Earlier this year, on June 1, Beatles fans around the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, arguably the Fab Four’s masterpiece. The album created a seismic shake-up in the music world, and its release day is credited for launching the “Summer of Love,” highlighted by the live worldwide TV special “Our World” on July 25th, for which the Beatles premiered yet another instant classic “All You Need Is Love.”
But that summer ended in tragedy for the group. On August 27, their legendary manager, Brian Epstein, died of what was determined to be an accidental drug overdose. He was only thirty-two years old. His main duties as their manager had been arranging their countless personal appearances and concert tours around the world, but in August of ’66 the group decided to end touring forever. Epstein’s responsibilities were drastically diminished, but he was not out of the picture. Even before Sgt. Pepper was released, Paul came to him with an idea for the group, by which they would create and direct their own film, exactly as they wished, without outside interference from a film studio. Paul had become interested in the current trend of avant-garde filmmaking by somewhat pretentious young artistes, and was dabbling in making short films himself at the time.
He presented his vague film idea of a magical mystery tour to Epstein. Such coach tours were common then, promising a fun, event-filled day or two for the passengers, without giving too much away as to the destinations on the itinerary. Paul’s film version would, of course, allow for several musical sequences, presenting a new batch of songs for the fans. Contrary to a common assumption that Epstein probably wouldn’t have approved of the film, especially had he lived to see its final form, he encouraged Paul to pursue it, and had other top Beatles employees, such as Alastair Taylor and publicist Tony Barrow, lend a hand with the logistics.
Upon Epstein’s sudden death in August, the Beatles found themselves shocked, confused, and fairly directionless. Paul in particular felt a sense of panic accompanying his grief, fearing the others might begin to drift and eventually dissolve the group altogether. It was then that he stepped up the effort to get the filming underway, even as Epstein’s death was still so fresh on their minds.
So, in mid-September, with a couple of busloads of friends, assistants, music hall entertainers, and other assorted individuals–plus a small film crew–the “Magical Mystery Tour” began filming, mostly in Devon and Cornwall. Any ideas to produce it with little notice from the general public were quickly foiled, as large crowds followed the coach busses to and from each filming locale. Many who were present never really knew if a particular stop was simply to have a meal, film a scene, or both. It was, by all accounts (including those by the Beatles themselves), a mostly
unplanned two-week excursion. There was some preparation involved, for costumes, signs, and building the few makeshift sets needed for certain scenes, filmed at the decommissioned West Malling military airfield.
After filming, the Beatles spent the next several weeks taking turns editing the footage–sometimes undoing each other’s editing decisions from the previous day–and the one-hour Magical Mystery Tour aired on BBC-1 on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas). However, at that point in BBC history, only the lesser-watched BBC-2 had begun broadcasting in color. So, the British public first saw the Beatles’ new, splashy, colorful film broadcast in drab black & white, severely hurting the overall effect (Tony Barrow still argues that the initial, black & white airing hurt its impact greatly, from which it never recovered). Plus, the thin, disjointed plot–not really a plot at all–made little sense. The dialogue was mostly improvised, and mostly not very good. The saving grace for Beatles fans, however, were the six new songs themselves:
“Magical Mystery Tour,” “Fool on the Hill,” “Flying,” “Blue Jay Way,” “I Am The Walrus,” and “Your Mother Should Know.” But even most these self-contained musical sequences were somewhat surreal in nature, no doubt catching a great many viewers off-guard.
After its first broadcast on Boxing Day, the film was widely criticized in the press. It was re-broadcast later on the color BBC-2 channel, which didn’t help. The six new songs were released as a double EP in the U.K. (an EP,
or Extra-Play record, is a 45 single with either one or two songs on each side). In the U.S., Capital Records released the film’s songs in late November, with additional Beatles songs from earlier in the year: “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Penny Lane,” “Hello, Goodbye,” “All You Need Is Love,” and “Baby You’re A Rich Man.”
The film, to this very day, has never been broadcast in its entirety on a major American TV network. The American album version was released with a 16-page booklet of stills from the movie, but Americans could make no sense of them, without having seen the film itself.
Magical Mystery Tour has suffered for decades as the most glaring of the Beatles’ few creative failures, but it can be argued that it has also received a bad rap. For its day, it was very much in keeping with the sensibilities of a great many young, creative musicians and filmmakers. Psychedelia was in, remember?
I first saw Magical Mystery Tour at the Beatlefest convention many years ago, and I hated it too–loved the songs, hated everything in between. It was always saved as the last item on the convention schedule, usually shown at 10:00 p.m. on Sunday night, presumably to clear out the last remaining attendees. Few people stayed to watch it all the way through, and it felt like a depressing end to an otherwise festive weekend.
But my opinion has changed greatly since then. I now see it as a strange, nonsensical, goofy, but fun film with classic songs. In case you’ve ever seen it and hated it, your opinion might change too. Why not give Magical Mystery Tour another chance sometime? Fifty years is long enough to hold a grudge, especially where the Beatles are concerned!
Until next time…