Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The 50th Anniversary of The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour

It was fifty years ago tonight that The Beatles' television special Magical Mystery Tour premiered on BBC1. The special was given a prime spot at 8:35 PM on Boxing Day. The Beatles were fresh from their success with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had just been released that June. Sadly, while Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band received dozens of accolades, Magical Mystery Tour would leave viewers baffled and television critics incensed.

The origins of the television special go back to a song Paul McCartney had written in early 1967 titled "Magical Mystery Tour". The song had been planned for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, but ultimately Paul McCartney decided it did not quite fit the album and as a result "Magical Mystery Tour" was not included on it. It was when The Beatles were discussing how to proceed following the death of their manager Brian Epstein that Paul McCartney came up with the idea for the film Magical Mystery Tour.

Paul McCartney got the idea from essentially two sources. In the Sixties tours by bus to various English seaside towns were quite popular (such as ones taken from Liverpool to see the Blackpool Illuminations every autumn). Many of these bus tours were "mystery tours", whereby people on the tour did not know their destinations until they actually arrived there. The other source was Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, who toured the United States by bus in 1964. The Merry Pranksters' adventures were later chronicled in Tom Wolfe's 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Paul McCartney's plan was simple: hire a bus, set out on a mystery tour, and film it. For that reason, Magical Mystery Tour never had a proper script, only a handwritten hodgepodge of ideas and sketches.

To this end The Beatles hired extras and chartered a bus. Shooting took place from September 11 1967 to September 25 1967. Unfortunately, the small amount of planning for Magical Mystery Tour would make shooting difficult at times. It was not long after filming began that The Beatles discovered the bus was being followed by a rather large contingent of reporters and photographers. Worse yet, the bus sometimes found itself caught in traffic jams and work stoppages were a regular occurrence.

The Beatles had meant to film some of the interior sequences at  Shepperton Film Studios, but no one had thought to book the studios. Ultimately several sequences, including the one for the song "I Am the Walrus", were shot around the airfield RAF West Malling in Kent. The climactic sequence for the song "Your Mother Should Know" was shot in an unused hangar there. The psychedelic sequence for the instrumental "Flying" was created by production assistant Dennis O'Dell, using footage from outtakes of Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Mr. O'Dell had worked on the film).  Shot in black and white, the footage was colourised for its use in the television special. The sequence in which The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band perform "Death Cab for Cutie" was shot at the Raymond Revuebar in London. The sequence for "Fool on the Hill", with Paul McCartney simply singing the song, was not shot in England at all. Instead it was shot on a hill near Nice, France.

While Magical Mystery Tour took only two weeks to film, it took eleven weeks to edit. The filming had ultimately produced around ten hours worth of footage, of which only 52 minutes would be in the television special. The film was edited by Roy Benson and The Beatles at Norman's Film Productions in London. Much of the reason the editing took so long was The Beatles themselves. As Tony Bramwell (George Harrison's childhood friend, The Beatles' road manager, and later CEO of Apple Records) said, "Paul would come in and edit in the morning. Then John would come in, in the afternoon, and re-edit what Paul had edited. Then Ringo would come in..."

Magical Mystery Tour debuted on BBC1 on Boxing Day 1967. Although the special was shot in colour,  it was broadcast in black-and-white as BBC1 had not yet converted to colour. It was viewed by 15 million people, a huge audience for any programme on the BBC. Unfortunately, Magical Mystery Tour would receive a poor reception from both the audience and television critics. Reportedly the BBC's switchboards were filled with callers complaining about the special, many of who thought it was incomprehensible. If anything, the reaction of television critics was even worse than that of the average viewer. James Thomas of The Daily Express wrote, "The bigger they are, the harder they fall. And what a fall it was..." The Daily Mirror referred to Magical Mystery Tour as, "Rubbish!...Piffle!...Nonsense!" James Green of The Evening News wrote, "I watched it. There was precious little magic and the only mystery was how the BBC came to buy it."

The sheer vitriol British critics directed at Magical Mystery Tour would have a direct impact on how long it would be before the special would be seen in the United States. NBC, CBS, and ABC had each been negotiating to air Magical Mystery Tour for a reported $1 million. After the harsh reviews the special received in the United Kingdom, all three American networks withdrew their offers for the film. Magical Mystery Tour would be shown in colour on BBC2 on January 5 1968. Unfortunately, this would be too little, too late.

Indeed, Magical Mystery Tour would rarely be seen in the United States for the next two decades. On August 11 1968, at a fundraiser for the Liberation News Service, the Filmore East in New York City showed it twice. In 1974 New Line Cinema acquired the American distribution rights and it had a limited theatrical release. It would not be until 1987 that Magical Mystery Tour would get widespread exposure in the United States when it was syndicated to local television stations around the nation. In 1988 it would be released on VHS and Laserdisc. In 1997 it was released on DVD for the first time. Magical Mystery Tour would later be restored. The restoration aired on October 6 2012 on BBC Two and BBC HD, along with a documentary on the special. In the United States, the restoration aired on PBS as part of their series Great Performances on December 14 2012. It was also in 2012 that Magical Mystery Tour was first released on Blu-Ray and released on DVD again.

In some respects today it is easy to understand the British critics' reaction to Magical Mystery Tour in 1967. Portions of Magical Mystery Tour looks amateurish, not unlike a home movie that first year film students might have shot. The editing is sometimes choppy at best. Some sequences run too long and others don't run long enough. That having been said, what the critics missed in 1967 is that Magical Mystery Tour does have its share of assets. The musical sequences would seem to justify the special having been made at all. The "I Am the Walrus" sequence is actually better than some of The Beatles' promotional films for their songs shot by professionals. The sequence for "The Fool on the Hill", simple though it may be, also stands out.  The sequences for "Blue Jay Way" and "Your Mother Should Know" are a good deal of fun. Of course, while the television special Magical Mystery Tour might seem amateurish at times, the music The Beatles composed for the special certainly does not. "Magical Mystery Tour", "The Fool on the Hill", and "I Am the Walrus" number among their best songs. It must also be noted that The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band's "Death Cab for Cutie" (best described as Elvis performing a teen tragedy) is a welcome part of the film.

Indeed, while the special Magical Mystery Tour was ill-received by both viewers and critics, the music from the special received a warm reception. An LP entitled Magical Mystery Tour was released by Capitol Records in the United States on November 27 1967.   Side one consisted of songs from the special, while side two consisted of such Beatles singles as "All You Need is Love". The album received good notices and hit no. 1 on the Billboard album chart. An EP entitled Magical Mystery Tour was released in the United Kingdom on December 8 1967, consisting only of songs from the special. It received good notices in the UK and topped Record Retailer's EP chart.

Historically Magical Mystery Tour has been regarded as The Beatles' first failure since the onset of Beatlemania in the United Kingdom in 1963. It was perhaps particularly noticeable given that it came on the heels of what was regarded as one of their greatest successes, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, that summer. Since its debut in 1967 Magical Mystery Tour has been re-evaluated. While there are very few who  would consider Magical Mystery Tour a masterpiece even today, it is not considered the catastrophe that it was in 1967. Indeed, as pointed out above, the musical sequences in the special may well have made the whole thing worthwhile.

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