The Beatles on the Road to 'Magical Mystery Tour'
For now, there was no chance of that happening. The filming of Magical Mystery Tour wouldn’t take place until mid September, but in the meantime, there were songs to be written and recorded for the film, not to mention work to be done for Yellow Submarine and Our World. McCartney had written Magical Mystery Tour’s title track around the same time that he’d come up with its concept, so it was the first of the project’s tunes to be recorded. The bulk of the recording was done over five dates from late April to early May, in a set of sessions that featured the same sort of inventiveness that the Beatles had brought to Sgt. Pepper’s. Richard Lush, the second engineer on those dates, recalls, “All that ‘Roll up, roll up for the Mystery Tour’ bit was taped very slow so that it played back very fast. They really wanted those voices to sound different.”
By the end of the fourth session, the group had spent nearly 27 hours on the track. It was a tremendous amount of time to devote to a single recording, demonstrating how completely the Beatles had taken over Abbey Road as an incubator for their musical ideas. Ken Scott says those long hours were the reason many of Abbey Road’s senior engineers didn’t want to work with the Beatles.
“The old-timers were all in their forties,” Scott says. “They had families, and they had got totally used to working 10 to 1, 2:30 to 5:30, 7 to 10, whereas the Beatles didn’t work on those schedules. So they didn’t like it because of that, primarily.” Indeed, on May 9, with “Magical Mystery Tour” completed, the Beatles spent more than seven hours—from 11 p.m. to 6:15 the next morning—jamming unproductively in the studio. Even the durable George Martin, their producer, sneaked out early on that session.
For the time being, Magical Mystery Tour ground to a halt as the Beatles focused on recording songs for Yellow Submarine and preparations for the Our World television program on June 25. The TV show was especially important, as it was the first live, global satellite TV production. Fourteen countries participated in the two-and-a-half-hour production with segments of arts and sports performances, cultural events and even broadcasts of babies being born. It’s estimated that more than 400 million people the world over viewed the program.
Undoubtedly, the highlight for most young viewers was Britain’s contribution, featuring the Beatles performing “All You Need Is Love.” Written for the event by Lennon, the song was a well-timed missive from the counterculture to the established order. With the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War still fresh in the news and the United States’ Vietnam escalation dragging on, Our World provided a platform for the Beatles to spread a message of peace. “Because of the mood of the time, it seemed to be a great idea to do that song,” Harrison said. “We thought, Well, we’ll just sing ‘all you need is love,’ because it’s a kind of subtle bit of PR for God, basically.”
Though Lennon, McCartney and Harrison performed their parts live on air, much of the song’s backing track was prerecorded during a one-day session at Olympic Studios on June 14 (see sidebar, page 50) and in subsequent sessions at Abbey Road, in order to make the performance go as smoothly as possible. Which it did—just barely.
“We had prepared a track, a basic track, of the recording for the television show,” George Martin says. “But we were gonna do a lot live. And there was an orchestra that was live… And just about 30 seconds to go on the air, there was a phone call. And it was the producer of the show, saying, ‘I’m afraid I’ve lost all contact with the studio. You’re gonna have to relay instructions to them—’cause we’re going on air any moment now!’ And I thought, My god, if you’re gonna make a fool of yourself, you may as well do it properly in front of 200 million people!”
“The man upstairs pointed his finger,” George Harrison recalled, “and that’s it. We did it, one take.” After a few post-show overdubs, the song was complete and ready for its release as a single on July 7.
And with that, the Beatles abruptly went on hiatus. For the next two months, Magical Mystery Tour was put on hold. Not another note would be recorded for it until late August.
With nothing to do, the Beatles wandered in ways only the very rich can. They rented a boat and sailed up the coast of Athens, shopping for an island on which they could plant themselves and their growing commercial empire. “We’re all going to live there,” Lennon said. “It’ll be fantastic, all on our own on this island.” The idea came to nothing. Adrift in the Summer of Love, they dropped acid, and lots of it, particularly Lennon and Harrison.
Late in the first week of August, Harrison and his wife, Patti Boyd, traveled to San Francisco, drawn by the news of the burgeoning hippie scene in the Haight-Ashbury district. The experience was disheartening. Harrison thought he’d find a community of doe-eyed enlightened beings. Instead, he encountered young dropouts who were constantly on drugs. “That was the turning point for me,” he said. “That’s when I went right off the whole drug cult and stopped taking the dreaded lysergic acid.”
Indian culture and mysticism held a growing fascination for Harrison. Seeking a release from drugs, he turned to meditation. Through a friend, he learned that Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the leader of the Transcendental Meditation movement, would be speaking at the Hilton Hotel in London on August 24. He decided to go and picked up tickets for his bandmates, in case they wanted to come along. In the end, all but Ringo Starr attended.
“We went along, and I thought he made a lot of sense,” McCartney says. “I think we all did, because he basically said that, with a simple system of meditation—20 minutes in the morning, 20 minutes in the evening, no big sort of crazy thing—you can improve the quality of life and find some sort of meaning in doing so.”
Immediately after the presentation, Harrison, Lennon and McCartney had a private audience with the Maharishi. At his request, they agreed to travel with him on the following day to Bangor, Wales, for a seminar and retreat. Photos from the Bangor event show all four Beatles, clad in psychedelic finery, sitting on a dais with the Maharishi, who was clearly reveling in the attention that the group was bringing to his movement.
“I was really impressed with the Maharishi, and I was impressed because he was laughing all the time,” Starr recalls. “And so we listened to his lectures, and we started meditating. We were given our mantras. It was another point of view. It was the first time we were getting into Eastern philosophies.”
But while the Beatles were achieving a higher level of consciousness in Wales, their world was falling apart back in London. On August 27, as they meditated with the Maharishi, their manager Brian Epstein died from an accidental overdose of sleeping pills.
“That was kind of stunning,” McCartney says. “’Cause we were off sort of finding the meaning of life, and there he was—dead.”