Writing for The Observer newspaper in 1983, the British poet Philip Larkin declared that “when you get to the top, there is nowhere go but down”. Not a confession but rather his take on the Beatles. To Larkin’s mind, they were isolated from their peers, stranded for all eternity at the summit, there to operate in “the rarified atmosphere of hagiolatry” that their talents and the rush of “some unsuspected socio-emotional pressure” had transported them to.  

Larkin was looking back over a single fractious decade, one which culminated tragically in murder, but he was on the money. Some 40 years after decades of revision and a succession of legacy projects, the Beatles’ cultural standing is set in amber. Like them or not – there are many who don’t, and many who pretend they don’t – they remain, in the poet’s words, “unreachable, frozen, fabulous”.

By the mid-1960s, the Beatles had long since fulfilled the teenage John Lennon’s cocksure promise to become the “topper-most of the popper-most!” In 1966 a frazzled, almost prematurely aged George Harrison had to be persuaded to stay the course on the flight home from the US after another arduous and febrile tour. Spooked by naive security measures and the potential danger to the band and fans alike, not to mention disillusioned by the experience of playing music none of them had a hope of hearing above the screaming that was losing its novelty; Harrison was not to be persuaded. Quit playing live, or I quit. His point was taken, and San Francisco’s Candlestick Park was the last the world saw of “the four tiny figures, jerking and gesticulating inaudible”, as Larkin had it. Unless you were fortunate enough to be walking along Savile Row at 12:30 on 30 January 1969, that is, when you could have craned your neck roof-wards for half an hour or so and heard a bit of history on your lunch break.

In the intervening years, they began, along with Brian Wilson, to unlock the potential of the recording studio. The audacious Revolver was followed by pop’s first fully realized concept album in Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Creative splintering fed the crepuscular mood of the White Album before the bitter divorce of Let It Be – now fully re-appraised in the full-color, full-feeling Get Back project – and the concerted rally of Abbey Road, a lush and fittingly fulsome farewell. Amid all that came what was fated to be remembered for decades as an almost wilful attempt to slip from the top, or at least not to bother about being there anymore – 1967’s Magical Mystery Tour.

The Beatles’ ninth studio album is inseparable from their third film – the former served the latter, after all – yet throughout the decades following their release, the record seems somehow to have freed itself from its parent project. And though their respective reputations have long since parted company, it’s still difficult to discuss one without the other.

The made-for-television film set an unexpected precedent when the BBC first aired it in black and white on Boxing Day, 26th December 1967 – it delivered the band’s first critical flop. It was met with almost entirely damning reviews from a British press surprised and a little delighted with the chance to take the Beatles down a notch. Citing complaints from viewers that purportedly ran into their thousands, it was dismissed as baffling and tasteless in equal measure. Keith Dewhurst began his write-up in The Guardian by expressing his amazement “on finding myself alone in praising… Magical Mystery Tour” and wasn’t stretching matters in describing it as a “deliberate parody of mass communication”. A color re-run in early January rectified an initial misstep – why launch it in black and white, particularly at Christmas? – but did little to shift the consensus.

In the US, NBC reneged on their broadcast agreement. If you weren’t fortunate enough to catch a print of the film in circulation around college campuses, you’d have had to wait until 1974, when New Line Cinema finally brought it to theaters. Meanwhile, Paul McCartney found himself obliged to defend the film on ITV’s The David Frost Programme. Like the rest of the band, he had little to offer beyond a shrug, suggesting later that “you couldn’t call the Queen’s speech a gas either, could you?” If anything, the Beatles were likely reassured by a very British hoopla. Lennon’s antennae were already jangling to the establishment types who preferred their moptops in suits and Chelsea boots. Many families had gathered in front of their TV sets at 8:35 pm that evening, and for every adult outraged because they couldn’t understand, there was most likely a teenager inspired for the very same reason.

It was chaotic, flawed, and true to its premise – to drive around the countryside with a bunch of mates, keep the cameras rolling, and pull it together in the edit. No small feat, considering the BBC required only 52 minutes of the 12-plus hours they shot. The result was a kind of plotless road movie with musical interludes, influenced in no small part by Ken Kesey’s travels with the Merry Pranksters in a customized school bus called Furthur, and a primer for much of what followed in the late 1960s when, for a few golden years, Hollywood directors shrugged off the yoke of the studios.   

It was certainly of a piece with emerging approaches across the culture. The Pythons were just a year or two from upending comedic norms, and the Beatles – who certainly shared their sensibility and were ever-attuned to new trends in music and beyond – took the opportunity to unmoor themselves from conventional expectation. Anything went. The process was key, total artistic control was assured, and aimlessness was kind of the point. A young Martin Scorsese spotted the virtues of an openly countercultural approach that precluded outside interference, later telling the BBC for the 2012 Arena documentary Magical Mystery Tour Revisited that “for me, the freedom of the picture was very important”. The executive producer of that documentary, Anthony Wall, happened to be one of those inspired teenagers watching along with the shocked adults. As Ian MacDonald later observed with some perception in his landmark survey of the Beatles, Revolution in the Head, the film marked “the breakdown of the cross-generational consensus on the band’ established three years earlier by the knockabout film debut A Hard Day’s Night“.  

Meanwhile, back in their musical careers, the studio had become home. Freed from the strictures of the tour-record-tour schedule, the Beatles adopted a new, more laid-back approach. With no requirement to pay studio fees, they turned up at Abbey Road whenever space was available and settled in not only to record but to rehearse and even to write. They were free to play, but the work ethic and discipline forged in the Cavern and Hamburg, and later still in sessions that produced finished tracks within days or even hours, stood them in good stead.  

The loss of their manager Brian Epstein in August 1967, adrift since the Beatles had dropped the suits and quit touring, shattered the band, and weakened the ties that bound them. Alive to the perils of lassitude, McCartney played Dad and urged focus, insisting the show go on with the Magical Mystery Tour project. Lennon convinced the center could not hold without the man who’d found them, reluctantly agreed. Epstein, essentially an impresario, had had little or no musical input since the Beatles’ earliest days. Yet, a more fractured unit emerged from the crisis, one whose emerging differences would feed a new creative process even as they broke up the family business.  

The deliberately directionless approach to the film didn’t quite transpose itself to the studio. However, that didn’t stop McCartney from arriving to begin work on the title track armed with nothing more than three chords and an opening lyric. Spontaneity was vital, but a more workaday approach to sessions was required to deliver the tone of much of what emerged – enthusiastic and energized but perhaps a little labored, particularly when held up alongside Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. A four-month break followed, punctuated with work on other projects and singles.

“Your Mother Should Know”, while pleasing, smacks of McCartney’s upbeat efforts to maintain forward momentum while concealing a relative slump in their collective mojo. Subsequent sessions for the soundtrack yielded “Blue Jay Way”, a Harrison contribution that never quite escapes its author’s obvious ennui. “Flying” is a happy little scribble, an instrumental sandwiched between the meat, but it fades out just as it gets interesting. McCartney’s “The Fool on the Hill” is three minutes of musical cognitive dissonance that hangs like a bauble in a world of its own, at once both innocent and melancholic.  

That was that – almost. A fistful of tracks recorded in various states of drug-enhanced distraction in service of a project that, so far as those involved were concerned, was clearly at its most enjoyable throughout filming. In retrospect, it’s possible to see the mystery tour as a holiday they took from themselves at a time when the business of being a Beatle suddenly felt like the wrong kind of work. Aimlessness must have had a certain appeal in a post-Epstein, project-driven world. Add to that a shift in the drug intake that steered much of music’s progression throughout the decade from pop to psych and onwards to rock, and the occasionally listless nature of the work is unsurprising. The pills and amphetamines that propelled them from Merseyside to Abbey Road had given way to the inward expansion offered by LSD and all that implied. “Feel” music began to supplant the tight disciplines of three-minute pop and had the potential to beguile its creator at the expense of the listener. 

But the paradoxes of the project are part of its enduring legacy. What was Magical Mystery Tour? – an EP made to accompany a film, later extrapolated into an album that would outlive them both. The album that superseded the EP, which we know today, was assembled and released according to the industry norms of the time. In the UK, Parlophone released an 11-track LP a full six years after the band split, updating the record along the lines of the original Capitol release in the US, which had included the five additional songs released as singles throughout 1967.

In this regard, Magical Mystery Tour was a step backward. Until Revolver, the album, as we now understand it, can hardly be said to have existed. Collections of songs were put together to fit the physical format and distributed accordingly. Revolver, alongside the Beach Boys‘ Pet Sounds, changed the landscape. Both were brought to life within a studio setting that functioned, in effect, as an instrument in itself. Both were impossible to play live at the time, and the Beatles never tried. Significantly, both were conceived as integrated works instead of sets of songs of various tones. The Beatles took this method and ran with it a year later, creating a truly unified work with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The tracks that bumped up the package were a mixed bag, but among them were the heavy hitters that helped maintain the sales figures we associate with the Beatles. Lennon’s “Baby You’re a Rich Man” was their first foray into a more open-ended and expansive sound, emphasizing groove and ahead of craft, an experimental turn which, perhaps, failed to serve the band’s strengths. It was the flip side to “All You Need Is Love”, a song commissioned for the first global multi-satellite broadcast Our World in June 1967, which, while slack by their high standards, still provided the anthem for the world to join hands and was a precursor to the tidal wave of singalong pop to come.

“Strawberry Fields” stands out, along with “I Am the Walrus” – recorded with the initial clutch of tracks for the film – as the Beatles’ finest and most disciplined experiments in psychedelia. Both were examples of runaway creativity matched and marshaled by the technical expertise and improvisation of George Martin and the team at Abbey Road.  

Created with a view to inclusion on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band “Strawberry Fields” was hoovered up onto the Magical Mystery Tour LP sometime after its initial impact as a single. Both tracks were written by Lennon and were prime examples of the band’s happy knack for capitalizing on accidents in the studio. The limits of technology meant that mishaps were often audible on the finished recordings, but such an approach was in keeping with the improvisatory method encouraged by McCartney – a devoted reader of the radical underground paper The International Times and champion of the avant-garde, even as Lennon dozed in the suburbs.

You might argue that Magical Mystery Tour represents a dip in the graph for the Beatles. What began as a soundtrack morphed into a kind of survey of 1967, a “Best Of” for an excellent year, even if it never became more than the sum of its parts. Yet Grammy awards, chart-topping singles, and multi-million sales were all clocked up even as the film was hammered. It was business as usual. As a project, Magical Mystery Tour was an innovative hybrid, if never quite adequately realized. As a chapter in the life of the Beatles, it continues to exert a colorful fascination. It was a flexible adaptation to changing and challenging circumstances and opened up a new road.  

While the Beatles could never claim to have invented the counterculture, their unique position enabled them to bring innovations and fresh approaches to creativity into the mainstream. For the band, it was the start of an answer to a question none of them vocalized but must have pondered upon: how to survive becoming unfathomably famous and still keep your mojo intact? What to do when you get to the top? New processes emerged even as circumstances pushed them away from each other. Four individuals were coming to the surface. The beginning of the end, maybe. But what an ending.

Kevin Heaney

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