I started this, then changed my mind. Doing the US album throws the timeline off, so you’re getting the EPs instead…
Just because ‘Sergeant Pepper’ was finished didn’t mean anyone was taking a break – recording just carried on: Paul had an idea for a film, and there was an intriguing invitation to take part in the first ever global TV broadcast. A song would be needed for that, alongside the three or four already under way for the vague film project. The decision was taken to make the TV song as simple and easy to understand as possible for a wide audience who didn’t speak English, and just over three weeks after ‘Sergeant Pepper’ appeared, the Beatles were on everyone’s TV again with another new song. Sadly, there’s no easily available video of the live performance, which featured a cast of thousands in the studio and the band singing along to a backing tape, but the single is available:
As is its equally psychedelic B side ‘Baby You’re a Rich Man’:
Just a pause to observe that when Lennon sings ‘She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah’ in the fade out, it genuinely feels like he’s covering a classic from a different era of songwriting.
The actual summer part of the Summer of Love was actually fairly quiet, if you ignore Ringo becoming a father again. It wasn’t until the end of August that band activities started up again, with a trip to North Wales (presumably at George’s prompting) to commune with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. At this point, all four of them are open to the Maharishi’s philosophies, and a quintessentially late sixties week was planned. However, no sooner had they got there that word arrived of the death of Brian Epstein. Epstein hasn’t featured all that much in my recountings; he was most definitely not a creature of the studio, but he did pretty much everything else for the Beatles, promoted and defended them with a quiet ferocity, and was absolutely instrumental in getting them to where they were. The band reacted as if one of them had passed, and the entire organisation went into first mourning, then denial – meeting at Paul’s house to agree that they would look after their own interests from now on. Perhaps no-one could have replaced Epstein, and perhaps the band were already unravelling, but it definitely didn’t help that there was no-one giving direction.
They plunged back into recording, having decided that the best way to cope was to focus on getting this film made. Writing and recording happened quickly, as did filming, which was done more or less live while they trundled around in a bus, causing traffic chaos wherever they went. Just as in life, the film seemed to have no-one in overall charge and while the chaos produced some extraordinary music, the visuals could probably have done with some more work.
There was product to sell, and Christmas was approaching fast, so ‘Hello, Goodbye’ was released at the end of November, backed by one of the ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ songs, ‘I Am the Walrus’:
The video (sorry, ‘promotional film’) was shot on 35mm film, and directed by Paul, and it not only looks as sharp as if it had been made last week, it features the four of them just being a band on stage – perhaps already prefiguring the more ‘back to basics’ route the music would take once they were done with the whole psychedelic thing.
And it really was nearly over – even choosing to relegate ‘I am the Walrus’ to the B side of the single suggested that the sound was moving on again, or perhaps someone pointed out that they were going to release ‘Walrus’ again in about three weeks. The six songs from the film all came out on a double EP at the beginning of December – it’s a lavishly put together thing, with a full colour booklet examining the film (as yet unseen, of course), and a tracklist which led with ‘Magical Mystery Tour’. In the US, the six film songs appear (in a different order) on Side 1 of the album version, and the five recent single tracks were collated on to side 2 – the result is an album which no-one in the band had ever intended, but which, mainly due to the presence of some of their best-known songs, almost feels like Sergeant Pepper II.
In the UK, you were restricted to the four sides of EP, which must have been a right faff to listen to: ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ and Paul’s latest pastiche ‘Your Mother Should Know’ on side 1; ‘I am the Walrus’ on side 2; ‘The Fool on the Hill’ and ‘Flying’ on side 3, and ‘Blue Jay Way’ rounding things off. In that format, I’m not sure you ever quite get to grips with the structure of the songs – Lennon’s wild and unrestrained celebration of acid trips and Alice in Wonderland should segue seamlessly into McCartney’s thoughtful and lyrical view of the fool; instead, you had to get up and change the record. I’m still fascinated by ‘Flying’ – I think it’s the only Beatles instrumental, and you can clearly hear where Pink Floyd came from in it, but I’m afraid that ‘Blue Jay Way’ lacks the variety we’ve come to expect from experimental Beatles songs – it’s a pretty banal lyric, and listening to it without narcotics drags a bit. With the right drugs, of course, it’s probably among the most meaningful and subversive songs of all “Wow, man – don’t belong. Far out…”
The album version wasn’t officially available in the UK until 1976, and didn’t crack the top 30 in what was a whole different musical landscape. It is, however, considered part of the official Beatles album catalogue now, making the re-release of these songs much easier than having to recreate a six-track EP. For me, the EP would get an 8; if the album had been an original UK release, I think it would get 9, but as it is, I’m not counting it, so I’m scoring the EP – it’s iconic and all, but the title track feels rushed, and both ‘Your Mother Should know’ and ‘Blue Jay Way’ sound like solo tracks rather than band efforts. Are the cracks beginning to show already?
The film premiered on the BBC on Boxing Day, and was met with huge audiences, but a resounding critical raspberry. There was, by and large, no issue with the songs, but the film itself appeared messy, unfocused and just plain silly. There’s no particular story to it beyond this vague idea that a traditional mystery tour (they were very popular in the days before everyone jetted off to Spain on holiday) would be more mysterious and more entertaining if presented by the Beatles. Mostly, though, it wasn’t. The lack of script allied to the general eccentricity of Ivor Cutler as the bus conductor left a lot of people scratching their heads. It did, however, introduce the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band to a wider audience (the name of the song they contribute to the soundtrack? ‘Death Cab for Cutie’). I haven’t seen it in a while, but I’m sure that its flaws have been softened a little by the passage of time. It was a suitably weird and wonderful way to see out the most cacophonous of years. 1968 would be a whole different beast…