Was the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” Really a Failure?
December 26th, the day after Christmas — and known in the U.K. as Boxing Day — is also the anniversary of the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour television special, broadcast in 1967.
It came at the end of another incredibly successful year for the band. On June 1, they released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album still considered by most critics, music historians, and pop culture aficionados as the greatest and most influential rock album of all time.
It created a seismic shake-up in the music world, and its release day is credited for having launched the “Summer of Love,” highlight 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,” seen by an estimated 400 million viewers worldwide.
But that summer ended in tragedy for the group. On August 27, their legendary manager, Brian Epstein, died of what was officially determined to be an accidental drug overdose. He was only thirty-two years old. His main duties as their manager had consisted of arranging their countless personal appearances, concert tours, and other activities around the world. But a year before, in August of ’66, the group decided to end touring forever, to work exclusively as a studio band.
Epstein’s responsibilities became 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 studio executives, or even directors and scriptwriters. Paul had become interested in the trend of avant-garde filmmaking, often practiced by somewhat pretentious young artistes of the day, and found himself dabbling in making short films of his own.
He presented his vague idea of a “magical” mystery tour to Epstein. Actually, such coach tours were common at the time, promising a fun, event-filled day or two for the passengers, without giving much away as to the destinations on the itinerary. Paul’s film version would, of course, allow for several musical sequences, thus presenting a new batch of songs for the fans. And, contrary to a common assumption asthat Epstein wouldn’t have approved of the film in 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. However, the project idea had to take a back seat to promoting Sgt. Pepper and continuing their path of producing innovative new songs and styles on their subsequent recordings.
While Epstein had little influence on the Beatles’ work in the studio, upon his sudden death they found themselves shocked, confused, and somewhat directionless. Paul in particular felt a sense of panic accompanying his grief, fearing the others might begin to drift apart, lose interest, and eventually dissolve the group altogether. It was then that he stepped up the effort to get the filming underway, even with Epstein’s death so fresh in their minds.
So, in mid-September — with a couple of busloads of friends, assistants, music hall entertainers, and other assorted individuals and a small film crew on hand— the Magical Mystery Tour began filming its journey, mostly in Devon and Cornwall.
Any hope of filming with little notice from the general public was quickly dashed, as large crowds followed the coach busses to and from the filming locales. Many who were present in the entourage never really knew if a given stop on the road was simply to have a meal, to film a spontaneous 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 a few makeshift sets for scenes filmed at the decommissioned West Malling military airfield.
The script, such as it was (and it really wasn’t) remained more of an outline, mostly devised by Paul. When he asked John to write a scene — any scene — John balked at the idea, claiming he didn’t know anything about writing a script. But he nonetheless devised a random, nightmarish dream sequence featuring himself and actress Jessie Robbins, in which John as a restaurant waiter with a creepy smile piles endless heaps of spaghetti onto her place at the dinner table.
Other head-scratching moments include comic actor Victor Spinetti (who co-starred with the group in A Hard Day’s Night and Help!) as a military officer babbling nonsense syllables to his commander Paul; a visit to a strip club in which John and George enjoy their front-row seats for the stripper’s act, backed by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band; a nighttime singalong onboard the bus, led by an apparently inebriated Ringo, etc.
The saving grace for more casual Beatles fans, however, were the six new songs themselves — the rousing “Magical Mystery Tour,’ Paul’s plantive “Fool on the Hill” (the sequence for which he filmed on the Spanish coastline), the instrumental “Flying,” George’s hypnotic “Blue Jay Way,” John’s outlandish yet brilliant “I Am The Walrus,” and Paul’s music hall-style “Your Mother Should Know.”
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. The one-hour Magical Mystery Tour aired on BBC-1 on Boxing Day. At that point in the BBC’s history, however, only the lesser-viewed BBC-2 had begun broadcasing in color. So, the British public first saw the Beatles’ new, splashy, colorful film in drab black & white (Tony Barrow argued that this initial, black & white airing hurt its overall impact greatly, from which the film never truly recovered). Plus, the thin, disjointed collection of scenes made little sense, with no two scenes having much connection or relation to each other, although the idea of the touring experience does hold everyting together, but just barely. The dialogue was mostly improvised, and mostly not very good (George speaks exactly two words in the entire film: “Thank you”).
After its first broadcast on Boxing Day, the film was widely eviscerated in the press. It was re-broadcast later on the color BBC-2 channel, but the second presentation didn’t change many minds. The six new songs were released as a double EP in the U.K. (an EP, or Extra-Play record, was a 45 single with either one or two songs on each side. Many artists today are using the EP format for digital releases, instead of recording full-length albums).
In the U.S., Capital Records released the film’s songs as an LP, using the B side to include tracks released earlier that year as singles: “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 aired in its entirely on a major American broadcast network,although it did sneak its way onto a cable channel or two late at night, decades ago, and for a handful of midnight screenings at small revival movie houses, and at the Beatlefest fan conventions. Consequently, while the American album version included a 16-page fold-out booklet of stills from the movie, most purchasers could make no sense of them without having had the opportunity to see the film itself.
Magical Mystery Tour has indeed suffered for decades as the most glaring of the Beatles’ very few creative “failures,” perhaps their only failure. Or, maybe it wasn’t really a failure at all, despite the resounding rejection by the British public in late 1967. It can be argued that the film, since its premiere, has received a bad rap with the passage of time. Keep in mind that, for its day, it was very much in keeping with the sensibilites of a great many young, creative musicians and filmmakers determined to push the envelope of music and other media. Psychedelia and all it embraced was in, remember? The promo films for “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” from earlier that year certainly indicated a turn to more surreal music and images — possibly influenced by recreational drugs, or not — so Magical Mystery Tour can be considered another, extended entry into that genre.
So, while not a filmmaking masterpiece, Magical Mystery Tour can be enjoyed today as the strange, nonsensical, goofy but fun film with classic songs that, 55 years on, have not fallen out of favor. It is available as a DVD, so maybe half a century is long enough to hold a grudge, especially where the Beatles are concerned. The release of the Get Back Sessions documentary, with all of its fascinating, often breathtaking rehearsal footage never seen before, provided a fresh, new, and more accurate perspective of what we have long referred to as the Let It Be sessions.
In that light, perhaps Magical Mystery Tour might also enjoy a more favorable assessment these days — for all of its idiosyncrasies — to be viewed with the spirit in which it was made. It is harmless, weird, silly fun with the Beatles, and chock full of their timeless music. I’ll take it.
Until next time…
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My other articles related to the Beatles:
“The Beatlemania Years on New York Radio” https://medium.com/@garryberman/the-beatlemania-years-as-heard-on-new-york-radio-69f98aec8474
“The Man Who Filmed the Beatles” https://garryberman.medium.com/the-man-who-filmed-the-beatles-d674eed00bd6
“Remembering When the Beatles Appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show” https://garryberman.medium.com/when-the-beatles-appeared-on-the-ed-sullivan-show-b45b30c00a46
“For the Last Time: ‘Let It Be Was NOT the Beatles’ Break-up Album” https://garryberman.medium.com/for-the-last-time-let-it-be-was-not-the-beatles-break-up-album-10ec71cc387c
“The Night John Lennon Died” https://garryberman.medium.com/the-night-john-lennon-died-55b215bf0c8d
Please visit www.GarryBerman.com to read synopses and reviews of my books (including We’re Going to See the Beatles!) and order them via the links to Amazon.com.