Part 1 – Background and Production
The Beatles’ next major movie project, the television film Magical Mystery Tour, began some two years after Help! and, unlike their previous productions, was self-produced, financed and directed. The concept of the film was initially proposed by Paul McCartney, who envisaged a semi-improvised fantasy musical in which the group’s most recent batch of soundtrack recordings would be sandwiched in a loose semi-comic and surreal narrative ‘plot’. This ‘plot’, such as it was, consisted of a psychedelic day trip in which the Beatles, accompanied by a group of professional actors and performers, friends and fan club members travelled through unspecified parts of England in a multicoloured bus, visiting such locations as an army recruitment centre, an Italian restaurant, and a Busby Berkeley-style musical set.
Although the idea was conceived by McCartney, the entire group was responsible for the ‘story’ of the film and, while much of the dialogue was improvised, the project was actually directed by all four Beatles, with Ringo Starr additionally credited as director of photography. Overseen by Apple Films’ head Denis O’Dell, the film was produced for around £30,0001 (over a two-week period) and released through Apple Films, a division of the group’s emerging Apple business empire.
I’ve already considered the economic and cultural reasons why film was (and still is) important to pop groups from a wider and more all-embracing economic perspective, but why should a group, with no previous professional experience of film-making (and with no shortage of resources for hiring professional producers and directors), decide to write, direct and produce their own film? Although McCartney has discussed and, to an extent, defended the film quite strongly over the last ten years or so, neither he, nor any of the other Beatles, has actually discussed reasons for such involvement in great depth, in the Anthology interviews, somewhat dismissively claiming that his love of home movie-making was a key factor, and that ‘it was all done on whims.’ However, it is arguable that the group’s interest in film-making at this point in their career was the result of both personal and wider, cultural factors.
From a personal perspective, they were rather unhappy with their previous film, Help!, and felt that their early ‘loveable moptop’ image had been over-exploited in both their previous vehicles. Referring to Help! and A Hard Day’s Night, Lennon commented, ‘We were a bit infuriated with the glibness and shiftiness of the dialogue [of A Hard Day’s Night] and we were always trying to get it more realistic, but they wouldn’t have it. It ended up OK, but the next one [Help!] was just bullshit because it really had nothing to do with the Beatles. They just put us here and there.’2 He also said that the group ‘felt like extras’3 in their own film. By making their own film, the group may have felt that they would be retaining total artistic control over their product.
Lennon’s dismissal of their early films suggests that he and the other members of the group felt that they did not have enough personal control over their image and artistic output. Moreover, their 1967 embrace of hippy counter-culture (using and, in McCartney’s case publicly endorsing LSD,4 supporting the underground press,5 and taking classes in transcendental meditation6) seems to have been a reaction against five long years of being ‘packaged’ into a highly manufactured act which, while musically liberated, was heavily contrived (the identically besuited ‘boy next door’ image), politically censored (Epstein did not allow the group to discuss Vietnam publicly7), and domestically lionized (Harold Wilson’s 1965 award to the group of the MBE). For the Beatles, the exploration of alternative lifestyles may have offered the attraction of an individualism and personal freedom paradoxically necessary to regain some semblance of sanity. The ‘hippy’ ideal distrusted the ‘manufacturing’ of mainstream pop culture and placed individualism, however ironically, high on its agenda, and the group’s involvement with the movement could well have exaggerated their distrust of such promotional methods and accentuated their interest in self-production. Indeed, for all its potential hazards, self-production and direction provided the group with a golden opportunity to break out of the straitjacket of externally imposed media presentation, a presentation which, by 1965 and the release of Help! had become basically repugnant to them.
Moreover, their supreme self-confidence in their ability to adapt to and master other media was, in 1967, at least theoretically justifiable within both their own biographical track record and, on a broader level, within the cultural and artistic climate of the period. Besides being the world’s most successful contemporary songwriters and musicians, the Beatles justifiably saw themselves as cultural all-rounders, capable of mastering any medium which they felt inclined to dabble in. Quite apart from their music, each member had received considerable commercial and/or critical success for ventures undertaken outside the confines of the group itself. Lennon, for example, had published two best-selling books, while McCartney had provided the score for the Boultings’ feature film The Family Way (1966). Meanwhile, Starr, keen to develop his acting career, had in August 1967 been offered a part in United Artists’ new production, Candy (1968), a role which he accepted later in the year. He would later co-star with Peter Sellers in the dramatization of Terry Southern’s novel, The Magic Christian (1969), in a role which, according to director Joe McGrath, was originally envisaged for Lennon.8 Meanwhile Harrison had developed a profound interest in Indian music, and was busy mastering the sitar (an instrument which he brought into much of the Beatles’ material from 1965) under the guidance of his musical guru, Ravi Shankar.
On a more conventionally musical level, the group were also achieving levels of commercial and critical success that, even in the early days of ‘Beatlemania’, they could not possibly have envisaged. Their most recent album release, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (released in Britain on 1 June 1967), as well as being instantly heralded in all sectors of the media as a major artistic breakthrough in pop music’s brief history, was also one of their biggest commercial successes to date.9 With such multimedia success, it is hardly surprising that the group felt that a move into film-making would pose no serious problem. As McCartney somewhat naively stated before the completion of the show, ‘Film-making isn’t as difficult as many people imagine. It’s a matter of common sense more than anything.’10
On a broader level, the Beatles’ film-making venture could also have been influenced by the current climate of cross-fertilization and synergy which was taking place in pop art culture on a vast scale during the mid to late sixties, particularly in the avant-garde or ‘intellectual’ circles in which the Beatles, and particularly McCartney, mixed whilst living in St. John’s Wood during this period. More than any previous period in British culture, the arts, and specifically the musical and visual arts, had become a fluid melting pot of inter-relationships, with each discipline influencing and affecting the others. While groups such as The Who absorbed the auto-destructive manifestos of Dadaism,11 artists like Peter Blake borrowed from the imagery of youth culture, imbuing his work with iconography derived from fashion magazines and rock and roll memorabilia. And although the pop movement had no strict manifesto, its underlying ideology of instantaneous gratification, hedonism, the banality of ‘straight,’ post-industrial existence, youth culture and populism meant that artists such as Blake, Alan Aldridge and Richard Hamilton could comfortably cross over into other areas of design. Aldridge became art editor for Penguin Books in 1966, while Blake and Hamilton were involved in designing album covers for the Beatles in 1967 and 1968.12 Other fine artists became even more experimental in the expansion of their media, and ‘painters’ such as Warhol (who visited McCartney circa 196613) also worked in lithography, photography and film direction. While it is difficult to speculate upon the degree to which the contemporary cultural climate influenced the Beatles’ move into filmmaking, it is clearly likely that the cross-fertilization in visual pop influenced their artistic sensibility.
Indeed, in many ways it is tempting to see their previous album release, Sergeant Pepper, as the epitome of such inter-disciplinary cross-fertilization, the ‘product’ itself comprising elements of music (‘concept’ songs by the Beatles), Blake’s cover (which in its grandiose affluence, stylish montage and revolutionary ‘gatefold’ format self-consciously-presented itself as ‘art’), and literature (the printed lyrics of the songs, a first for a pop album, radically insisting that song lyrics should be considered as poetry). Sergeant Pepper’s release and enormous popularity crystallized the gradual shift in mainstream perceptions of pop music as a low’ art, and ultimately elevated its cultural status to an intellectual level previously occupied by ‘high’ art such as theatre, literature and the fine arts. And if pop was now ‘art’, paradoxically art was now ‘pop’. For the first time in pop music’s brief history, it was embraced by intellectual and middle-class culture, and the avant-garde, a term paradoxically described by Lennon as being ‘French for bullshit’,14 had become inextricably and harmoniously linked with popular teenage culture.
This cross-fertilization and popularization of the avant-garde or ‘intellectual’ arts (also mirrored by the heightened critical status of other media such as cinema and photography) was embraced by audiences and media alike, bridging cultural and generational differences and creating an overall pop culture which was both populist and avant-garde, elitist and classless, intellectual and anti-intellectual. Within a few short years, approaches and attitudes to culture had changed beyond all recognition. In his analysis of sixties culture, Christopher Booker discusses this aesthetic shift:
[In 1956] there would have seemed an unbridgeable gulf between the concerns of, say, the teenagers jiving to Tommy Steele in the basement of the Two Fs coffee bar and those of the audiences for Ionesco at the Royal Court Theatre. Now, in 1964, the coalescence of one form of fantasy with another to make up a sort of overall ‘pop culture’, was taking place so fast that, within a year or two, no-one would be surprised to see the pages of the ‘quality’ press regularly taken up with the rapturous reviews of the latest pop records, or prominent pop singers being starred in plays or films by directors of impeccable ‘intellectual’ credentials, such as Peter Hall or Jean Luc Godard – any more than they would be surprised to see Paul McCartney advertised as spending his leisure hours with the latest electronic fragment from the pen of Stockhausen.15
When in 1966 Time magazine boasted that London was fast becoming the most exciting city of the decade,16 the exaggeration, for all its sensationalism and pretension, did not, at least on a pop cultural level, seem too jarring. The fusion of media, the synergy of styles and the spirit of youthful collaboration between artists from a vast array of disciplines and cultures meant that, at least for a brief period, the once risible idea of a ‘swinging’ London actually became a reality, and British pop culture, via the synergized commercial success of its musicians, designers, artists and photographers, became a highly exportable international phenomenon.
It is also possible that the group’s decision to move into self-production and direction was partly based on a desire to counter media speculation that, with Epstein’s death (on 27 August 1967), the Beatles, a product of his management, were also now finished or greatly weakened. Though absurd in hindsight, as Tony Barrow concedes, ‘Epstein’s death made the next thing the Beatles did absolutely crucial. The showbusiness world was watching to see how the group would handle itself without the personal management of their long-term mate and mentor, Brian Epstein.’17 The Beatles’ decision to become so heavily involved in a project which was (for them) experimental may have been partly influenced by a desire to prove any doubters wrong in grand style, showing them that not only could they still produce successful music, they could also still turn their hand to any medium they chose. Although McCartney’s initial ideas for the film’s concept (which dated back to April 1967) had been discussed with and approved by Epstein before his death, it is not known whether the manager had approved of the idea of the Beatles as film directors. However, the fact that they decided to progress with the project so swiftly after his death gives rise to speculation that the group wished to allay any doubts about their abilities as soon as possible.
The Beatles’ mystery tour embarked on the first leg of the two-week shoot on 11 September 1967, heading for various locations in Hampshire, Devon, Cornwall and Somerset. Along with the cast members, the coach contained a skeleton crew of film technicians and of course the Beatles themselves, who remained on board throughout the first week of the ‘tour5. After the first week of ‘tour’ shooting, filming continued at Paul Raymond’s Revuebar in Soho and then switched to a disused hangar at West Mailing Air Station which, in the absence of available studio space, served as a makeshift replacement for the sequences which required conventional sets. Here a number of notable sequences were shot, including the famous ‘Walrus’ sequence and the memorable sergeant-major scene featuring the Beatles’ closest actor friend, Victor Spinetti, who was unable to take a bigger role in the film due to other acting commitments. As he remembers, ‘I’d have loved to have gone on the whole trip, but I couldn’t, and that was that. So John said, “Well, look, why don’t you do that thing you do in Oh I What a Lovely War”, the drill sergeant sketch which I did in that show, so I just reinvented it for the film.’18
Despite the alluring premise of keeping the project relatively small-scale, the smooth running of the shooting was hampered from the start by a number of technical and logistical problems. Convoys of news-hungry journalists pursued the coach relentlessly, and at one point it became stuck under a narrow bridge on a B road towards Dartmoor, resulting in huge tailbacks and flaring tempers. ‘Fifth Beatle’ Neil Aspinall encountered difficulties organizing the en-route accommodation, and there were also problems with the technicians union. Later, at West Mailing, hearts dropped when, at around four o’clock on the last day of principal photography (24 September), the generators failed just as the cameras were to start rolling on the film’s most complex and elaborate set piece, McCartney’s ‘Your Mother Should Know’, causing delays while help was summoned by Denis O’Dell’s assistant, Gavrik Losey. In the interim, Losey was mobbed when attempting to distribute signed photos to the 200 extras outside. Wherever they went, the Beatles were followed by hysterical fans. As Losey remembers, ‘We were staying in a little hotel outside West Mailing and the crowd that came pushed in the front window of the hotel… That level of adoration is just amazing to be around.’19
With principal shooting completed, the Beatles returned to London to begin working (under the supervision of Roy Benson) on the film’s editing and to complete work on the soundtrack songs which they had begun before the start of shooting. Again there were problems. The editing took eleven weeks to complete (partly because the group could never agree on the cutting and partly because not all of the sequences were shot using clapperboards20), and there were problems over how to present the songs which comprised the film’s soundtrack. Although the previous Beatles film soundtracks had been issued on LPs with a second side of non-film songs, their stock of unreleased recordings had effectively run dry. Without the time to work on new material to make up a release of LP duration, they were left with the awkward problem of finding a solution for marketing the six recordings, which failed to fit into any recognized format.
After some discussion it was decided that the format of the record was to be a ‘first’ for the record industry, a double EP package encased in a twenty-four-page glossy booklet which contained the lyrics of the songs, stills from the film and a psychedelic cartoon strip (complete with captions) of the film’s ‘story’. The booklet was produced in association with the Beatles’ official fan club, and carried an advertisement for both the club and its official monthly magazine, the Beatles Monthly Book, which had been running since 1963. While the accompanying booklet was in itself advertising for other Beatles-related merchandise for the unconverted who were not fan-club members, it also served another, more subtle ‘reassuring’ function for the 58,000 subscribers. With a booklet containing illustrations executed in a recognizably similar style to the black-and-white illustrations used to adorn the pages of the official fan club magazine, those who subscribed could feel reassured that their chosen publication was officially endorsed by the Beatles. The degree to which the format of the EP package was shaped solely by necessity is unknown. While it certainly solved the song quota problem, one suspects that it was also partly born of the Beatles’ pioneering desire to experiment with conventional formats and packaging. Interestingly, although Magical Mystery Tour was never broadcast in America, the songs from the film did appear in LP format (also titled Magical Mystery Tour), augmented by five other recordings from the year which had already been issued as singles. This policy was not followed in Britain because it was considered exploitative to issue an album that was comprised of too many singles, and of the twenty-two singles released in Britain between 1962 and 1970 only about half contained music (from A or B side) pilfered from albums.
The EP was also artistically unprecedented for the group in that it was their first and only record to contain an instrumental number, ‘Flying’, which also became the only song to be co-written by all four members of the group. The other songs to be issued on the discs were ‘Magical Mystery Tour’, ‘Blue Jay Way’, ‘I Am the Walrus’, ‘Your Mother Should Know’ and ‘The Fool on the Hill’. The record was eventually released on 8 December 1967 at a price of 19s 6d. 21
- 1. Figure supplied by Denis O’Dell,interviewed by author, 30 April 1996. Barry Miles, 1997, states a higher figure of £40,000.
- 2. Miles, 1978, p. 107.
- 3. Connolly, 1981, p. 85.
- 4. Their use of LSD has been widely discussed. See, for example, Hertsgaard, 1995, pp. 191-200.
- 5. The Beatles’ backing of the underground press was consistent throughout the late sixties. They frequently gave exclusive interviews to magazines such as Oz and IT, and occasionally donated much needed finances. See, for example, The Paul McCartney World Tour, tour brochure, 1989, and Hutchinson, 1992, p. 97.
- 6. The Beatles’ first serious flirtation with transcendental meditation occurred in August 1967, when they visited their guru, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, in Bangor, Wales. It was here that they learned of Epstein’s death.
- 7. Lennon reveals this in a seventies television interview (title unknown) featured in the film documentary, Imagine (Warner Bros, 1988).
- 8. Joe McGrath, interviewed by author, 13 February 1996.
- 9. The album was the first Beatles release to sustain a chart run of over one hundred weeks.
- 10. ‘Beatles News November 1967’, Beatles Monthly Book, no. 140, December 1987, p. 12.
- 11. Hutchinson, 1992, p. 41.
- 12. Blake was involved in the Sergeant Pepper album cover; Hamilton designed the cover for The Beatles (1968) album.
- 13. McCartney discusses his associations with the mid to late sixties avant-garde in The Paul McCartney World Tour, tour brochure, 1989, pp. 50-1. See also Bennahum, 1991, p. 92, and Miles, Many Years From Now, 1997, P
- 14. Evans, 1984, p. 94
- 15. Booker, 1970, p. 240.
- 16. ‘London: the Swinging City’, Time, vol.87, no.15, 1966, p. 32.
- 17. Barrow, 1987a, p. 5
- 18. Victor Spinetti, interviewed by author, 29 April 1996.
- 19. Gavrik Losey, intervewed by author, 27 March 1996
- 20. Documented in a number of sources. See, for example, Norman, 1981, p. 311
- 21. Price taken from Lewisohn, 1989, p. 131.
Part 2 – Analysis
The EP was also artistically unprecedented for the group in that it was their first and only record to contain an instrumental number, ‘Flying’, which also became the only song to be co-written by all four members of the group. The other songs to be issued on the discs were ‘Magical Mystery Tour’, ‘Blue Jay Way’, ‘I Am the Walrus’, ‘Your Mother Should Know’ and ‘The Fool on the Hill’. The record was eventually released on 8 December 1967 at a price of 19s 6d.21 With the benefit of almost thirty years’ hindsight, the most striking stylistic aspect of Magical Mystery Tour is its radical lack of any remotely conventional structure. Indeed, if Lester’s first film managed to provide a far looser and wayward narrative construction than previous pop musicals, Magical Mystery Tourtakes this development one stage further, and marks a departure from constructed, classical narrative coherence, opting instead for a discourse which, for the most part, rejects conventional principles of logic and motivation. Indeed, the ‘narrative’ consists merely of a series of musical sequences intertwined with ‘psychedelic’ sequences which take place either on the coach or at various unspecified ports of call during the journey. There are no goal-oriented protagonists, there is no logically motivated cause-effect chain and, once the initial premise has been established (that we are going on a magical mystery tour), there is no attempt at any form of narrative resolution. Indeed, the ‘resolution’ merely consists of an ‘unmotivated’ cut from the interior of a strip club to a Busby Berkeley-style set where we see the group (dressed in white tuxedos and surrounded by dancers) performing a loosely choreographed dance to ‘Your Mother Should Know’. Before 1967, such a sustained break with narrative logic and causality had not been attempted by the pop musical, and even now the style of Magical Mystery Tour seems quite radical. However, although much has been made of the group’s lack of technical film-making expertise,22 the film’s radical form was clearly deliberate. The idea was that each member of the group should write unscripted sequences loosely related to the thematic premise of a fantasy coach trip (which could then be spontaneously improvised by whoever was acting in or directing the scene), and assembled, rather like a Dadaist collage, at the editing stage.23 As McCartney maintained, ‘We just got a lot of things ready and fitted them together.’24 Indeed, as he explained some years later, ‘I did a few little sketches myself and everyone else thought up a couple of little things. John thought of a little thing and George thought of a scene and we just kind of built it up.25
Despite the lack of narrative coherence, the film enjoys an astonishing eclecticism and, like A Hard Day’s Night, draws on a number of cinematic styles, happily jumping between, and at times combining approaches from several different contemporary and historical genres. Despite their lack of practical film-making experience, the group were anything but cinematically illiterate, as the sheer eclecticism of the film’s style testifies. Perhaps the most obvious influence is that of surrealist cinema; and while surrealism had played an important part in the group’s previous films, with Magical Mystery Tour it became far more pronounced and all-embracing. Besides the lack of narrative coherence, the film boasts many sequences which demonstrate a distinctly surreal influence. Indeed, in its affection for surreal imagery, one could easily argue that Magical Mystery Tour is visually closer in spirit to Daii and Bunuel’s Un chien andalou (1928) than to any previous pop musical. Besides the surreal iconography of the mise-en-scene (the swaying policemen on the wall, the Beatles’ unmotivated changes into animals, the sergeant shouting gibberish orders to a stuffed cow), there are sequences which seem heavily influenced by Dali and Bunuel’s films, and just as their collaborations displace conventional ideas of cinematic space and perspective, so too does Magical Mystery Tour. Such is the case when Lennon and Harrison, accompanied by a number of their entourage, walk into a two-man tent only to find themselves in a cinema. Despite the difference of location, the scene bears a significant resemblance to a sequence in Un chien andalou in which the ‘heroine’, retreating from her lover, exits a suburban house to find herself on a beach. The film also makes constant use of the ‘unmotivated’ non-diegetic insert, and at various irregular intervals in the action we are greeted by a conventionally unmotivated shot of a cheering and waving crowd. While this formal trait can hardly be said to be ‘surrealist’ in its formal origins, it is employed with all the gratuitous anti-logic of a surrealist production, its effect further disengaging the viewer from any sense of conventional causality.
However, the film’s affinity with surrealist dream imagery and narrative motivation is perhaps unsurprising when one considers two important factors. First, and perhaps most importantly, the Beatles had, as I noted earlier, become involved in mind-expanding drug culture. The aesthetics of psychedelia (to recreate visually or musically the effects of mind-expanding drugs) are closely related to those of surrealism, which recreates experiences unbound from the enslavement of reason. In 1967, no discernible genre of ‘psychedelic’ cinema existed, and it is natural that a group seeking to make a psychedelic film should turn to surrealist iconography for their inspiration. Moreover, while this is not to suggest that the film is not genuinely inspired or motivated by the ‘psychedelic’ aesthetic (as Lennon maintained in 1970, ‘I must have had a thousand trips … I used to just eat it [LSD] all the time’26), the relationship between psychedelia and surrealism became, at least for the Beatles, inseparable. As Lennon once commented, ‘Surrealism had a great effect on me … psychedelic vision is reality to me.’27 Indeed, Lennon was particularly impressed by the surrealist films of Bunuel, and Victor Spinetti twice accompanied him to screenings of Bunuel’s Belle deJour (1967).28 Indeed, it is clearly possible that the group’s writing technique of randomly joining sections of unrelated narrative events is partly derived from Andre Breton and Paul Eluard’s writing game, ‘The Exquisite Corpse’, which randomly linked non-related or loosely related group writing to produce surrealist narrative. A similar random technique was partly employed to enlist the professional actors used in the production. The group selected cast members by flicking through the pages of the actors’ directory ‘Spotlight’, and employed them on the strength of looks rather than any reasoned investigation of ability or track record. On a non-textual level, it is also perhaps telling that the insignia for Apple, the Beatles’ production company, was also inspired by surrealist art, namely a Magritte painting brought to McCartney’s house by gallery owner Robert Fraser around 1966.
The writing and recording techniques employed for the more psychedelic songs on he film’s soundtrack also owe a debt to surrealist and Dadaist form, and this is particularly apparent in the film’s most lavish production, Lennon’s ‘I Am the Walrus’. Indeed, while the form of Lennon’s lyric is clearly indebted to the unconscious nonsense poetry and ‘automatic’ writing style of the surrealists, the recording techniques are clearly derived from the Dadaist chance aesthetic. Just as artists such as Jean Arp produced paintings such as Squares Arranged by Chance (1917) by throwing pieces of paper in the air and glueing them to their landing spot, so George Martin’s pioneering production work applied similar techniques: whilst recording the earlier Sergeant Pepper LP, the producer had created an atmospheric soundwash for the backing track of ‘Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite’ by cutting up tapes from the sound stock library of EMI and sticking them randomly back together. Although not constructed in exactly the same manner, the recording of parts of ‘I Am the Walrus’ was created with a similar ‘chance’ aesthetic, and amongst its many backing effects the song features radio interference and excerpts from a BBC radio production of King Lear, found on the radio tuning dial by Lennon during the song’s re-mix and randomly fed into the backing track.
Finally, it is possible that the surrealist/psychedelic aesthetic also had a considerable impact upon the presentation of the group’s songs in the musical sequences. Prior to the film’s conception, the majority of British and American pop musicals had, as we have noted, relied upon the long-established tradition of presenting musical numbers as authentic performances. While the first pop musical to break the conventions of the performance-based tradition was arguably the Beatles’ own A Hard Day’s Night, Magical Mystery Tour can lay claim to being one of the first pop musicals to feature a soundtrack which almost completely negated the idea of ‘realistic’ performance.
Indeed, apart from the humorous ‘Walrus’ sequence, which I will discuss later, few of the other musical sequences make the remotest attempt to simulate a conventionally ‘realistic’ diegetic group or vocal performance, with most of the remaining songs acting as a non-diegetic soundtrack to accompany the surreal action. ‘Flying’, for example, does not feature any of the Beatles at all, and although some very amateurish lip synched footage was shot for it, the final edited sequence for ‘Fool on the Hill is accompanied by footage of McCartney walking around the French countryside, intercut with occasional close-ups of his eyes peering deeply into the camera Even when there is some conformity to the performance aesthetic (as in the ‘I Am the Walrus’ and ‘Blue Jay Way’ sequences), there is only the slightest attempt to realistically lip-sync the songs. While this may partly have been a result of technical, film-making inexperience (in Many Years from Now, McCartney revealed to Miles that some of the material from ‘Fool on the Hill’ was rejected for this reason), this certainly does not explain the virtual distain the vocalists seem to show towards ‘realistic’ performance, and in places it is as if they are actually parodying the artificiality of classical miming. Indeed, even the unused performance footage from Fool on the Hill was presumably not just rejected because of a lack of conventional ‘professionalism’ as McCartney later revealed to Miles that part of the reason he knew little about the importance of conventional editing considerations (not all of the sequence used a clapperboard and he only had a small cassette player as an aural ‘guide’), was that he ‘wasn’t that interested in being that precise.’ This suggests, if not a distain for the miming process, then at least a marked indifference to it.
While this is clearly in line with the surrealist aesthetic, it may also be related to the group’s volatile relationship with the BBC, the channel on which the film was screened. Apart from banning ‘A Day in the Life’ earlier in 1967, the organization had vetoed the McCartney-directed promo film for their single ‘Hello, Goodbye’ from its weekly chart show, Top of the Pops, on the grounds that it showed the group lip-synching to a backing track, and therefore contravened the Musicians’ Union miming rule (implemented in 1966) and which ruled that non-conceptual television appearances should be ‘live’. Although the clip clearly showed the Beatles lip-synching, the group subsequently made every effort to comply with the BBC and, on 21 November 1967, allowed them to shoot some footage of the group editing Magical Mystery Tour on the understanding that this, along with some stills provided by NEMS, could then be edited into the clip to cover the most obviously lip-synched segments. However, claiming that there had been too little time to edit the ‘new’ clip together, the BBC annoyed the Beatles by using footage from A Hard Day’s Night to accompany the clip on its first transmission (23 November), and subsequently employing a combination of the stills/editing footage without any of the performance material.29 As a television film, Magical Mystery Tour was not subject to the same regulations, and it is possible that the exaggerated lack of sound/vision synchronization was a satirical parody of such bureaucratic pettiness.
However, we should not ignore the possible influence of more contemporary forms of surrealism on Magical Mystery Tour. Although as I have suggested, it is most likely that the group’s interest in Surrealism was born largely from a direct interest in integrating elements of its ‘pure’, ‘first generation’ form, the Beatles, like any other artists, did not work in a cultural or historical void. While it would perhaps be an overstatement to suggest that the sixties heralded a surrealist revival, the aesthetic of anti-logic had become increasingly pervasive in radio since the fifties and the emergence of the Goon Show and Lester’s Running Jumping and Standing Still Film which the Beatles loved.Like Magical Mystery Tour, The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film has its roots in surrealism, and frequently integrates its aesthetic into visual humour. As Alexander Walker observes, it is littered with ‘surrealist gags like the scrubbing brush used on the grass, the inverted logic of racing round a stationary phonograph disc with a needle, the ramshackle nationalism of the box-kite decorated with Union Jacks as Britain’s entry to the space race, and the famous subversive booby-trap that beckons a distant figure nearer and nearer till he is within reach of the boxing glove on the hand outside the frame.’30 Magical Mystery Tour shares a similar interest in visual surrealist humour, and it is certainly possible that such throwaway jokes as the photographer’s mutation into a lion were influenced by the Goons’ idiosyncratic employment of its form.
Despite the clear influence of surrealism and Dada, the film also includes a number of scenes which are formally derived from more conventional genres, and there are sequences which demonstrate a tendency toward the direct cinema/realist tradition. Perhaps the best example of this can be found in the sequence which directly follows the ‘I Am the Walrus’ number, in which Lennon and Harrison, shot by hand-held camera, are seen blowing up a balloon for a little girl to play with. This tendency towards capturing seemingly unscripted and improvised action, together with the group’s deliberate employment of a partly non-professional cast, could have been influenced by a number of loosely realist approaches which came to prominence in a variety of contemporary British and American productions. Indeed, while their own film debut had employed certain pseudo-realist techniques, contemporary directors such as Ken Loach were also incorporating realist methods (use of non-actors and improvised script) into film and television dramas such as Cathy Come Home (1966) and Poor Cow (1967). Another possible influence could have come from D. A. Pennebaker’s presentation of Bob Dylan’s 1965 British tour, Don’t Look Back (1966). Apart from the Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan was, throughout most of the sixties, the Beatles’ only serious commercial rival, and as personal friends they would have watched his presentation with great interest. So it is clearly possible that the grainy, instantaneous qualities of Pennebaker’s direct cinema also influenced the more objective ‘fly-on-the-wall’ sequences of Magical Mystery Tour.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Beatles, like many, took advantage of contemporary technological innovation, and were avid home-movie makers. They took home-movie making very seriously, considering it to be an ‘art’ comparable with any other, McCartney even arranging a screening of his films for Antonioni whilst he was in London to shoot Blow-up (1966). As Joe McGrath remembers, Lennon was also a great home-movie enthusiast, carrying a small 8mm camera with him wherever he went with the progressive and (as it has since transpired) somewhat prophetic philosophy that ‘there will come a time when you will be able to use a film camera like a biro. You take it out, you use it and then you put it away again.’31 It is perfectly possible that the group wanted to include home-movie-style footage in the film to elevate (what they considered to be) its artistic credibility by placing it into a professional context. On a more practical level, it was also a manner of shooting with which they had some direct experience, and therefore presumably the mode of film-making with which they felt most comfortable.
The film also pastiches a number of other genres, most notably the family fantasy film and the thirties Hollywood musical. Indeed, if the sequences of the Beatles as four magicians who cast ‘wonderful magical spells’ on the bus is reminiscent of fairytale folklore, then the final sequence is clearly a pastiche of the thirties Gold Diggers series, choreographed and shot in the same style as the Busby Berkeley musicals. It is interesting here to compare writing and performing with, the Beatles’ fondness for musical pastiche, as it seems that their fascination with writing and performing songs in the style of other artists is echoed by the cinematic pastiche of Magical Mystery Tour. This is particularly true of McCartney’s songwriting style, and it is clearly no coincidence that the writer of such music-hall pastiche as ‘When I’m Sixty Four’ should have conceived and scored the ‘Hollywood’ sequence at the film’s closure. Indeed, just as it is possible to see Sergeant Pepper as a record born of a pastiche sensibility, one might say the same for parts of Magical Mystery Tour. The originality of both record and film lay in their constant fascination with and haphazard absorption of the stylistic language of other genres. Just as Sergeant Pepper was the first rock and roll record to be paradoxically preoccupied and inspired by any other musical genre than rock and roll, so Magical Mystery Tour is the first pop musical to be so utterly absorbed by formal styles other than those of the genre (or generic precedents) to which it should, at least in theory, belong. Indeed, although their first film was partly instrumental in initiating the possibilities for the pop musical to achieve this, Magical Mystery Tour marks the Beatles’ own realization and employment of this aesthetic, and its pastiche sensibilities were probably as influenced by their recording approach as by their previous film-making experience. As McCartney commented in 1973, ‘It was just like making a record album, that’s how we did it anyway… A record is sound and a film is visual, that’s the only difference.’32
Perhaps this comment provides the biggest clue as to why the group should make a film which is so fond of pastiche and so anti-institutional in its narrative form. The Beatles approached film-making in predominantly the same way as they approached sound recording, and although their interest in counter-culture was, along with their previous film-making experiences, clearly partly responsible for the anti-institutional nature of the narrative, my suspicion, which would seem to be enforced by McCartney’s comments, is that the highly experimental nature of the film’s form is also a logical extension of the anti-classical, progressive nature of their songwriting and recording techniques. As well as presenting popular music as ‘art’, Sergeant Pepper is frequently canonized as the record which, on its most simplistic level, transformed rock and roll (music to dance to) into rock (‘serious’ music to listen to). Magical Mystery Tour attempted something similar in its own genre and, despite its intended comedy element, the film’s form marks a radical departure from the conventionality and frivolous boyishness of pop musicals prior to its conception. It demanded that pop musicals need not conform to formulaic precedents and, in so doing, attempted to do the same for the pop musical as Sergeant Pepper had already done for pop music. It suggested that the genre could also be approached as a self-conscious and serious ‘art’ which demanded an active, rather than passive, audience.
Ian MacDonald, in his discussion of Magical Mystery Tour, describes the ‘subversive agenda’ of the film, claiming that the Beatles were ‘sending up consumerism, showbiz, and the cliches of the media’ in ‘their version of the counter-culture’s view of mainstream society’.33
No strand of sixties culture was homogeneous, and the much discussed counter-culture or ‘underground’ youth culture was comprised of a number of different strands which embraced political, religious, spiritual and moralist/humanist, and drug-oriented subcultures.34 However, despite their different premises, each strand shared a common distrust of the establishment. The ‘version’ of counter-culture which inspired the Beatles in 1967 was essentially a loose amalgamation of consciousness-expanding ideas culled from an array of alternative sub-cultures. Indeed, as Hanif Kureishi has noted, the group acted as ‘popularizers’ of a range of ‘esoteric ideas’ concerning politics, mysticism and drug use.35
Despite its deliberate lack of narrative causality, the film seems charged with a deeply satirical mockery of both the establishment and ‘straight’ society. While this is obviously reflective of the general nature of counter-culture, the Beatles’ ideological motivation was probably further accentuated by contemporary attempts to calm the ‘movement’ they had embraced. Discussing 1967’s ‘summer of love’, Ian MacDonald maintains:
It was then that the British establishment, disconcerted by the explosion of counter-culture in the UK and aware of the unrest and civil disobedience associated with its parent movement in America, moved to stifle it at home by making examples of its leading representatives (notably the underground paper International Times, raided for ‘subversive material’ by the police in March). Though the MBE-inoculated Beatles were immune, their outrageous colleagues the Rolling Stones were fair game and within months Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were arrested on drugs charges… Soon after this, despite an outcry from the country’s younger generation, Britain’s hugely popular and perfectly harmless ‘pirate’ radio stations were officiously banned. The times they were a-changing.36
How, then, is the satirical mockery of conventional society and the establishment achieved? More often than not, it is accomplished through surrealist pastiche, and just as the films of Dali and Bunuel used surreal imagery and scenarios to mock the morality of Catholicism, so Magical Mystery Tour employs similar devices, creating surreal sequences which mock (albeit more gently) the morality of all pillars of conventional British society, including state authorities such as the law and the military, organized Christianity, sexual censorship, and ‘straight’ working-class notions of entertainment and leisure. In fact, if the film’s narrative construction can be said to be violently anti-institutional, then so too can its ideology.
Perhaps the most poignant example of the mockery of state authorities is the sequence in which the party stop off in an army recruitment office, only to be confronted by a Sergeant (Victor Spinetti) who aggressively shouts abstract, meaningless orders at the entourage until Ringo gently asks ‘why?’ The scene then cuts to a similar sequence in which the same character is seen attempting to impose his gibberish orders upon a stuffed cow which is mounted on the back of a plank. The police are similarly ridiculed and, just as the surrealist films mocked religious figures by placing them into incongruous and childish visual contexts, so Magical Mystery Tour does the same: the dancing policemen in the ‘Walrus’ sequence are employed in the same manner as the piano-chained priests of Un chien andalou. The Church of England is lampooned in a similar manner in the marathon sequence, in which a group of argumentative vicars are seen to be making unpleasant gestures at the winners of the race. However, while it is tempting to regard Magical Mystery Tour as uniquely subversive in such surreal satire, it is important to remember that the mockery of establishment figures and state authorities had already been partly culturally legitimised by the media, and especially television. And just as the sixties heralded something of a rebirth for a formally surrealist comic aesthetic via the Goons, so it also ushered in the start of the satire boom. Although informed by a totally different formal and ideological aesthetic (most shows had no pre-planned ideological agenda and indiscriminately satirized ‘anything’), the inclusion of skits and sketches which mocked leading political figures and other institutional icons had already pervaded factions of the nation’s consciousness via such programmes as BBC TV’s That Was the Week That Was (1962-3) and Rediffusion’s At Last the 1948 Show (1967). The latter, essentially a comedy show comprised of satirical skits devised by ex-Cambridge performers such as John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Tim Brooke-Taylor, shared the Beatles’ love of surrealist satire, and although much of its comedy was verbal, its sketches demonstrated a similar formal interest in the iconography of the absurd.
However, apart from mocking the symbolic representatives of state power, Magical Mystery Tour also satirizes slightly less predictable institutional concepts, such as traditional working-class notions of showbusiness and leisure, and it is likely that the group were again informed by a loose hippy ideal which distrusted conventional capitalist notions of ordinary ‘entertainment’ and placed emphasis upon ‘free’ spontaneous ‘happenings’ such as ‘love-ins’ and ‘be-ins’.37 The reason the group should choose to satirize working, rather than middle-class notions of these concepts, is probably twofold. First, if, as I suspect, the ideological intention of the narrative was to apolitically satirize all factions of ‘straight’ or ‘square’ society, then in the interest of balance (or just plain satirical anarchy) there was no reason why mainstream working-class culture should be excluded. Secondly, and from a purely biographical perspective, such forms of entertainment were particularly familiar to the upper-working-class roots of the Beatles, who, before their rise to fame in 1962, had spent their formative years playing on the British and German club and cabaret circuit.
Accordingly, the film is littered with instances which seem gently, and often affectionately, to satirize the professional insincerity and contrived prowess of traditionally working-class entertainments, including nightclub and cabaret acts as well as the actual notion of the mystery tour, itself a popular form of working-class entertainment. Indeed, this is apparent from the very beginning, and Lennon’s introductory voice-over (‘When a man buys a ticket for a magical mystery tour he knows exactly what he’s going to get, the trip of a lifetime’), which is delivered in a sarcastic tone. Further, the speeches of the courier, Jolly Jimmy Johnson (‘All my friends call me Jolly Jimmy, and you are all my friends’), can be read as a gentle satire on the insincerity of the leisure industry, while the drunken, unsynched performance of Bonzo’s vocalist Vivian Stanshall as the crass crooner in the nightclub appears to ridicule the tired routines of traditional cabaret entertainment, portraying it as grotesquely amateurish and completely insincere.
The film also attempts to lambast traditional conventions of British censorship and moral ‘taste’. As has already been noted, the group’s direct and indirect output came under considerable scrutiny from such organizations as the BBC, who had recently banned ‘I Am the Walrus’ from their playlists on the grounds that certain lines were judged to be sexually obscene. As such it is possible that the animated ‘censored’ sign which covers stripper Jan Carson’s breasts in the nightclub sequence is a slyly satirical dig at both the BBC and self-righteous moral crusaders such as Mary Whitehouse, whose 1964 Clean Up TV Campaign had produced, in Arthur Marwick’s terms, a ‘running battle between the advocates of permissiveness and tolerance and those of purity and censorship.’38 The sequence had allowed the Beatles, as advocates of the former, to have their cake and eat it. It showed ‘offensive’ permissiveness, and was therefore loosely in keeping with their advocacy of ‘free’ love, yet because of its humorous animation it could not be banned for sexual obscenity.
In tandem with the satirical treatment of ‘straight’ society is the promotion of ‘alternative’ lifestyles; and, bearing in mind the Beatles’ frequent experimentation with mind-expanding substances, it is clearly tempting to interpret the film’s fundamental literal concept of the ‘magical trip’ as a very thinly disguised metaphor for drug culture, the ‘magic’ being a metaphor for LSD (and/or other consciousness expanding drugs) and the ‘trip’ (already a loaded term) being its effects. In discussing the film’s lyrics for the title song in Many Years From Now, McCartney certainly seems keen to stress the use of deliberate double meanings, revealing that the line ‘Roll up, Roll up’ is a reference to rolling a joint, and the line ‘dying to take you away’ references both hallucinogenic trips and the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Furthermore, it is also clearly salient that it is only when experiencing the effects of the ‘magical spells’ from ‘away in the clouds’ that the entourage can truly enjoy themselves and achieve heightened levels of satisfaction. Indeed, the film occasionally switches between discernibly psychedelic fantasy/reality (or ‘drugged/clean’) modes, with objective reality exposed as dull and mundane. The most obvious example of this is the sequence on the bus which builds up to the ‘Flying’ extravaganza which, with its colour-filtered cloud images, closely resembles a simulated ‘trip’. Here, the tour guide Miss Winters announces that ‘if you look to your left the view is not very inspiring’ (cut to shot of real, and genuinely uninspiring, landscape). ‘Ah, but if you look to your right…’ (cut to colour-filtered clouds which herald the start of the ‘Flying’ sequence). Interestingly, the footage for this sequence included unused material shot some years earlier by Stanley Kubrick for Dr Strangelove (1964). The material, which was culled from hours of unused cloud formation footage, was now library footage and was subsequently purchased by production chief Denis O’Dell and tinted to achieve its psychedelic effect.39 Shortly after the film was released, O’Dell received a call from Stanley Kubrick asking what right he had to use the footage. ‘I was amazed,’ remembers O’Dell with justified amusement. ‘I thought, this man is a bloody genius, he’d remembered everything he’d shot!’40
By switching between modes, the film suggests that only when experiencing altered states of reality can life be bearable, and it is clearly significant that all the numerous arguments between Ringo and his Aunty Jessie take place only when the film is in ‘real’ cinema-verite mode. In this way, it is possible to see Magical Mystery Tour as a fantasy fundamentally based on pure Leary-inspired wish-fulfilment, the idea being that ‘ordinary’ individuals can only receive a state of heightened awareness and spiritual salvation through the ‘magic’ of mind-expanding drugs.
Interestingly, several writers have noted a connection between the fictitious concept of Magical Mystery Tour and a factual hippy ‘happening’ of the mid-sixties, namely the antics inspired by notorious novelist and acid-head, Ken Kesey, who was later to spend some time writing at Apple. As Mike Evans explains, The concept of the mystery tour, touring the country in a multi-coloured bus, had much in common with a seminal “happening” in the annals of the American drug culture — the 1966 LSD-fed trip [across America] of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters [a group of stoned hippies] in a day-glo bus, documented in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968).’41 Whether the Beatles were inspired by this incident is not altogether clear. However, the concept for the film was conceived by McCartney when on a flight returning from America, shortly after Wolfe’s reports had been first published in the World’s Tribune Journal (in January and February 1967). As a fellow advocate of underground culture, it is likely that he would have taken an interest in such stories, and the similarities between the two concepts do seem more tha.n coincidental.
Coinciding with the film’s anti-institutional message is the group’s chosen representation of themselves and, just as elements of the narrative mirror the group’s newly acquired taste for elements of tire counter-culture, so too does the nature of the Beatles’ filmic image, as expounded by their costume, behaviour, performance and songs. As I noted earlier, between the release of Help! and Magical Mystery Tour they had, like many other contemporary groups, become influenced by the doctrines of meditation and LSD, and this totally changed their musical style, media presentation and public image. Although it is possible to trace the group’s interest in these subjects back to their 1966 album release, Revolver,42 it was not until 1967, and the release of Sergeant Pepper, that the Beatles became universally regarded as trie leaders of psychedelic music and fashion. Moreover, this was accentuated by the broadcast and success of their mid-1967 single ‘All You Need is Love’, the anthem-like mantra which, in its idealistic appeal for global harmony, became the ultimate universal slogan of the ‘flower power’ era. It appealed to all factions of mainstream culture and also managed to transcend the divisions of the contemporary underground movements which, already deeply impressed by the group’s popularization of ethnic fashions and radical endorsement of ‘alternative’ lifestyles, regarded the Beatles as their ‘supreme spokesmen’.43 However, despite such popularity, by December 1967 and the release of Magical Mystery Tour the Beatles had gone a long way towards destroying their previous mid-sixties image as clean-cut and ‘wholesome’ family entertainers. They no longer appeared on ‘kiddiepop’ television shows answering questions about their favourite colours, and they no longer pandered to the banal questioning of the tabloid press. And when the Beatles did give their attention to the media, it often had more to do with the promotion of alternative lifestyles such as meditation or drug culture than their latest record or film releases. In October and September they discussed Transcendental Meditation on the David Frost Show, and they helped finance, and signed, a ‘legalize pot’ advertisement in a July 1967 edition of The Times. They gave exclusive and increasingly philosophical interviews to the underground press, and in late 1967 they announced the opening of the Apple boutique, a hippy shop designed to be a ‘beautiful place where you can buy beautiful things’.44
In two short years, the Beatles’ visual, musical and philosophical image had changed beyond recognition. They had shed their Pierre Cardin suits of the early ‘Beatlemania’ days, and their dress became a visual explosion of psychedelic Technicolor which encompassed Afghan coats, Pickwick jackets, granny specs and floral shirts. Their increasingly complex and innovative music was still popular with a cross-generational audience, but their attempts to popularize less mainstream ideas reflected the fact that they had now outgrown and rejected any desire to be seen as the establishment’s role model for youth; by late 1967, it was unthinkable that only two years earlier they had been awarded the MBE, and even the Queen commented chat “the Beatles are turning awfully funny, aren’t they?’45
Now an international phenomenon of unparalleled importance and, since Epstein’s death, without a manager to impart suggestions or impose decisions upon them, the Beatles were free to break from their previously imposed cinematic image of cheeky conformity and to present themselves however they wished. Gone was the boyish ‘family favourite’ image of Help! and A Hard Day’s Night, only to be replaced by a self-presentation which, informed by their new philosophical outlook, was consciously or subconsciously committed to demolishing public perceptions of the ‘cute’ boy-next-door image once and for all. How, then, was the group’s presentation in the film informed by counter-culture, and how exactly did this presentation differ from their previous incarnations in the cinema?
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Beatles’ image in Magical Mystery Tour is that it broke with their previous tradition of appearing in films as ‘themselves’, and attempted to scramble any sense of identificatory perception by mixing footage of dramatic action in which they appear as actors who play characters within a dramatic context, sequences where they appear as ‘themselves’ in a dramatic or performance-based context, and sequences where the distinction is unclear. For example, Ringo Starr appears as an actor who plays one of the five magicians, as ‘himself (as drummer of the Beatles in the ‘Walrus’ sequence), and as ‘Richard B. Starkey’, a part which associates Ringo’s real name and alter ego with that of a fictional character, the hen-pecked nephew of Aunty Jessie. In this way, the viewer’s perception of the group is constantly blurred by a series of dramatic and non-dramatic paradoxes which partially obscure any single and coherent image of the Beatles as a ‘pop group’. This ‘multiple-image’ strategy performs a dual role. While it is clearly in keeping with the underground principle of satirizing conventional showbusiness ‘manufacturing’ and modes of representation, it also allows them the personal freedom to escape from the singly contrived group persona presented in Help! and A Hard Day’s Night. Again, it is interesting to make comparisons with the group’s musical career, and just as Magical Mystery Tour partially allowed the group to work as actors in a dramatic context, so the playful masquerade of Sergeant Pepper allowed them to ‘act’ within a musical context (i.e. to perform songs under a guise which partially subverted their recognizable identity as ‘the Beatles’).
Moreover, when the group do appear as ‘themselves’ (either within the dramatic context or when ‘performing’ songs), their image marks a total departure from the imposed boyishness and cheeky conformity of their previous cinematic excursions. Indeed, just as the film can, at least partially, be read as a surreal/psychedelic indictment of ‘straight’ society, so the Beatles’ self-image can be seen as an advertisement for mysticism, drug culture, individualism and general non-conformity. While these concepts were all gleaned from separate strands of Anglo-American counter-culture, the Beatles managed to combine them harmoniously into a highly potent ideological cocktail which seemed to amalgamate elements of hippy drug culture, Eastern philosophy and underground satire into a single self-image. Perhaps the best example of this amalgamation of styles and ideologies can be seen in Harrison’s sequence for ‘Blue Jay Way’, which contains elements from an array of alternative sub-cultures, however fundamentally ideologically opposed. While he appears to be visibly ‘tripping’ (and therefore presenting himself as a Leary-inspired advocate of mind-expanding drugs), his ‘lotus’ posture also implies a contradictory advocacy of spiritual purity via transcendental mysticism and meditation. Moreover, he also appears to be ‘playing’ a keyboard drawn on the pavement where he sits, again a possible piece of underground satire on the banality of artifice which would probably have appealed to readers of IT and Oz. The fact that he appears unaccompanied by any other group member stresses the wider, and more populist, hippy cliche of ‘doing your own thing’, and the playful phonetic metamorphosis of the song’s final lengthy refrain (which urges listeners not to ‘belong’) seemingly imparts a similar message of individualism and rejection of social conformity. Apart from the dramatic action itself, the iconography of the group’s costumes also manages to synthesise the fashions of different youth sub-cultures. This is particularly apparent in the ‘Walrus’ sequence, where the costumes (almost certainly designed by the Dutch collective ‘The Fool’46) combine the bright, ‘high fashion’ day-glo colours of psychedelic styles with the ethnic Eastern iconography of genuine Indian wear.
The degree to which the group could justifiably be called ‘opportunistic’ in their reconciliation of seemingly opposing strands of fashionable youth sub-culture is a question as unresolvable as it is unimportant. What is certain is that their presentation in Magical Mystery Tour confirmed and crystallized the Beatles’ recently acquired media image as the central figureheads of their own all-embracing, and therefore paradoxically populist, vision of counter-culture.
One final and important question remains unanswered. Given that the Beatles had an audience which transcended age and culture, why would they make an ‘underground’ film which, in its style and ideology, seemed to deliberately marginalize their following? Granted, they had become, in Melly’s terms, genuine ‘underground converts’,47 and yes, they had been dissatisfied with the imposed and contrived image of their previous screen incarnations. But surely, as a highly astute and intelligent group of musicians who were now beginning to branch into the business world, were they not committing financial and commercial suicide?
Prior to shooting the film, the Beatles announced that Magical Mystery Tour would be a film for an ‘all-inclusive, non-exclusive’48 audience, presumably meaning that it would attempt to cater for all ages and factions of its potentially massive audience. That the Beatles clearly felt that they did not need to attempt to make a traditional musical which was remotely conventionally commercial or obviously ‘all-Inclusive’ is a testament to their godhead status as popularizers, rather than followers, of commercial trends. After all, prior to its release, everything the Beatles had produced had achieved massive success, regardless of whether projects were conventionally ‘commercial’ or not. Indeed, at this point in their career it must have seemed to the group that the more experimental and anti-institutional their work became, the greater its potential critical and commercial popularity. For example, ‘Yesterday’, with its baroque string arrangement, was in its day a totally unconventional musical form for a pop group, yet it had popularized the classical ballad in mainstream pop and was fast becoming the most covered song of all time. By the same token, Sergeant Pepper was, in its day, extraordinarily radical musically, yet it had been extremely popular with both press and public. And as we have seen, the group’s previous screen excursions had also, albeit more modestly, broken new ground. The reality of the matter is that throughout their entire career up to this point, the key ingredient for the Beatles’ success had been their willingness to experiment with new styles and ideas and to constantly change. Although their advocacy of certain ideas had brought them into considerable disrepute with sections of the public and the media, it had never harmed the critical or commercial reception of their work. As Britain’s cultural royalty, they had no serious reason to believe that Magical Mystery Tour would be treated any differently. If anything, wouldn’t its ‘anti-commercialism’ paradoxically make it more popular?
- 22. See, for example, Norman, 1981, p.310.
- 23. Denis O’Dell, interviewed by author.
- 24. Miles, 1978, p. 111
- 25. Gambaccini, 1976, p. 48.
- 26. Wenner, 1973, p. 76.
- 27. Imagine (Warner Bros, 1988).
- 28. Victor Spinetti, interviewed by author.
- 29. According to Lewisohn, 1992, p. 273, the final Top of the Pops airing of the song (Christmas Day, 1968) completely negated all these combinations, opting instead for BBC footage of a London/Brighton train journey.
- 30. Walker, 1986, p. 226
- 31. Joe McGrath, interviewed by author.
- 32. Miles, 1978, p. 111.
- 33. MacDonald, 1995, p. 204.
- 34. Mid to late sixties youth culture comprised a vast range of underground sub-cultures informed by a number of different Utopian ideals. These ideals encompassed drug culture (and particularly LSD), humanitarian causes such as CND, predominantly Eastern religious orders such as Zen Buddhism and Sufism, together with strands of political activity (such as the British cNew Left’). Much British counter¬culture was based upon imported ideas from American and Indian gurus, leaders and activists such as Timothy Leary, Alan Watts and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The so-called ‘underground’ became the buzzword for alternative lifestyles, which were popularized and discussed in Britain in publications such as IT (est. 1966) and Oz (est. 1967). For an expansive study of sixties counter-culture, see Leech, 1973. Although different factions were frequently ideologically opposed (for example, the doctrines of Zen Buddhism are fundamentally opposed to drug culture), they were united by a deep distrust of dominant lifestyles and the moral values of capitalism, state authority and the nuclear family upon which Western society is built. Moreover, the various ‘alternative’ modes of belief and perception, whether political, humanist, spiritual or drug-oriented, shared a fundamental interest in ideas understood to be either consciousness-raising or expanding.
- 35. Kureishi, 1991, p. 88.
- 36. MacDonald, 1994, pp. 213-14
- 37. Making alternative forms of entertainment was an integral part of underground culture, although the adjectives ‘free’ and ‘spontaneous’ are often misleading since ‘happenings’ had to be planned and financed like any conventional entertainment. According to Neville, 1970, pp. 24—7, the ‘seeds of London’s first psychedelic circus’ were planted in June 1965 with Allen Ginsberg’s famous ‘Cosmic Poetry Visitation 37.
- 38. Making alternative forms of entertainment was an integral part of underground culture, although the adjectives ‘free’ and ‘spontaneous’ are often misleading since ‘happenings’ had to beplanned and financed like any conventional entertainment. According to Neville, 1970, pp.24—7, the ‘seeds of London’s first psychedelic circus’ were planted in June 1965 with Allen Ginsberg’s famous ‘Cosmic Poetry VisitationMarwick, 1990, p. 125′
- 39. Denis O’Dell, interviewed by author.
- 40. Ibid.
- 41. Evans, 1984, p. 78
- 42. Although Sergeant Pepper crystallized the Beatles’ psychedelic influences. Revolver contains the seedlings of drug-induced inspiration, particularly in the acid-inspired songs ‘Tommorrow Never Knows’ and ‘She Said She Said’, widely known by fans to have been derived from an encounter between Lennon and a tripping Peter Fonda.
- 43. Evans, 1984, p. 76.
- 44. Spence, 1981, p. 84
- 45. Norman, 1981, p. 306
- 46. The Fool’ were a primarily Dutch design team who became heavily involved with the Beatles around the time of Magical Mystery Tour. They were commissioned (for £100,000} to design hippy attire for the Apple boutique, and also created the psychedelic costumes for the Beatles’ appearance on the Our World television special. 47. Melly, 1970, p. 106.
- 47. Melly, 1970, p. 106.
- 48. Evans and Aspinall, 1967, p. 8