The next project of recording–this of the music for the planned Magical Mystery Tour television film–started before Sgt Pepper had even been released. In fact, it started mere days after the last notes of “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)” were put to tape, after Paul had returned from a visit to the United States. The movie itself would remain in the planning stages for a good while, as filming would not start until mid-September 1967. The recording of the music for it would be scattershot, the theme song recorded in April alongside the future Yellow Submarine music, the rest being picked up in August and September. Late 1967 would be an extremely trying time for them financially and emotionally, so it may seem that the Magical Mystery Tour project might have been seen in two ways: one, as a financial outlet for their recently-created business partnership Apple Corps, and two, as an emotional outlet (or perhaps an emotional escape) for the devastating loss of Brian Epstein. It seemed that they had finally escaped the insanity of early 60s Beatlemania, only to exchange it for the insanity of running a business with little to no prior experience, and without their longstanding manager. They had great ideas…but they had little to no idea how to expand on them or if they would even work.
As mentioned before, the Beatles were creatively drifting at this point as well–as George Martin would say, they were in their “try anything” phase which was producing mixed results. Musically they were still creative, but it was taking longer for them to achieve their goals–if they in fact had any at that point.
The film itself is a testament to this. The plot was partly inspired by Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and their traveling bus Further, as well as the charabanc trips of the Beatles’ youth (these were chartered, low-cost day trips via coach, usually to a seaside resort or another tourist attraction). There was no plan and very little script, other than Paul’s pie-chart outline and a few planned performances. It was mainly filmed via an extremely small crew, including the band themselves (I am assuming they used 16mm or 35mm stock, given the quality and the timeframe), and the idea was, like their recorded output at the time, “be at the bus station on Monday and we’ll see what happens.” The finished product is a trippy, disjointed and amateurish film resembling a home movie. It’s quite colorful and has its moments, but as a whole it was understandably panned by critics and fans alike. There are a few creative passages, such as the fabulous weirdness of the “I Am the Walrus” segment, the hilarious (yet sadly too short) cameo of Victor Spinetti as an incomprehensible army drill sergeant, and The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s burlesque performance of “Death Cab for Cutie” (yes, that is where the band got its name!)…but much of it is filler. Many fans who saw this on its Boxing Day airing saw it in black and white, and their reaction was quite negative.
The band agreed that the release was subpar and despite further airings in color, it was deemed a misfire. Perhaps it was time to rethink their future plans–or in this case, make some future plans instead of “seeing what unfolds”. They would use their upcoming India retreat as a way to make some concrete goals, write completely new songs, and become a full-fledged band again.
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EP: Magical Mystery Tour
Released: 8 December 1967
Given that they did not have a full album’s worth of new songs to provide, nor did they want to release an album half-filled with music they’d released earlier in the year, it was decided to release the soundtrack to their television film as a double EP. The format itself wasn’t nearly as popular as it once had been, and was not popular at all in the US, but it was deemed the only acceptable way to release it. As mentioned in the previous entry, this was released only in EP format in the UK, and the American full-album version (the six MMT tracks on one side and in a different order), the previous three 1967 singles on the other) would not be released in the UK until 1976, at which point it finally became official UK canon and later officially part of their discography.
The original EP–and early vinyl copies of the American version–included a wonderfully packaged 28-page insert that included stills from the film as well as a comic book version of the film itself. The comic book is set up in a children’s story book fashion, one page split into six images with a few simple sentences describing the scene (and obviously omitting a lot of the slower scenes in the film). This insert vanished for a good number of years, but finally resurfaced, much to many fans’ delight, with the 2009 remastered cds.
Side A, Track 1: Magical Mystery Tour
A fanfare opens up the EP (and the film) with the roaring sound of a coach bus and Paul, as barker, calling out to everyone to come and enjoy the trip he’s about to take them on. The first track recorded for the project on 25 April, just a few days after Paul’s return from his US trip, it’s a lighthearted rock song that does its job as an entrance theme. Interestingly the vocals were recorded at a lower speed and played back faster, giving Paul’s lead and John and George’s backup a much different, and much more jovial tone. Of note here, though, is a curious and unexpectedly jazzy fade out…they were known for extending the ends of their songs in the studio around this time (a number of White Album-era songs would get treated this way), even if they were eventually edited out, but this was most likely the first time it would stay in the final mix. It serves as a musical segue from the opening shots to the movie proper.
Side A, Track 2: Your Mother Should Know
The next song recorded for this project popped up on 22 August–a good number of months after most of the Yellow Submarine tracks had been finished and the Our World project had been finished. Curiously this track was started not at Abbey Road but at Chappell Recording Studios, another independent studio in London (like their previous recording at Olympic, Abbey Road had been booked solid at this time). This is another of Paul’s compositions and very similar to his “old-timey” songs he was occasionally fond of writing (and which John would later snipe about, post-breakup). It was also the last song that Epstein would hear them recording, as he would pass away days later.
It’s another simple song, somewhat vaudevillian in its way, and one can hear it in the production. The main chord progression is circular and shuffles along as if played on banjo–in fact, one can hear George’s guitar faintly on the right speaker sounding remarkably like one, specifically near the title refrain. It was used in a Busby-Berkley-style musical scene at the ending of the film, as a celebratory end to their magical trip.
Side B: I Am the Walrus
Previously seen as the b-side to the “Hello Goodbye” single (see the previous entry), it was accepted here on the EP due to its segment in the film. This song was the first track they recorded (on 5 September) after Epstein’s death, after a heady meeting on 1 September at Paul’s house in St John’s Wood (mere blocks from Abbey Road on Cavendish Avenue). Despite their loss and their lack of direction, they’d decided to soldier on with the Magical Mystery Tour project as well as with their upcoming India retreat. They did not want to keep things unfinished, nor did they want to continue without any plan in mind.
Side C, Track 1: The Fool on the Hill
A third Paul song, started properly on 25 September after a brief outtake on the 6th. It’s a ballad similar to “Here There and Everywhere” or “For No One”, based mostly on a piano melody. It could easily be Paul’s answer to John’s “Nowhere Man”–a song about a man blissfully unaware (perhaps on purpose) of the world around him. This song, however, takes on a slightly darker edge, revealing that this “Fool” may actually be a lot smarter than he’s letting on–some have stated that it was based on the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. While Paul paints the man as inattentive and oblivious in the light verses sung in a major key, the chorus describes him as seeing the bigger and darker picture, sung in minor. Adding to the childlike quality of the song is a solo played on recorder by Paul. The song shows up in an interesting passage of the movie, a dreamlike segment with Paul walking around Nice, France, which was shot in late October.
Side C, Track 2: Flying
This track is a standard twelve-bar blues riff instrumental–their first instrumental since attempting one with “12-Bar Original” a few years previous, and the first Beatles track credited to all four members. It’s purposely laid back and dreamlike, with John playing the main melody on mellotron, and Paul and George playing the guitars. Originally entitled “Aerial Tour Instrumental”, it was used in what was to be another dreamlike sequence, hinting that the tour bus was flying through these magical clouds as it headed towards its destination. It’s a relatively short blues jam at just over two minutes, but dynamically it’s kind of fun, starting quietly but building up to a vocalized crescendo. It ends with the burbling sounds of mellotron tape loops created by John and Ringo…which, in one of its unedited forms, went on for a further seven minutes. This extended ending was used as incidental music throughout the movie.
The segment of the movie that features this two-minute version was created using unused aerial footage from Stanly Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr Strangelove and lab-tinted various colors. It unfortunately didn’t translate well into black and white during its initial airing on BBC1 and added to the negative reaction to the film, but in its colorized form (which works much better on the remastered 2012 DVD release than it did on the subpar 80s VHS version), it’s fun to watch.
Side D: Blue Jay Way
George supplied the final track on the EP written at and about a street in the Hollywood Hills where he’d rented a home in 1967, where he’d had to wait for their press officer Derek Taylor to arrive one evening. The opening line “There’s a fog upon LA” refers specifically to the fact that up in the Hills it would get quite foggy and reaching the street (via quite a circuitous route) one could get easily lost. To add to the fog and the trippiness, pretty much every instrument here is treated with some kind of flanging effect, from George’s voice to Ringo’s drums (curiously pushed forward in the mix here) and the swirling organ. It too had its own segment, in the form of a movie-within-a-movie, with the bus riders entering a tent to watch the performance which was alternately shot on a foggy street and in one of the Beatles’ back yards.
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The EP (and the US album) concluded what would be probably one of the most peculiar eras in the Beatles catalog. The freedom they longed for came to fruition in late 1966, giving them more creative freedom and time to build more complex recordings. Out of this came two phenomenal releases: the “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” single and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, both considered their finest achievements. Their success however left them unsure where to go from there–they were under a new contract, running a new production company that would make more sense financially (read: would raise them more money while simultaneously avoiding the punishing British tax code for performers), and could do anything they wanted but had no plan. There have been a number of books written about their financial issues from this time forward (Peter Doggett’s You Never Give Me Your Money is a particularly damning account for everyone involved), as well as their personal and emotional (and health) states at this time, so it’s easy to see that the latter half of 1967 could be viewed as a starting point where it started going downhill.
That said, listening to the EP/album in this day and age, and on its own without the history behind it, it’s a wonderful collection of the band at their most eclectic: they were firmly in “rock” territory by this time, having moved far enough away from their pop origins and their brief foray into folk rock. Many of the songs were brimming with creativity, not to mention a deep knowledge of the songwriting craft, giving their tracks many more layers than one would notice upon first listen. It’s also the band at their most psychedelic–which is understandable, given the era in which the songs were recorded.
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Single: Christmas Time (Is Here Again)
Released to the Beatles’ Official Fan Club: 15 December 1967
The Beatles saw 1967 out with one last recording, this time with another fan club message. As with 1966’s self-penned silliness, the Beatles wrote the script (such as it was) for this one as well, this time in the form of what sounds like a Christmas eve BBC broadcast. It starts off with a rocking theme song which is then interspersed throughout the recording, which contains a skewered take on radio entertainment at the time: a game show, a repeating commercial for Wonderlust, an interview with a stodgy politician, and more. Even George Martin gets in on the fun this time, stating “They’d like to thank you for a wonderful year” (echoed by George H, and then the four boys, in deadpan) before the track ends with a reprise of the theme, overdubbed by laughing and hooting. As an epilogue, they’ve also edited a fade-out from 1966’s recording, with John reading a season’s greeting in a fake Scottish accent. While it’s not nearly as slapstick as 1966’s recording, it’s equally as silly in terms of British humor.
* * *
Given all the events that unfolded in 1967–the new sounds, the personal events, the participation in Our World and other projects–the year was quite a rollercoaster, and in retrospect it could have been part of the impetus for their frustrations, failings and eventual breakups down the road. Many books have stated that the band was well aware that they were skirting into unknown territory, and freely admitted that they were not the best businessmen when it came down to it. The times were changing again, and so was the band. They had been a part of the blissful and blissed-out Summer of Love, created a soundtrack to it even, but near the end of the year, it was time to come back down to reality. Still, they chose to remain as positive as they could for the time being, entering 1968 with a few abbreviated recording sessions in January and February for potential singles and another Yellow Submarine track, before heading out to India in April. By the time they returned back to London in May, they had a new slew of songs they had written during their time off, and had even more to record as that new project grew. Those sessions would become quite fruitful, but quite contentious as well. The result would offer some absolutely stunning and memorable songs, as well as the most argued-about Beatles album in their catalog.
Next Up: the “Lady Madonna”/”The Inner Light” and “Hey Jude”/”Revolution” singles