confused, and stunned. After an emergency meeting at McCartney’s house two days later, it was decided (by McCartney) that they should plough on with making Magical Mystery Tour.
The following day, The Beatles began work on the John Lennon masterpiece ‘I Am The Walrus’. Born from a couple of acid trips in the August of ’67 and Lennon hearing a police siren whilst sitting by his piano, what unravelled became a scathingly acerbic, Alice in Wonderland-inspired, surrealistic romp; a snide, witty, biting version of the comparatively Disney-esque silliness of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, and the darkly introspective ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. Musically, the song is rife with great instrumentation; Lennon on the whimsical electric piano, Ringo’s inspired drumming (often cited on this song as one of his best performances), McCartney’s groovy bassline, as well as George Martin’s lush orchestral score which gives the track its body and complexity. The song really becomes an artistic monster with regards to its lyrics however. It’s tough to find another song that has lyrics this original, weird, and seemingly nonsensical, whilst also being rich with meaning, intent, and intricacy.Whilst it is true that Lennon, according to childhood friend Peter Shotton, initially started writing “the most confusing song of all time” after hearing that his old school was analysing his lyrics in English classes (after finishing it, he reportedly turned to Shotton and said, “Let the fuckers work that one out”), it isn’t accurate to say that the song’s seemingly random tirades of gibberish are devoid of context or meaning. In later interviews, Lennon gave hints here and there as to what certain lines alluded to. The line: “Elementary penguins singing Hare Krishna/Man you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allen Poe” for example, whilst at first glance is just a bunch of disconnected images, is actually a jab at beat poet Allen Ginsberg; Lennon mocking the way Ginsberg (at the time) marched around, like a penguin, chanting mantras, putting all his faith in one idol, whilst also not living up to the greatness of Edgar Allen Poe; who Ginsberg often referenced in his work. The song criticises and mocks tradition, authority, sexual repression****, the establishment, the stifling of creativity, religion, and people’s “holier than thou” attitudes. Although ‘I Am The Walrus’ is a deliberately poetic endeavour (and has been justly celebrated as such to this day), this doesn’t mean that it lacks depth. Lennon’s nasal, double tracked voice is so oozing with vitriol and sarcasm, that clearly the messages behind some lines of the song touched on something sensitive deep in his mind. In his interview with Rolling Stone in 1970, Lennon ranted about how, during his childhood, everyone underestimated him and assumed he’d amount to nothing; ‘I Am The Walrus’ being a blatant middle-finger to all of those naysayers*****. With unforgettable lyrics, and superb musical arrangement, this song is strangely overlooked in favour of more simplistic, and catchy Magical Mystery Tour songs like ‘Hello, Goodbye’ and ‘All You Need is Love’. As Lennon said in 1974 on the song: “it’s one of those that has enough little bitties going to keep you interested even a hundred years later”.
* The reasons being that Lennon and the rest of The Beatles were genuinely toying with the idea of buying a Greek island, making a music studio and bunch of houses, moving their family and close friends to the island, and living there forever (it ultimately didn’t happen). Harrison on the other hand went to LA to meet Ravi Shankar; the legendary Indian musician and sitar player.
** Other examples being ‘Honey Pie’, and ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ to name a couple more. Whilst McCartney had a soft spot for old standards and music hall tunes such as these, Lennon – ubiquitously known as the ‘rocker’ of The Beatles – always snidely referred to these as “Paul’s granny music shit”.
***In the now famous 1970 Rolling Stone interview with Lennon, he revealed that the fall of The Beatles probably started after Brian Epstein’s death. “After Brian died…we collapsed…Paul took over and supposedly ‘lead us’…but what’s leading us when we’re going round in circles?”
****The “eggman” that is mentioned in the song multiple times is thought to be Eric Burdon of The Animals. Lennon was told that Burdon had a fetish for cracking eggs over women in bed. When Lennon spotted him at a party, he approached him, nodded towards some girls nearby and said “Go on, get it eggman”. Although, according to Burdon in his memoir, the egg rumour started because of a story involving his Jamaican ex-girlfriend.
*****A further nod to Lennon’s childhood of underestimating his ability and teachers not appreciating his potential genius is found in the music video for ‘I Am The Walrus’ where Lennon is seen wearing a white, 18th century madman’s cap. Lennon often wondered in his formative years whether he was insane or a genius (Note the ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ lyrics ‘No one I think is in my tree/I mean it must be high or low’), but concluded that he must be a genius because he’d have been taken away if he was genuinely insane.
(Pictured: Filming the music video for ‘I Am The Walrus’, West Malling Air Station in Maidstone, Kent, Saturday 23 September 1967)
If ‘I Am The Walrus’ is the snarky, recalcitrant teenager of the album, then ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ is its mysterious, dark, precocious child. Although originally written as a double-A side single (alongside ‘Penny Lane’) prior to the release of Sgt. Pepper, the inclusion of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’ transforms Magical Mystery Tour from simply a notable album into arguably one of their best. With ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, Lennon guides us through a fey, melancholic universe of his childhood hopes, fears, and dreams. ‘Child’s-eye-view’ songs were popular in ’67 (e.g. Pink Floyd’s ‘See Emily Play), often using deliberately naive, introspective, and emotionally sensitive lyrics as a by-product of the effects of LSD. For example, “Always, no, sometimes think it’s me/But you know I know when it’s a dream/ I think, er, no, I mean, er, yes, but it’s all wrong/That is I think I disagree” has this innocent, stumbling, shy, endearing, and yet fantastical quality to it that Lennon seemed to latch onto, fitting perfectly with the mood of the song that was created via Lennon’s mellotron, Ringo’s imaginative drumming fills, and George Martin’s best orchestral score to date – managing to transform the song from the timid charm of its opening chorus and verse, into the dark menace of loud brass and string sections. Yet another underrated song from The Beatles catalogue, and filled to the brim with innovative instruments, cutting edge studio techniques, and an immersive atmosphere – ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ is well deserving of a place beside, or even above publicly adored songs like ‘Hey Jude’, ‘Let it Be’, or ‘Yesterday’.
After the laid-back, psychedelic, groovy 12-bar blues instrumental of ‘Flying’* is the George Harrison song ‘Blue Jay Way’. Sonically, ‘Blue Jay Way’ is somewhat of an aberration in relation to The Beatles discography. Having been written by Harrison late at night whilst waiting for Beatles publicist Derek Taylor in a rented house on Blue Jay Way in LA, the jet-lag, the night’s sky, the stillness of the surrounding houses in the Hollywood Hills, and the thick fog that was rolling in gave Harrison the inspiration to make a song, having noticed a Hammond organ in the corner of the room. Beatles music is often thought of as fun, light-hearted, cheery, and optimistic. Generally speaking people who think that aren’t far wrong. Whilst there are exceptions, ‘Blue Jay Way’ is another entity altogether. The soundscape of the song, created with a Hammond organ, foreboding cellos and violins, tape loops, bass-heavy lolloping drums, and excessive phasing and ADT results in a wholly ominous and sinister piece – reaching almost Lynchian levels of macabre (enhanced even more considering the scene of a lonely, LA hill-home, overlooking the city, surrounded by impenetrable fog at night). Lyrically, the mood follows suit: “There’s a fog upon L.A/And my friends have lost their way/”We’ll be over soon,” they said/Now they’ve lost themselves instead”. As you might expect, this isn’t a song that you’ll bop along to on a summer’s day with your grandparents. It’s a cauldron of dark paranoia.
*‘Flying’ is the only Beatles song wherein all four members are credited as writers.
(Photo: The Beatles filming the promo/music video for ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ in Knole Park, Sevenoaks, Kent, on Monday 30th January 1967)
The brooding dissonance of ‘Blue Jay Way’ is wonderfully counterbalanced by the groove-filled, upbeat, fun of ‘Baby, You’re a Rich Man’. Created by a fusion of two unfinished songs written by Lennon (the verse) and McCartney (the chorus) respectively, the song displays what a record can sound like when The Beatles are actually having a good time when recording it – what with the chorus being infectiously raucous (sung by The Beatles, studio members, and even Mick Jagger who was visiting), the hand-claps that permeate throughout, and even the sound of a wine glass clinking by accident during the recording at around 0:53. As hypnotic, train-chugging, rhythmic piano and drums build, an effortlessly cool McCartney bass ripples in, amplifying the bluesy feel of the song. The sporadic sound of Lennon’s clavioline adds enough psychedelic zaniness to maintain the feel of the album, whilst Ringo pulls out yet another top draw performance with smatterings of his iconic, innovative drum fills.
1967 was arguably the most important year of The Beatles entire career. Within one year, they made and released Sgt. Pepper, made and released Magical Mystery Tour, reluctantly made a critically panned TV film, met several interests that pulled them away from the band (Lennon: Yoko, Harrison: Hinduism), their long-time manager and spiritual rock Brain Epstein died, McCartney’s growing control changing the dynamics of the band (and the resentment this caused), and they started their own doomed company Apple Corps.
They reached a creative peak with Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour, and the only way from there is down.