The Beatles on the Road to 'Magical Mystery Tour'
The job of dial turning fell to Ringo Starr. During one of the two takes performed that night, he let the dial come to rest on a BBC broadcast of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Lear. “I can’t remember if he just stopped doing it or if John told him to stop at that point whilst we were mixing,” Scott says. “But it finished up being that section from King Lear. The fact that it finishes up just being one station almost goes against what [Lennon] was after. He very much wanted it [the radio station] just sort of changing the entire time.” As it happened, the extract from King Lear—depicting the violent death of the steward Oswald—fit perfectly. Its disturbing dialogue and the cadences of the actors’ speech meshed as if on cue with the song’s complex arrangement. “It was pure luck,” Scott says, “because it was [mixed] live. We never could have recreated it.”
The surreal sounds of “I Am the Walrus” are nearly equalled by “Blue Jay Way,” Harrison’s contribution to Magical Mystery Tour. The song is among the best of his compositions from this period, a haunting piece from which the group fashioned a sonically fascinating recording. Harrison wrote the song in August while staying at a rented house on Blue Jay Way in the L.A. neighborhood of Hollywood Hills. He was waiting for Derek Taylor, the Beatles’ press officer, to arrive, but Taylor had trouble finding the house. As the hour grew later, fog descended, further delaying his arrival. Feeling sleepy, but not wanting to doze off, Harrison sat down at a Hammond organ in the house and began composing a new song fresh from the experience of waiting for Taylor’s arrival, punctuated by a mournful chorus on which he pleads, “Please don’t be long, for I may be asleep.”
The recording of “Blue Jay Way” took place in Studio Two, commencing on September 6 and continuing through the 7th. As evidence that the Beatles were plowing ahead on Magical Mystery Tour following months of inactivity, the song was begun while the group was still at work on “I Am the Walrus.” “Blue Jay Way” features a kitchen-sink application of audio effects, including vocals through a Leslie speaker (first used on Revolver’s “Tomorrow Never Knows”), flanging on the drums and, on the stereo mix of the song, an overdubbing of backward background vocals.
The result is a recording that, while not as dense as Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus,” is every bit as satisfying. After standing in the shadows of Lennon and McCartney, Harrison was clearly coming into his own. “As each one was taking more control of their own songs, he didn’t have to rely on the others quite so much,” Scott says. “So I think that gave him more freedom, more flexibility to complete his songs, and that they were turning out better and better all along.”
On September 8, with the basic tracks for “Blue Jay Way” completed, the Beatles turned their attention to “Flying,” a slow blues in C that was unusual in two respects: not only was it an instrumental (it’s la-la-ing vocals notwithstanding) but all four Beatles shared a co-writing credit on it. At this stage, the song was called “Aerial Tour Instrumental” and included a saxophone solo (later erased) from a Mellotron, the tape-based sample player that had provided the flutes on “Strawberry Fields Forever” (and which also provides the windwood lead instrument and background string sounds on “Flying”). More overdubs were added on September 28, including ethereal sounds from tape loops created by Lennon and Starr, thereby stretching the recording’s length to 9:36. The song was edited down to 2:14 and fades out with the tape loops, though the unused portion of the song didn’t go to waste: it was saved and reused as incidental music in the movie.
McCartney’s track “The Fool on the Hill” was the last song to be undertaken for Magical Mystery Tour, beginning on September 25 in Abbey Road’s Studio Two. According to the bassist, he had written it while at the piano in his father’s house, in Liverpool, following the Beatles’ August trip to the Maharishi’s seminar in Wales. The “Fool” referred to in the song is actually the Maharishi, whom McCartney saw as a misunderstood mystic. “His detractors called him a fool,” he explained. “Because of his giggle he wasn’t taken too seriously.”
Despite its rather simple arrangement, “The Fool on the Hill” contained numerous overdubs, including recorder, penny whistle and harmonicas, which quickly filled up the four-track tape. On October 20, McCartney decided to add a flute solo to the song, but with no tracks available, the tape would have to be bounced down—for the second time since it was begun—to another reel of tape, onto which the flute overdubs could be added.
Rather than subject the song to yet another transfer, a procedure that can add hiss and degrade sound quality, George Martin decided to implement a technique that had been used for “A Day in the Life,” on Sgt. Pepper’s. For that song, Abbey Road engineer Ken Townsend had devised a way to link two four-tracks to play in sync, using a pilot tone on one track to control the speed of the second machine. “It was extremely trustworthy, except for one little thing,” Scott says, “and that was the starting time of them. Once you got them running together, yes, they were perfectly in sync. The problem was just starting them up together, because each machine starts at a different speed every time.”
Apparently, by the time they recorded “The Fool on the Hill,” everyone had forgotten how much trouble the system could be. “The problem was that on the second four-track, [the flutes] didn’t come in till about a quarter of the way into the song,” Scott says. “So we wouldn’t know until they came in whether or not the two machines were running in sync. Eventually we got it so that they ran in sync for probably just two mixes: the mono and stereo. Yeah. It wasn’t fun.”
By the middle of November, all six Magical Mystery Tour tracks were completed, mixed and mastered. On December 8, the finished work was released in England as a gatefold package containing two extended-play 45-rpm records. In the U.S., where EPs had failed to catch on, Capitol Records, the Beatles’ American label, issued it as a full-length album containing the six songs on one side and five other Beatles tracks released as singles in 1967: “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Penny Lane,” “All You Need Is Love,” “Baby You’re a Rich Man” and “Hello, Goodbye.” In either of its musical formats, Magical Mystery Tour was a hit with both the public and critics.
The film was not. Shown on the BBC on Boxing Day—the day after Christmas, and a holiday in Britain—Magical Mystery Tour was universally panned as a confusing and self-indulgent mess. Having little in the way of plot, it derived its entertainment value from the Beatles’ musical performances as well as cinematography that was rich with the psychedelic colors that typified the times.
“And of course they showed it in black and white!” Ringo Starr says. “And so it was hated. They all had their chance then to say, ‘They’ve gone too far. Who do they think they are?’”
McCartney, as the film’s instigator, takes the long view. “I defend it on the lines that nowhere else do you see a performance of ‘I Am the Walrus,’” he says. “That’s the only performance ever.”
No such defenses are necessary when it comes to the music. It’s as fine as anything on Sgt. Pepper’s, and it shows at times an even greater command of arrangement and studio production. Clearly, the Beatles were getting a firmer hand on the intricacies of their music.
But there is a weariness to the music as well, a tangible sense of Sgt. Pepper’s expectant summer giving way to Magical Mystery Tour’s melancholy autumn. The six songs destined for Magical Mystery Tour were written before Epstein’s death late that August, but there is a dry, funereal whiff to most of those that were recorded after it, as if the Beatles were mourning his loss through the by now ritual sessions at Abbey Road. “I Am the Walrus” is wonderfully macabre and grotesque with its maniacal background vocals and Lennon’s seething croup of a voice, his baleful shouts growing until, by the coda, he sounds like a huffing blast furnace. Harrison’s haunting “Blue Jay Way” emerges sinisterly out of silence, its dreamy Lydian melody, sustained organ chords, unsettling cello lines and ghoulish background vocals evoking the song’s theme of unanswered longing and physical dislocation. McCartney’s “Fool on the Hill” is plaintive and abandoned, its wistful flutes and plodding chorus of bass harmonicas inducing cloud-engulfed vistas of lonely supernal peaks.
And then there is the dirgelike 12-bar-blues burlesque of “Flying,” a perversely psychedelic defiling of the genre that gave birth to the rock and roll from which the Beatles emerged and, in 1967, briefly took flight. Within weeks of the dawn of 1968, they would land once again on the solid ground of rock and roll and folk, recording McCartney’s barrelhouse R&B tribute “Lady Madonna” and, one day later, Lennon’s gentle acoustic ode “Across the Universe.” A dream was over. A new one was just beginning.