❚ ROLLING STONE CALLED IT “the most important rock’n’roll album ever made … by the greatest rock’n’roll group of all time”. Crowning the era of LSD-fuelled psychedelia in 1967 came Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Its impact was extraordinary. The Beatles’ eighth studio album marked the height of their rise to global fame. With Dick Lester’s pair of high-octane feature films behind them — Help! and Hard Day’s Night — the Beatles decided to go straight on to direct their own unscripted, improvised film and it backfired in their faces.
Magical Mystery Tour was a dreamlike story of the Fab Four taking a typically British daytrip by coach with friends and family and a cast of crackpot characters exemplified in the eccentric humorist Ivor Cutler. Their adventures were intended to be “magical” and indeed the I Am the Walrus sequence has passed into legend. Generations of British comics such as Monty Python point to the film as their inspiration.
Yet its TV audience greeted Magical Mystery Tour with outrage and derision. It was seen by a third of the nation on Boxing Day when an expectant family audience, hoping for some light entertainment, were confronted by a drug-rinsed shambles in festive prime time. Paul McCartney told the press later: “We don’t say it was a good film. 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.”
The critical reception was so hostile that the film’s negative didn’t become properly archived, which makes tonight’s BBC TV premiere of its meticulous restoration, overseen by Paul Rutan Jr, a significant landmark. The new DVD with remixed 5.1 soundtrack is due to be released internationally on October 8–9, packed with special features.
What few of us remember is that, as well as its new Beatles songs, MMT gave a guest spot to the founding fathers of anarchic musical comedy, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, with Death Cab for Cutie, a spoof “teen tragedy” song from their own seminal 1967 album Gorilla. The Bonzos performed it onstage at the Raymond Revuebar as accompaniment to a stripper and the number turns out to be a show-stopper.
The mystery tour itself proves to be an affectionate travelogue about Britain’s quintessentially working-class hinterland (in the fish-and-chip shop, we hear marvellous strains of She Loves You rendered on a fairground organ). In contrast to his band’s reputation as fierce cultural pacemakers, McCartney concedes that “the whole film has a bit of a village fete atmosphere to it”. Even so, as deejay Paul Gambaccini remarks in a new Arena documentary also broadcast tonight, the film fizzes edgily with the very elements of advanced psychedelia the Beatles themselves had introduced into the culture. One surprise is Martin Scorsese saying this film influenced a lot of the work he has done! Restored to pristine colour, MMT emerges as a celebration of a defining moment in harmonic innovation and of the energy that made British pop glorious.
❏ Tonight’s Mystery Tour screening is preceded by a real treat from Britain’s leading arts documentary team, Arena, who have rounded up much unseen footage.
“ Series editor Anthony Wall says: “The idea that there’s anything you don’t know about The Beatles is startling enough. But the film was, consciously or unconsciously, suppressed. The out-takes were in the Apple vault, which is deep below the streets of London in a World War Two-type bunker. Sleeping down there for many, many years.”
Wall thinks Magical Mystery Tour will soon be re-appraised as “a piece of work in a very surreal, British, literary, visual tradition: from gothic to Lewis Carroll to H G Wells to William Golding to the Goons to what became Monty Python.
“For practical purposes it’s not been seen since 1967. The documentary tells the story — which in retrospect is hilarious, although it wasn’t for The Beatles at the time because they got such a drubbing — and contextualises it by looking at 1967 and what The Beatles were responding to: in London it was a very intense time, artistically.”
The cultural shifts of that specific part of the 1960s are key to understanding Magical Mystery Tour, Wall says, which meant the new Arena film had to represent the trends of the time accurately. “Very few films about the 1960s get it right. They usually mix things up hopelessly. It’s very important when you use archive to be precise — try to get it to the month. It invariably looks earlier than it is. When you see ‘1967’ it’s usually footage from 1970!” … / Continued online at Radio Times
❚ TWO BEATLES FANCLUB SECRETARIES recall how they hopped on board The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour bus at 7am one day in 1967 as special guests of the Fab Four. Sylvia Hillier was a 19-year-old receptionist in a factory who lost her job as a result, while 16-year-old schoolgirl Jenni Evennett bunked off school to join the week-long filming. They told this morning’s Saturday Live on Radio 4 that it was a bit like a “happening” where nobody was given lines or seemed to know what they were doing. Sylvia was dressed all psychedelic in orange, “my flower-power stage, with kaftan, flairs, bells and beads”. Jenni said that for continuity they couldn’t change for a whole week: “I wore a little brown spotted dress with white collar, bells and beads and lots of deodorant.”