It was the day after the death of their manager Brian Epstein. The Beatles had gathered together in Ringo Starr's London flat to discuss what to do next. Deeply shocked, they were all in a bit of a daze. They should go to India and meditate, Harrison suggested.
But McCartney had a different idea. They should do something. Show the world they were still up for it. They should make a film, the film they had discussed with Brian. They should make Magical Mystery Tour. Now. Right now.
McCartney had seen a crew film the Maharishi at the London Hilton. Work like that and the Beatles could have a film out within weeks. They had some fabulous songs already.
Epstein had died on Sunday, August 27, 1967. By Wednesday, September 6, McCartney was meeting with Bernard Knowles, a friend of a friend, and hiring him as director and cameraman. The following Monday morning he was sitting in a London Transport cafe, waiting for a 60-seater coach to show up and take him, the other Beatles and an eclectic cast of out- of-work actors on a magical mystery tour. The moment the stars were on board, filming began
Encompassed in this story is most of what you need to know about how the Beatles' most heavily criticised project came to be. Shown on the BBC on Boxing Day, 1967, some older viewers found it baffling. The colour scenes, drug-influenced and meant as a tour of the Beatles' vibrant imaginations, didn't work in black and white.
It's not hard to understand what the critics objected to, but Magical Mystery Tour - reissued this week on Blu-Ray and the subject of a superb Arena documentary to be shown on BBC television tomorrow - is a fabulous slice of Sixties history, unmissable for anyone who wants to understand the Beatles. The music, which takes up nearly half of the hour-long Tour - to be broadcast after Arena - is also among their best.
Without Epstein, and having plunged into it so quickly, the making of Magical Mystery Tour was predictably chaotic. The idea was to film a bus tour similar to the ones the band remembered from their youth - you bought a ticket, got on and you didn't know where you were going. The trip usually finished up at Blackpool with beer and a singsong.
So the coach would wend its way through the countryside and they would film what came up. But this was the Beatles. They might wish to just drive off in a coach, but they couldn't. The bus caused traffic jams and got stuck on a narrow bridge. The press followed in cars and fans stole the posters from the sides, at any rate the ones John Lennon hadn't ripped off in fury when the bus was immobilised yet again.
And when they reached the hotels? Without Brian to book rooms, McCartney's biographer Howard Sounes records that the Beatle found himself arranging accommodation and allocating them among squabbling film extras. Neil Innes of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, who appear in the film playing music for a stripper, recalls that through all this "Paul was very good. Calm and unflustered. And the others were happy to let him get on with it."
There was no script. On the Arena documentary Ringo Starr holds up a piece of paper with a circle drawn on it. This was their plan, he said. By the time they got going they had filled in the circle with segments, each denoting a scene. As to how they fitted together, nobody was quite sure.
Some Beatles historians link the haphazard physical arrangements with this lack of a proper script to make the whole thing a story of confusion and lost direction. But this is a misunderstanding. The lack of a script was quite deliberate. While the other Beatles had retreated to palatial family homes in and around Weybridge in Surrey, McCartney had stayed in London, soaking up the art scene. He'd been making his own short movies, inspired by arthouse experimentation. He was after spontaneity, and a home movie effect. McCartney, not Lennon, was the avant garde Beatle.
The Magical Mystery Tour is his work in two other ways. The first is that it is never pretentious or cynical. One of McCartney's most important doctrines, if that isn't too grandiose a term, is that cynicism isn't cool. This distinguishes him as a pop artist and is simultaneously the key to his genius and the most strongly criticised aspect of his work.
The second point is an allied one. Everything the Beatles did is now so freighted with meaning that when McCartney calls them a decent little rock band it sounds coy. But he means it. Yes, Magical Mystery Tour came after Sgt. Pepper, just as their work was being reassessed as art. But it was also a Christmas show, as the Beatles had always done. A few songs for the fans, a joke or two, lots of larking about. And the band enjoying themselves (Innes recalls that while the crew filmed the stripping Lennon and Harrison filmed it for themselves. They called it the Weybridge cut).
What emerged was messy but fun. While it would be a mistake to overanalyse it, I think it is quite an important part of their catalogue. It is a deeply English film, a film about vicars and tug-of-war teams at village fetes, of seasides and fat women, fish and chips and beer on the coach.
In other words it puts on display provincialism, humour, nostalgia and music hall, the influences that mark out mid-Sixties British psychedelia from the more po-faced American music scene. Ian MacDonald, in his unmissable Beatles book Revolution in the Head, observes that 1967, Sgt. Pepper and psychedelia was not just their acid period, it was their Northern and English period. Watch Magical Mystery Tour and his point is made very clearly.
All that, and it made me laugh.Last Updated: 10/05/12 08:07