On April 3, 1967, two days after recording the reprise of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Paul McCartney and the Beatles’ assistant Mal Evans flew to America on a private Lear jet reportedly hired from Frank Sinatra. Paul planned to surprise his girlfriend Jane Asher on her 21st birthday. After stopping in San Francisco (where McCartney jammed with the Jefferson Airplane), the pair flew to Denver where Asher was appearing with the Old Vic theatre company in a production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
By 1967, McCartney was making experimental films, and he traveled everywhere with his video camera. While filming Jane Asher at Denver’s Civic Center Park, he was struck by an idea. It combined the randomness of his amateur films with the stories of the Merry Pranksters that he heard during his time in San Francisco and the mystery charabanc tours that took vacationers from Liverpool to Blackpool on a bus filled with beer and accordion players. Maybe the Beatles could create and film a mystery tour of their own.
By the time he returned to England, McCartney had sketched out the idea for the Beatles’ next project – Magical Mystery Tour. Together, they decided that they would write the script and direct the film. Of course, new songs would be needed for the film. On April 25, with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band still being prepared for release, the Beatles began recording the title track for Magical Mystery Tour with McCartney leading the group from the piano.
It would be several months before the Beatles began filming Magical Mystery Tour. In the interim, they would release Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, perform “All You Need Is Love” live on the first worldwide satellite broadcast, and begin their study of meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. That summer, after the death of their manager, Brian Epstein, McCartney convinced the other Beatles that they needed to focus on Magical Mystery Tour, including writing new songs to accompany the film. The first song they would record after Epstein’s death was “I Am The Walrus.” When Lennon sang “I’m crying,” he really was.
Magical Mystery Tour was doomed from the beginning. Without the help of Epstein who might have brought some semblance of order to the project, Magical Mystery Tour was fraught with an absence of direction and an abundance of bad decisions. Five days of makeshift fun traveling around England in their magical bus could not overcome scheduling fiascos, union problems, low morale, and the lack of a script.
Ten hours of film, including scenes shot at the West Malling Air Force Base and a strip club was cut down to just 52 minutes in a marathon, eleven-week editing session. When the BBC aired the final film on Boxing Day, most viewers could not make heads or tails out of the story. The overwhelmingly negative reviews forced a next day apology from Paul on the David Frost show. In America, NBC canceled plans to broadcast the movie.
Magical Mystery Tour may have been the Beatles’ first major flop, but it was more than outweighed by the double EP of music from the film that topped the charts in Britain. Included on the soundtrack were Lennon’s “I Am The Walrus,” Harrison’s “Blue Jay Way,” and McCartney’s “Fool On The Hill.” In America, Capitol decided to pair the six songs from the film with the singles the Beatles had released in 1967, including “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Penny Lane,” and “Hello, Goodbye.” Like its counterpart in England, the Magical Mystery Tour album was Number One on the charts in the U.S.
Today, the Magical Mystery Tour film is seen as a touch of hubris from a band that thought they could do anything but were forced to confront their limitations. Yet, this brief sour note did little to detract from a remarkable year in which the Beatles released the groundbreaking “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” single, “All You Need Is Love,” “Hello, Goodbye,” and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – songs and albums that would forever change popular music.
-Scott Freiman deconstructs the filming and recording of Magical Mystery Tour, as well as “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Penny Lane,” and “All You Need Is Love” in Deconstructing Magical Mystery Tour.
-Photo Credit: Getty Images