Now We’re 64
By Jay Jay French
I grew up as the world’s No. 1 Beatles fan — at least in my mind. Although just about everything The Beatles released had 100 percent of my loyalty, the movie Magical Mystery Tour (MMT) betrayed the limits of that unflinching support.
I read everything about The Beatles. Starting at the age of 11 — and being 20 years old when the band split up—I had no idea how clinically polished the news and publicity was about them. No one did — at least not the buying public. They kept all of the internal conflicts and politics well out of the public eye.
It really is not surprising. Remember, we were still in a era where — even if certain members of the press knew what was going on within a celebrity’s life — a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ between reporter and record label (or publicist) kept most of the negative stuff out of the media. We believed what we were told. TMZ and other intrusive media outlets did not exist to tell us the salacious gossip we now take for granted.
With the exception of John Lennon’s ‘Jesus quote,’ Beatles fans like myself were exposed to only the most perfectly curated and flowery descriptions of the greatest band in history. The Beatles were our pivot point. We went where they told us to go and we did what they told us to do. Their music was literally everywhere, all the time.
Less than four years after “I Want To Hold Your Hand” wiped out just about everything that came before it, Sgt. Pepper’s June 2, 1967 release reaffirmed the band’s entire command of all things media. It also reaffirmed their command on those of us who looked up to them as the musical holy grail of the 20th century.
None of us (the rank-and-file fans) had any idea about the drama, the crises, the personal struggles and interband politics that were roiling under the surface. We simply read about the next fantastic Beatle project, and eagerly waited for the next moment and ran with it. All the other amazing music now bursting forth from our radios and record players was simply a holding pattern until the next Beatles arrival.
Rolling Stone magazine also began in 1967 but although they took critical shots at the likes of Hendrix and Cream, publisher Jann Wenner held back (at least for a couple of years) on any critical inside information he might have known on The Beatles. That was the power The Beatles had on the U.S. music press.
So much was the power of the Beatle mystique that when The New York Times ran a negative review of Sgt. Pepper, 22-year-old author Richard Goldstein had to deal with the professional fallout for 50 years. Furthermore, while is has become fashionable for many critics to now proclaim Sgt. Pepper as an overblown concept album whose material doesn’t stand up to Revolver and Rubber Soul, I will stand behind it as the absolute pinnacle of their artistic contribution in the 20th century.
If you didn’t notice, there was no special 50th anniversary release of Rubber Soul or Revolver. While both are amazing albums, one cannot, in all seriousness, compare the after-effect of those releases to Sgt. Pepper. Sorry.
In today’s environment, a bad review is almost expected. And most bands and artists revel in them as badges of courage. That shows how much times have changed.
In the ‘60s, fans had yet to learn how much George felt that John and Paul were screwing him out of writing credits by limiting his song participation to only two tracks per album. We didn’t have any idea how bad John’s heroin problem had become. And we really had no idea how much the entire band felt that Paul hijacked almost all the creative decisions after the release of Revolver.
Up until that bad NYT Sgt. Pepper review, The Beatles were always treated as the ‘special child,’ ‘the favorite son,’ “The Chosen Ones.” What a luxury that must have been. Screw with them and you lost access to the most important band in history.
One would think then that, having wallowed in the immense afterglow of Sgt. Pepper, followed by the first live televised broadcast performance of “All You Need is Love” to an estimated worldwide audience of 1 billion people, that this was as bulletproof an image as there ever was in popular culture.
But then a funny thing happened on the way to the asylum.
In as little as two months — August 27 to be exact — the spectacularly insulated and internal Beatle universe was turned upside down with the unexpected death of their manager Brian Epstein.
Much has been written about Brian, especially near the end of his life and his paranoia that the band possibly would not have re-signed with him as his contract was nearing its end. How the band no longer might have needed the services of a manager as they had decided to no longer tour. How Brian was so depressed about the possibility of losing the greatest entertainment asset the world had ever known.
While speculation will always be a factor in his history, one thing we know is true: Without Brian’s guiding hand as a manager, a creative force left to their own devices would and could make decisions that are best left to less emotionally involved persons (i.e. a manager).
So, in September of 1967, coming off of what could be considered one of the greatest two months in their history, The Beatles were left essentially rudderless and like many performers, left to the whims and devices of the strongest personalities and dynamics of the group.
In this case.Paul McCartney and his idea to make a “home” movie called Magical Mystery Tour.
In December 1967 I got a job at a head shop on the Upper West Side in Manhattan called Prana. It really was a stoner paradise. We played albums constantly, and it was there, in that head shop, that I heard the album MMT for the first time.
American Top 40 radio, ironically The Beatles’ “best friend,” had no official single to promote since the double A-sided “Penny Lane/ Strawberry Fields” the previous February and so the lead single from MMT “Hello, Goodbye” was all over the radio — both AM ‘Top 40’ and the brand new free-form FM stereo broadcast.
The songs on side two of MMT seemed somewhat random and, in fact, we later learned, the entire album was haphazardly put together from a British double EP called Magical Mystery Tour containing all six songs on side one of the U.S. release. On side two, Capitol records reverted to their oft-repeated exercise of ‘creating’ an album of collections of songs not previously released in album form. In this case, side two of the U.S. release contained five incredible songs: “Hello, Goodbye,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Penny Lane,” Baby, You’re A Rich Man” and “All You Need Is Love”.
The movie Magical Mystery Tour was broadcast in the U.K. on December 26, 1967 and repeated again in January of 1968.
In the states, it didn’t get to theaters until 1974, so I can’t tell you how I would have felt to see it broadcast, in real time, in the U.K. as the EP was released.
I can tell you that the reviews from the British press, however, were pretty scathing from what I had read at the time.
This was very unusual to say the least.
No one ever had a bad thing to say about anything they had done up to that point except for the NYT review, which, by the way, the paper apologized for shortly after.
This time, however, it was the British press having a field day over how bad the MMT movie was.
And how important was it to be stoned to listen to the music? Well, the band pretty much directs you to “Roll up for the Magical Mystery Tour” and side one ends with the chant “smoke pot” from “I Am The Walrus.”
In December 1967, I sure did, and when you see the movie, it pretty much sums up what condition you should be in to watch it! Only in that stoned condition will any of its absurdity make sense.
When I finally saw the movie in 1974, I was no longer getting stoned and so the humor, although I knew something about the existential absurdity what they were going for, fell flat.
The slowly dripping information concerning the movie as a McCartney vanity project now makes more sense but it still doesn’t make up for the arrogance that anyone, except for an inner circle that got all the jokes, would feel that this movie should have been broadcast on British TV.
And yes, it appeared that the inmates (in this case a bossy Paul, a heroin-soaked Lennon, a seemingly compliant Harrison and Ringo (y’know, a drummer) had no one (i.e., Brian Epstein) to say “Hey, this is not something we want to bore the public with.”
As a Monty Python fan, I get British humor and have a pretty wide tolerance for this kind of stuff. This movie just about missed on all cylinders unless you are a blind Beatles fan who will spend two hours indulging in anything Beatles.
Yes, I am one of those but…like I said, I have only seen the movie straight.
Maybe, if I saw it on acid back in ‘67, I may have laughed my way through it.
What makes this frustrating is that the music that leads the movie is actually pretty damn great: “Magical Mystery Tour,” “The Fool On The Hill,” “Flying” (one of only a handful of Beatles songs whose writing credit is given to all four members), “Blue Jay Way,” “You’re Mother Should Know” and “I Am The Walrus.” All memorable, if not (in the case of “I Am The Walrus”) downright legendary.
So I decided to watch the movie yet again (on Blu-ray) for this column.
The movie is 53 minutes long. Nineteen of those minutes are the video vignettes in which the band is lip-syncing the six official songs on the album soundtrack.
When originally broadcast in the U.K. in 1967 it was shown in black and white! Color sets were available but very few had them and when it was shown again a week later, in color, hardly anyone could see it.
Now of course, we can see it in glorious color and the music is (again) remastered for 5.1 sound.
This movie needs all the H-E-L-P it can get!
The best four minutes of the movie (also the most dramatic) of the video/songs is “I Am The Walrus” which I still found exciting to watch.
The final scene, which features the Fabs dancing down a staircase to the song “Your Mother Should Know” is pretty entertaining especially because it signals the much anticipated end to this ill-conceived exercise.
Once you subtract the 19 minutes from the 53, you are left with about a half hour of disconnected set pieces that may have been quite funny home movies but not worth much of anything other than “Well, this is how the greatest band in the world, when left to their own devices and stoned out of their minds, spends their time.”
To put it another way, imagine if the 1971 movie Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory was directed by Syd Barrett.
That about sums it up.
I strongly doubt that Brian Epstein would have let this one out of the can.
The inmates finally got to run the asylum and, no, it wasn’t funny!
Jay Jay French is the founding member, guitarist and manager of Twisted Sister. French is also a motivational speaker and writes a business column for Inc. com.