1967: Beatles 'Magical Mystery Tour' Goes Nowhere Fast
After a long streak of perfectionism throughout the ‘60s, the whimsical 1967 film Magical Mystery Tour proved The Beatles were capable of mistakes after all. The Fab Four’s earlier films Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help (1965) were worldwide successes and it seemed The Beatles were just as accomplished on the big screen as they were in music. Unfortunately, this loosely-scripted movie was a complete failure and even their most devoted fans were disappointed the day Magical Mystery Tour aired on December 26, 1967.
Paul McCartney Came Up With The Idea For Magical Mystery Tour
Magical Mystery Tour was an idea conceived in the mind of Paul McCartney who had recently gifted the world his experimental concepts with the groundbreaking album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). From that moment on, The Beatles had left behind their pop appeal and were fully headed towards a psychedelic direction with new and unique elements. It seemed that any route The Beatles took was accepted by the world with enthusiasm, which gave them the courage to explore new avenues. McCartney was inspired by Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranskters and their bus Furthur and the popularity of coach (bus) trips throughout England, which led to a free-spirited plot based on the same ideas. Since the group was no longer performing live, it made sense to give their fans another movie. McCartney had some thoughts about the script, but that would about it. Ringo Starr stated, “Paul had a great piece of paper – just a blank piece of white paper with a circle on it. The plan was: ‘We start here, and we’ve got to do something here.’”
There Was No Script To Begin With
Magical Mystery Tour was filmed over two weeks and was cut down from ten hours of footage to 53 minutes. With The Beatles directing the shoot, almost the entire script was improvised. There was a definite lack of professionalism with the free-flowing atmosphere of filming, and some of the experienced actors were disenchanted with the entire process. The Fab Four essentially assembled a group of actors and a crew team to hop aboard an outlandishly colorful bus to drive around the English countryside and make comical pit stops along the way. The film was composed of kaleidoscope visuals, which was heavily influenced by The Beatles’ psychedelic phase and their heavy use of hallucinatory drugs at the time.
The Plot Revolved Around The Beatles’ New Songs
Magical Mystery Tour’s wacky storyline involves a quirky group of individuals that set out on a magical bus tour led by tour director Jolly Jimmy Johnson (Derek Royle) through some beautiful countryside. The bus makes various magical stops where new eccentric characters are introduced along the way, and many musical numbers are performed by the bandmates including the new-at-the-time songs "I Am The Walrus," "Blue Jay Way," and "Fool On The Hill." The plot heavily revolves around Richard B. Starkey (Ringo Starr) and his Aunt Jessie (Jessie Robbins) who are a part of the tour group and are constantly bickering at each other. The five magicians (The Beatles and their road manager Mal Evans) cause many mystical adventures for the rest of the characters Miss Wendy Winters (Miranda Weet) and Buster Bloodvessel (Ivor Cutler). Overall, it was a sequence of trippy scenes that did not seem to flow together, but instead reflected a sense of an acid trip.
Magical Mystery Tour Was Deemed An Utter Failure
When Magical Mystery Tour debuted on Boxing Day (December 26) 1967, it was a shocking catastrophe and proved to be The Beatles first, and arguably only, flop. What was supposed to set the film apart was its vivid imagery and colors, but alas the BBC aired the film in black and white and it looked absolutely terrible. The complete disaster was broadcast again in color a few days later, but only about 200,000 color televisions existed in the UK, so the majority of viewers still didn't get the full intended effect. People utterly hated the film because of its nonsensical storyline and the confusion it caused them. For the first time, the Beatles were not living up to their godlike status and were unable to get away with everything. However, they remained undisputed kings of the charts, as the soundtrack album Magical Mystery Tour topped the Billboard 200 album chart in the United States. (In the UK, Magical Mystery Tour was released as a double EP, which made it to #2 on the EP chart.) Today, the film is much more appreciated for its unorthodox approach, colorful imagery, and for the transition it represented in The Beatles music career.
The Music That Redeems 'Magical Mystery Tour'
The TV special was dreadful -- critics and the public agreed. But there was some good music in it. "Fool On The Hill" is lovely, and "Magical Mystery Tour" is a rousing advertisement that gets your hopes up. But most significantly, Magical Mystery Tour gives us "I Am The Walrus," which is arguably the epitome of Beatles-style psychedelia. It's got circular statements you can neither agree nor disagree with:
I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together
It's got bizarre characters:
They are the eggmen, I am the Walrus
It's got silly, good-LSD-trip imagery:
Sitting on a cornflake, waiting for the van to come
It's got disturbing, brown-acid imagery:
Yellow-matter custard / Dripping from a dead dog's eye
It's got a veiled reference to contemporary drug culture and the persecution of rock musicians for possessing illicit substances. Massive buzzkill cop Norman Pilcher is considered the inspiration for:
Semolina Pilchard / Climbing up the Eiffel Tower
It's got that strange nostalgic and very British element that was key to the Beatles' brand of psychedelia -- the title track of Sgt. Pepper really captured it but here we have:
Sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun / If the sun don't come, you get a tan / From standing in the English rain
And finally, there's the song's outro. If we think of psychedelia as a kitchen-sink experience where we get other texts and references mixed in with our rock 'n roll, the inclusion of a half-dozen lines from Shakespeare's King Lear has to be one of the defining examples. As the song chugs to its finale, we hear:
Villain, take my Purse. If ever thou wilt thrive, bury my Body
And give the Letters which thou findst about me
To Edmund Earl of Gloucester: seek him out upon the English Party. Oh, untimely death
"I Am The Walrus" was released as the B-side to "Hello, Goodbye," which like most Beatles singles was a chart-topping hit all over the world. But its B-side status undersells its musical importance -- it is the Beatles' (specifically John Lennon's) psychedelic masterpiece, capturing the mind-expanded experience in three minutes as much as the hour-long Magical Mystery Tour failed to do.
You might not want to sit down and watch Magical Mystery Tour, but "I Am The Walrus" is an essential track -- can you imagine the Beatles' trajectory from Sgt. Pepper to the "White Album" to Abbey Road without it?