Feature / December 19, 2017
ANCKORN: At 8:35 p.m. on Boxing Day of 1967, the people of Britain gathered around their television sets to witness the Beatles’ new film project, Magical Mystery Tour. Their first filmed project since the daffy caper Help! (1965) accidentally created the sound of the late ’60s, the project was meant to act as a replacement for the live shows they were no longer performing, and perhaps to introduce Britain and the world to a new phase of creativity inspired by experimental cinema, the working class, the music hall-tinged gothic roots that the band was already mythologizing, and the trappings of the flower power movement they’d helped to birth.
“The Beatles are turning awfully funny, aren’t they?” was Queen Elizabeth’s assessment of the group as they made their transition from marketable moptops to counterculture revolutionaries, and Magical Mystery Tour did little to dissuade Britain from the notion that the nation’s pet pop stars had gone a little… peculiar. The reception of the film was so negative that McCartney issued a public apology, blaming the monochrome format and calling the film “a goof.” He vowed they’d do better next time, and cited artistic experimentation, saying that the Queen’s Speech hadn’t been “a gas” either.
But was the film really a turgid vanity project—an in-joke that should never have gone out—or was it simply misunderstood?
MUGGLESTONE: I think the Queen’s reaction was, if you’ll forgive the terrible pun, fairly common. After all, the Beatles did seem to have undergone a remarkable transformation in a few short years. The difference seems so pronounced that they’re often discussed almost as though they were two separate bands: the Merseyside Beatles in the early years, and the psychedelic Beatles later on. As such, Magical Mystery Tour tends to be viewed as part of a messy transition period, a time when the band hadn’t quite decided who they were—simple working class lads, or experimental artists—and the BBC, understandably confused, had hired the wrong Beatles.
In reality, the working class and the experimental coexisted quite happily throughout their later career, and arguably much of their music couldn’t have been written without their having been both. It seems odd that people are so resistant to the idea of experimental working class artists, particularly as the purported aim of the Beatles’ counterculture and surrealist influences was to be a social leveler: to create subconscious art that everyone might instinctively understand. Still, in practice, art was (and is becoming again) mainly the preserve of wealthier people whose time is less taken up with finding ways to pay the rent, and so inevitably tends to be imbued with middle- and upper-class sensibilities. Working class surrealism seemed incongruous because it was—and is—so unusual. But to me this is what makes it so important: that people from ordinary backgrounds, who could normally only hope to participate in the most marketable forms of art, were suddenly in a position where they could experiment creatively.
What the Beatles produced is a film about the magic of the down-at heel, the cheap-and-cheerful, the grubby, the throwaway, the communal. And I think it’s great.
ANCKORN: The gulf between Moptop Beatles and Maharishi/Manson Beatles is an interesting one, isn’t it? Although the film appears to be flying the flag of psychedelia, it’s notable that so much of it is a love letter to pre-swinging Britain. It has a haunted quality, a sense of the war generation receding with the tides of time. In fact, one of the most haunted and haunting scenes for me is one that doesn’t feature the Beatles themselves. It’s ostensibly a comic scene set on the beach where the bus has stopped to allow our daytrippers to stretch their pasty British legs, and sinister comic relief Mr. Bloodvessel declares his adoration for Ringo’s formidable Aunt Jessie. There’s a knowing nod to seaside postcard tropes of the shrimpy suitor wooing the scowling battleaxe, but there’s no real malice in it. Both characters are allowed a little sympathy and dignity, but they’re almost incidental to the scene anyway. The interesting part is the simple filming of the beachgoers: old men with handkerchiefs knotted about their heads, women, families, children flinging sand about as they have ever since sand and children were invented. The footage has that flickering lost film quality and the score is a purposefully syrupy instrumental version of “All My Loving” (which also appeared at the end of Help!) which transcends the saccharine to become surprisingly beautiful. It would be easy for a hip rock and roll film to cynically set up such a scene as a lampooning of the threadbare enjoyments of the working classes on their day out at the seaside, but the band have the background to treat their subjects with a kind of picturesque (if perhaps picaresque) dignity.
The earlier films were written with “The Beatles” as characters within someone else’s fantasy world. Magical Mystery Tour unspools from the heads of its creators directly. It isn’t some scriptwriter’s idea of working-class gothic; instead it has a layer of authenticity to it. It’s very British in a way that the Beatles understood and experimented with so wonderfully. It wasn’t really the sitar music that set them aside from their contemporaries; it was the refusal to shy away from a background firmly rooted in Victorian music hall, of a working class tradition of familial and community music which was performed within the home, at pubs, and at working men’s clubs.
It’s what some people find deeply uncool about the Beatles, and McCartney in particular, who had his finger most firmly on the satanic mills’ pulse. I think it’s a failure of the imagination to see as twee what is also a kind of cultural necromancy. Victorian sentimentality could get really fucking dark, and although Lennon usually gets his dues for his black sense of humor, I think McCartney understands it too. The Stones were always cooler (supposedly), but copying American rock music and wearing scandalously tight trousers will only take you so far. Jagger knocked it out of the cemetery in Performance, but you can’t see him creating the world of camp gangsters and decrepit Notting Hill haunted houses with homunculus tea girls. The Beatles understood that vibe, and Magical Mystery Tour bleeds it from every pore. The deleted fish and chip shop scene exemplifies it even more perfectly. Now that fifty years have passed and the boomer generation too are being reclaimed by eternity, it’s doubly poignant. In this footage of the scene, the original film is juxtaposed with the chip shop as it is today, semi-deserted and flanked by a shuttered charity shop. A palimpsest of lost worlds echoed in the dying industrial streets. If you can’t see the gothic in that, you aren’t really trying.
MUGGLESTONE: Yes! That’s a great way of putting it. The whole thing is infused with a sort of sad beauty for the lost, and the soon-to-be-lost, even at its daftest. In fact, I think one of the best things about it is that it doesn’t—and the Beatles in general didn’t—try to extricate the transcendent from the mundane and the silly. Instead, the two go together, imagination and reality, sometimes jarring but always codependent, in a way that is strangely truthful, particularly for a film that involves a group of stoned musicians dressed as comedy wizards. The result is a sort of working-class British Absurdism, but with the Gauloise and beret replaced by a stick of rock and a kiss-me-quick hat.
I’m glad you mentioned the scene with Aunt Jessie and Buster Bloodvessel on the beach. It’s one of my favorites too (although, rather oddly, the BBC decided to cut it from the Boxing Day screening because they thought it was “weird,” which does make you wonder how much of the film they actually watched!), but for me it’s about the interaction between Buster and Jessie, who spoon like giddy teenagers and draw hearts around one another in the sand. On one level, there is an element of the ridiculous in these aging, largely comical characters acting in such a way, but the flickering film and demonstrative, silent-movie gestures add an air of wistfulness, reminding us that today’s scowling battleaxe and shrimpy suitor were yesterday’s young lovers. Given the ’60s’ association with youth culture and iconoclasm, Magical Mystery Tour exhibits a remarkable warmth towards a generation enshrined in our cultural memory as sour-faced Miners-Like-Their-Fathers-Before-Them, whose raison d’être was to clip the wings of their free-spirited Boomer offspring. In part, this must surely be due to the collaborative nature of the project, wherein the actors were encouraged to improvise their scenes—something that Ivor “Buster Bloodvessel” Cutler was particularly good at, according to McCartney—thus ensuring that they are not viewed purely through the eyes of their young directors.
Often the movie is referred to as a vanity project, and in the sense that the band made a movie for themselves, indulging their creative whims, perhaps this is true. But it would be difficult to argue that they made the movie about themselves. In the decades that followed, bands have made movies that are often little more than expensive scaffolding for some startlingly colossal egos, but the Beatles seem content to take a back seat to a cast of little-known eccentrics; aging variety stars, pub-circuit performers, and jobbing actors chosen for their quirky looks. The film is very much Paul’s baby the whole time, and you can see the family resemblance to the seedy melancholy of songs like “Eleanor Rigby” and “She’s Leaving Home,” or the chintzy nostalgia of “When I’m Sixty-Four”; but, as with any good Variety Show, everyone gets a turn, and the whole thing is held together, Butlins Redcoat-style, by tour guide/compère Jolly Jimmy Johnson and his glamorous assistant Wendy Winters.
In a sense, I think the movie’s lack of vanity is what draws most criticism. The experimental music videos and dream sequences might have been tolerated, but the folksy homeliness of the character-led sections was deemed neither cool enough to be rock ‘n’ roll, nor high brow (by which I mean aesthetically middle-class) enough to be art. We want our working-class heroes to snarl and strut, to show us the mean streets, not go to the seaside with their aunties, or chase a carload of vicars round an airfield. And from our artists we demand a different sort of seriousness. But there’s a wealth of social and cultural interest in those throwaway moments, particularly fifty years on. You can’t truly get the feel of a place in time without its irrelevancies, its fads, its bad jokes, and all the other bits of disposable nonsense that flavored people’s everyday lives. So while Aunt Jessie yelling “Don’t get all historical!” when she means “hysterical” is still a terrible, terrible joke, it’s also endearing in the same way that finding some saucy graffiti in a Roman ruin is endearing, and if we over-prescribe the things that are worthy of being recorded, we miss things like that.
ANCKORN: From a hater’s point of view, there’s admittedly a lot to be snooty about. Not just Paul’s working class camp, but the sillier aspects of hippiedom. The other film project the Beatles were considering was a live-action Lord of the Rings, meant to showcase Ringo’s acting talent, and we get a Frodo-lite version of it here with the wizard sequence, which is possibly the weakest section of the film. George in particular seems more self-conscious than mystical in his satin and tat, but even the actual Lord of the Rings had Tom Bombadil, and the other flower-powered sections of the film are much more successful. George’s eerie paranoid anthem “Blue Jay Way” receives a darkly trippy music video which hasn’t dated much, and seems like a mystic harbinger of the darker side of the 1960s. Although the “I Am The Walrus” segment shows its handmade seams in some of the costuming, we get what they’re going for, and arguably the less professional aspects of the film add to the overall mood of surreality.
John’s segment in particular is a surrealist…. I won’t say masterpiece, but it captures the queasy unreality of a dream to great effect. Lennon’s maniacal waiter is David Lynch meets Fawlty Towers, and, speaking of Python alumni, the humorous segments here share some substantial DNA with the work of the famous 1960’s comedy troupe. There would still have been Monty Python without The Beatles (if not without George Harrison), but it’s one more way Magical Mystery Tour manages to culturally showcase something new alongside the somethings old and borrowed. As you said, it would have been easy for a band at the peak of their artistic ascendancy to create another safe vehicle (pun not intended) for promoting a new album, but despite their retroactively applied reputation as a cozy British institution, in their day they were genuinely edgy pioneers.
It seems classist and patronizing to insist that anything of value in the film was accidental and that anything trite or dated was the result of four silly young men with art school ideas above their station. There’s a particular brand of toxic masculine criticism in rock and pop music which divides bands into worthy and unworthy, serious and frivolous. The Beatles (frivolous), like the Stones (serious), managed to work some casual misogyny into their back catalogue, but it’s the whimsy and the arty-fartiness, the feminine aspect to their work that seems to draw the most critical ire. If the early-era Beatles were tarnished by screaming girls who couldn’t possibly appreciate the music, man, then the late-period Beatles were spoiled by gooey feelings and sentimentality.
Of course, Magical Mystery Tour isn’t devoid of misogyny. The women are well-worn archetypes—the scolding Wodehousian aunt, the aloof Euro femme fatale, the stripper at the end of the pier—but you get the feeling that the band’s collective tongue is at least a little in cheek. This was post-“I used to be mean, but I’m changing my scene,” after all. Our stripper isn’t a music video ass-shaker hopelessly in love with the suave band members. The audience (including the Beatles themselves) are presented as slightly pathetic dirty old men, and the performance is a burlesque by yet another maverick comedy troupe, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Cool untempered by camp can be very po-faced and joyless, and the Beatles always seemed to understand that.
MUGGLESTONE: Cool is so transitory, too. Rely on it too heavily and you’re left with something that quickly starts to look like empty posturing when tastes begin to change. And change was really the point. For all its silliness, the movie seems to have been at least partly in earnest as a counterculture-inspired experiment in free-thinking, its lack of traditional plot structure and willingness to try new things intended as encouragement to challenge accepted wisdom. “You don’t need a plot,” said McCartney, when summoned onto The Frost Programme to explain himself the day after the fateful screening, “The things you did today probably didn’t have much of a plot.”
Still, it’s an accessible, non-threatening sort of thought experiment, with relatable subject matter—holidays, family–and no understanding of complex art theory required. Also, to their credit, the Beatles resisted the temptation to replace old cultural norms with a new set of rules that would inevitably have succumbed to entropy in the intervening years. (The bigoted War Generation/accepting Boomers trope that was in vogue from the ’60s onwards is looking particularly worn following last year’s Brexit vote, for example.)
For me, the movie’s lack of cool, or of an artistic pose, is the proof that it was born of a genuine desire to explore new ways of being creative, to interrogate accepted ways of doing things. In some cases, the band found out the hard way that things were done as they were for a reason—their dispensing with clapper boards during filming apparently caused chaos in the editing room; and yes, the wizards were a bit shit, but in other ways the experiment was a success. Martin Scorsese, for example, has cited some of the innovative camera work as an influence on his own movies, and at its best, Magical Mystery Tour manages to be both friendly and challenging, anarchic and affectionate.
My favorite scene in the movie is the singsong on the way home. It’s dark outside the windows of the bus, and most of the actors are, as far as I can tell, genuinely slightly drunk. Ringo and his Aunt Jessie have stopped squabbling, and the veteran actors who will never quite understand what all of this is supposed to be about have put aside their reservations for the moment to join in with all their old favorites. It is quintessentially, traditionally British. Buried deep in the DNA of each and every one of my countrymen there is a secret yearning to sing “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” with a coachful of drunks, and for it not to be ironic. But there is innovation here too, in the fact that this was considered worth documenting for its own sake. Not because it illustrated a plot point, but because it was interesting to watch people enjoying themselves. It manages to be both old and new at the same time, and everyone, if you’ll forgive another terrible pun, is fully on board.
Come on, join in, you know the words…
Amy Mugglestone is co-presenter of the Willard Price Adventure Podcast, and occasionally writes things. She lives in the British Midlands with zero pets and a human man.