The Daily Beast•
Released fifty years ago—on November 27, 1967—the Beatles’ last slice of psychedelia is an underrated masterpiece, and more fun than ‘Sgt. Pepper.’
In 1967, the Beatles were experiencing staggering highs and lows. They were riding a wave of commercial and critical acclaim following the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and their hit single “All You Need Is Love” had become an anthem for that summer of flower power. But that August, they’d lost their longtime manager Brian Epstein, a severe blow to the group’s sense of unity—despite the fact that Epstein had become a somewhat more marginalized figure after the group decided to stop touring in the fall of 1966.
And John Lennon, who had been a catalyst for much of the band’s artistic growth since its inception, was suddenly less engaged. Lennon’s recreational drug use, spiraling marriage and newfound obsession with Japanese artist Yoko Ono made the Beatles less of a focus. His growing ambivalence and the death of Epstein meant that Paul McCartney was now more of a driving force in the Beatles, and that summer, McCartney had an idea for what the band should do to follow up Sgt. Pepper.
“Paul had a great piece of paper—just a blank piece of paper with a circle on it,” Ringo would later recall. “We filled it in as we went along.”
“It was basically a charabanc trip,” George Harrison said during the Beatles Anthology in 1995. “Which people used to go on from Liverpool to see the Blackpool Lights,” a popular electric light display presented in the autumn months. “They’d get loads of crates of beer and an accordion player and all get pissed, basically—pissed in the English sense, meaning drunk. And it was kind of like that. It was a very flimsy kind of thing.”
Magical Mystery Tour would be a psychedelic film written, directed by and starring the Beatles. The shoot was a disaster from the beginning: none of the scenes made sense, props would fall apart mid-scene and no one seemed to have a clear idea of the film’s direction.
The nonsensical story focused on a group of strange individuals taking a “mystery tour” in England, with Richard Starkey (aka Ringo Starr) and his widowed auntie as the focal point. Mostly improvising, the film includes segments where John Lennon shovels spaghetti, McCartney skipping around France alone, George Harrison as a wizard, and appearances by the bands Traffic and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. McCartney had wanted Jimi Hendrix to appear in the film, but he was booked to play the Monterey Pop Festival in the U.S. (Incidentally, it was Paul who’d suggested the promoters book Jimi). The film was released to television on December 26, 1967, and it would become one of the most reviled projects the Beatles were ever associated with.
“BEATLES PRODUCE FIRST FLOP WITH YULE FILM” read Daily Variety’s headline. “It looked awful and it was a disaster,” bemoaned longtime Beatles’ producer George Martin. “We don’t say it was a good film,” said McCartney, shortly after the premiere. “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.”