The US MMT
album (top) and the UK EP (bottom).
Paul: "I'm not sure whose idea Magical Mystery Tour
was. It could have been mine, but I'm not sure whether I want to take the blame for it!"
The title track
— quite definitely his idea — was recorded right on the back of the Pepper
sessions in April, though whether it was actually conceived as such is less clear. John was quite convinced that 'the telly' was going to be the best means of peddling the band's wares, now that they weren't going out on the road to do it. The promo films for "Paperback Writer"
, then "Strawberry Fields"
, had been relatively painless to produce, and well-received critically. Presenting their new tunes in the context of a TV movie was a logical extension of the theme.
Stoned logic, of course.
There's little doubt, however, that as the project evolved, it was Paul who assumed the role of chief organizer. Stoned organization, of course. Paul, or whoever/whatever it was that had assumed the role of Paul, that is: "dying
to take you away..." In fact, it was probably a certain South American pick-you-up, as much as the whacky baccy, which had him running around (mis)arranging things.
Although it's unclear if they'd actually come up with the movie plan by the time of Brian Epstein's fatal accidental overdose at the end of August, at least a couple of the songs were already in the can, and at least a couple more had already been written. The Beatles were actually taking a little well-earned time out at the Maharishi's meditation seminar when they received the bombshell. Paul himself has commented on the twisted irony of finding out that a loved one had died in the midst of their looking for the meaning of life. "Shocked and stunned" was the only reaction that anybody could have really expected from any of the four, under the circumstances.
The bulk of the filming was done in September: a chaotic process, basically making up the story (such as it was) as they went along. The 'scrupt' was a big piece of white paper with a circle drawn on it, into which whatever stoned ideas that anyone dreamed up were duly written. Many of the actors hired for the project had real problems with its lack of direction — in both senses of the word. When the ten-plus hours of resultant footage had eventually been trimmed down to fifty-odd minutes, it was offered to the BBC for broadcasting.
Their decision to air it right in the middle of the prime-time family viewing spot on Boxing Day was disastrous — and screening it in glorious black and white effectively nullified its intended psychedelic impact. It was clearly not
"within the limits of British decency", as Mr Bloodvessel puts it in the film. The critics were unanimously scathing: so much so that no American network was prepared to touch the thing, though it was screened at selected theaters
(Paul's name coming first on the trailer talkover...) Nevertheless, he saw fit to issue a public apology.
Was it really
Macca later retracted — or at least modified — his apology, on the grounds that various respected directors had cited the film's influence on their own work. I'd also argue for its influence on the up-and-coming surrealistic comedy movement, led by the Monty Python
team. True, there's little or no plot to it: just a series of bizarre events linking song to song, those "five magical wizards somewhere up in the sky" controlling the bus's destiny like a bunch of tripped-out Olympian gods. That said, the Bond spoof Casino Royale
, released the same year, couldn't really claim to be any more coherent: and that with a twelve-million pound budget. George H had a hazy recollection of having tentatively talked to Patrick 'Number Six' McGoohan at some stage in the proceedings. The equally out there Prisoner
series was launched in Britain round the time they started filming. Now that really could have been interesting: "I am not a Walrus, I am a free man!"
At the end of the day, George probably summed up the whole episode best, saying: "The bits that were good then are still good, and the bits that weren't so good are still not so good".
And the songs themselves are every bit as good and enduring as anything else that the band ever committed to vinyl: as well as some fun arrangements of a few older numbers in the movie. George M also astutely observed that, with the accompanying visual scenes, The Beatles effectively pioneered the art of the pop video, now taken for granted as an essential element of the recording industry. The Fool
and The Walrus
, Blue Jay Way
and Mother Should Know
are all still stunning sequences.
As well as the film, America also had reservations about the format of the UK soundtrack release: a suitably psychedelic double EP, including the lyrics and a comic-book version of the film 'plut', and various photos from it. Capitol issued Magical Mystery Tour
as an album, with the songs from the movie on the first side (in the same different order from the movie as on the EPs), and a collection of recent singles and B-sides
on the second, climaxing with "All You Need"
(though without the lyrics). As the original British version became deleted, this became the official form for subsequent re-releases: though, sadly, the booklet was never included with the CD.
"And that was the Magical Mystery Tour
. I told you — goodbye