By Gillian G. Gaar
If asked to cite a date that signaled the beginning of the end for The Beatles, August 27, 1967, would be a good candidate. It was the day the group’s manager, Brian Epstein, was found dead in his London home of an accidental drug overdose. Though The Beatles collectively showed a brave face publicly, John Lennon later admitted the loss of the man who had steered them to phenomenal success worried him deeply. “I knew we were in trouble then,” he told “Rolling Stone.” “I didn’t really have any misconceptions about our ability to do anything other than play music and I was scared. I thought, ‘We’ve f**kin’ had it.’”
Yet, less than a week later, the four had gathered at Paul McCartney’s house to discuss future projects, electing to take on something they’d never done before; writing and directing their own television special, “Magical Mystery Tour.” The film and the accompanying soundtrack would be released by the end of the year, and the venture would turn out to be a major turning point for the group — the moment when the first cracks in their invincibility began to show.
The idea for doing the film came from Paul, who’d visited the U.S. that April, hanging out in Los Angeles and San Francisco with The Beach Boys and Jefferson Airplane in between meeting his girlfriend, Jane Asher, in Colorado for her birthday. On the flight home, his firsthand experience of the burgeoning countercultural scene on the West Coast gave him the idea to make “a crazy roly-poly Sixties film” embodying the same kind of free-spirited energy. Further inspiration came from hearing about the escapades of Ken Kesey’s “Merry Pranksters,” who travelled around the U.S. in a brightly colored bus during the summer of 1964, freely dispensing LSD, which was not yet illegal, a journey later documented in Tom Wolfe’s book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”
Paul wanted to give a British spin to such a trip, creating a psychedelic version of the “mystery tours” offered in England; a bus trip people signed up for not knowing what the destination was going to be. On April 25, The Beatles duly reconvened at EMI Recording Studios and began work on the title track, “Magical Mystery Tour.” Hunter Davies, then working on an authorized biography of the band, was in the studio and described the scene, with Paul very much in charge:
“Paul played the opening bars on the piano, showing the others how it would go. He gestured a lot with his hands and shouted flash, flash, saying it would be like a commercial … Paul said trumpets, yes they’d have some trumpets at the beginning, a sort of fanfare, to go with ‘Roll up, roll up for the Magical Mystery Tour.’ Mal (Evans, a Beatle aide) had better write that line down, as it was the only line they had.” There were four further sessions for the song in April and May; it was then put aside until The Beatles returned to the project in September.
The release of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in June, followed by the worldwide live broadcast of “All You Need is Love” later in the month, showed The Beatles going from strength to strength. Paul hoped “Magical Mystery Tour” would build on that success, and he very much wanted it to be a group effort, drawing up a pie chart diagram divided into different sections, asking that each Beatle be responsible for contributing something.
But the other Beatles didn’t entirely share his enthusiasm. “(Paul) said, ‘Here’s the segment, you write a little piece for that,’” John recalled. “And I thought, ‘F**kin’ hell, I’ve never made a film, what’s he mean?’ … George (Harrison) and I were sort of grumbling, ‘F**kin’ movie, well, we better do it.’ A feeling that we owed the public to do these things. So we made it.”
Nonetheless, the group quickly went to work. Just prior to Brian’s death, they’d started recording Paul’s nostalgic “Your Mother Should Know,” on August 23. Now they continued work on the film’s soundtrack from September 5 to September 8, working on John’s “I Am the Walrus,” George’s “Blue Jay Way” and the instrumental “Flying” (the only Beatles song jointly credited to the entire band).
There was also a flurry of activity in setting up the film shoot. Though there was no official director per se, filmmaker Peter Theobald, whom Paul knew through their mutual friend Barry Miles, was hired to oversee the filming. Paul handed Peter a stack of notes, explaining The Beatles didn’t want to work to a schedule as rigid as those for their feature films, “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” “They wanted it to be freewheeling, to pick up things as they happened,” Theobald explained to McCartney biographer Howard Sounes. Shooting was scheduled to begin the following Monday, September 11.
Paul had envisioned a quick production schedule: a week of location shooting, a week of studio shooting, and a week to edit. But things began to go awry on the first day, when the bus that was to pick up the actors and crew arrived two hours late. The bus had colorful “Magical Mystery Tour” signs on its sides, and the cast consisted of actors the group found looking through the London show business directory “Spotlight,” as well as their friends, including Beatle aides Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans, Paul’s brother Mike McGear, and fan club secretary Freda Kelly.
There was no working script; Paul wanted the dialogue to be improvised. But there was also no thought given to other logistical matters like booking rooms for the night, and providing food for everyone. “When Brian was alive, you never had to worry about any of that,” Neil Aspinall later recalled. “You’d just ask for 15 cars and 20 hotel rooms and they’d be there.”
The first night was spent at the Royal Hotel in Teignmouth, in Devon. There were plans to go to the Widecombe Fair the next day, but the bus got stuck on a narrow bridge, causing John to angrily storm outside and pull the “Magical Mystery Tour” signs off the sides. It was then decided that it would simpler to stay in one location for the duration, and the bus headed off to Newquay, in Cornwall, where everyone was booked into the Atlantic Hotel.
Most of the filming was done on September 13 and 14, including the scenes setting up the film’s vague storyline; Ringo Starr taking his Aunt Jessie (Jessie Robins) on the mystery trip. John oversaw the shooting of a scene of comedian Nat Jackley chasing bikini-clad women around a swimming pool, which was ultimately cut, as was a scene of George meditating in a field.
Before leaving on September 15, everyone gathered in front of the hotel, with passersby asked to join in, everybody waving to the cameras; this shot is seen in the film’s opening sequence. The bus then returned to London, with footage shot on board of accordionist Shirley Evans hosting a boisterous sing-along, with everyone drinking beer.
The band was back in the recording studio the next day, working on “Your Mother Should Know” and “Blue Jay Way.” On September 18, a strip tease sequence was filmed at the Raymond Revuebar in London’s Soho neighborhood, with stripper Jan Carson disrobing while art rockers the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band performed “Death Cab for Cutie,” the only non-Beatles song in the film (a sequence of Traffic performing “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush” was also briefly considered for use in the film).
When it came time to film the studio sequences, The Beatles were surprised to learn that professional film studios needed to be booked far in advance. They had to settle for shooting at West Malling Air Station, a former U.S. base, using the air field and a large hangar, filming from September 19 to 24, and October 1. It was here that the film’s most memorable sequence was shot, the wonderfully surreal madness of “I Am the Walrus.” The extravagant production number for “Your Mother Should Know” was shot in the hangar. Other sequences filmed at West Malling included a crazy marathon featuring all manner of vehicles (George can be seen driving one of the cars), and a disturbing scene thought up by John, which has him playing a smarmy waiter shoveling up piles of spaghetti for an increasingly distraught Aunt Jessie.
The Beatles had wanted their “Hard Day’s Night”/ “Help!” co-star Victor Spinetti to come along on the bus trip, but he was busy performing in the play “Oh! What a Lovely War!” in London. But he was able to come down to West Malling for a day’s shooting, doing a variation of the drill sergeant character he played in the show. “At one point John spotted a stuffed cow, and he just decided there and then to have it in the shot,” Spinetti later recalled. “They were making it up as they went along.” During the lunch break, time was also set aside for meditation. The sequences of The Beatles and Mal Evans playing the magicians watching over the mystery trip were also shot at West Malling, as was a scene of Buster Bloodvessel singing a song, which was later cut.
Editing began on September 25, and ran much longer than anticipated; but it lasted much longer; “But, you know, 12 weeks of fun,” Paul cheerfully related later. The group was also kept busy finishing up the film’s songs, and squeezing in a few further dates of filming. On October 29, the scene of Ringo and his aunt arriving at the bus for the mystery trip was shot in London. Nothing had yet been filmed for Paul’s song “The Fool on the Hill,” so on October 30 he flew to France with a camera operator, shooting scenes around Nice (he neglected to bring his passport, but nonetheless managed to persuade the immigration authorities to let him in the country). While part of George’s “Blue Jay Way” was shot at West Malling, further filming was done at Ringo’s house on November 3, with Ringo himself directing. There were several dreamlike moments, as when film is projected on Mal Evans’ bare chest, and each of The Beatles is seen playing a white cello.
The first music to be released from “Magical Mystery Tour” was “I Am the Walrus,” the B-side of the “Hello Goodbye” single, released on November 24 in the U.K., November 27 in the US, topping the charts in both countries (the coda of “Hello Goodbye” also played over the final credits of “Magical Mystery Tour”). The complete soundtrack soon followed. In the U.S., it was decided to package the film’s six songs with the A- and B-sides of the other singles The Beatles released in 1967, thus creating an album, which was released on November 27, and soon went to No. 1. In the U.K., the songs were released on a double EP set, released on December 8; it reached No. 2. The album and EP sets also came with a booklet that told the film’s story.
Given the success of the soundtrack, expectations were high for the film. It was first broadcast on December 26 on BBC 1, and immediately met with a harsh response, dismissed as “blatant rubbish” by one reviewer. Critics faulted the slight storyline, and certainly the improvised sequences tend to drag. That the film was broadcast in black and white didn’t help; the varied color landscapes that flash by while “Flying” is played were nothing more than a gray blur to a baffled British audience. The BBC also cut scenes of Aunt Jesse and Buster Bloodvessel enjoying a romantic sojourn on the beach.
The film was later broadcast in color on BBC 2, but the damage was done; no U.S. TV stations would pick it up. It was the first time The Beatles had faced such a united front of criticism. Paul hastily did an interview the day after the film’s premiere, admitting, “It was our first attempt. If we goofed, then we goofed. It was a challenge and it didn’t come off. We’ll know better next time.”
But there would not be a next time. The Beatles’ invulnerability had been punctured, and over the next few years, the group would slowly disintegrate. After the group’s break up, “Magical Mystery Tour” would be reassessed. No longer viewed as a complete disaster, the musical sequences in particular are rightly regarded as the film’s high points. “I think the film had its moments,” George later observed in “The Beatles Anthology” book. “The bits that were good are still good, and the bits that weren’t so good are still not so good. It hasn’t matured with age, but there were always a couple of good songs, and there were a few funny scenes.” In short, a flawed experiment, but one not without its charms.