Fifty years ago today, the Beatles’ trippy, messy, opalescent made-for-TV movie Magical Mystery Tour aired on the BBC. It was a spectacular flop, critics of the time would have you believe.
Paul McCartney knew better.
“I think it’s as good as I always thought it was,” he told interviewer David Frost on Dec. 27, 1967. “But when we were making it, I think all of us thought, ‘This has got a very thin plot. We hope this idea of doing a thing without a plot works, because the one thing we’re gonna be able to say is—it hasn’t got a plot.’ But yeah. We thought, ‘You don’t need a plot. You don’t always need one.’ Because, like, the things you did today probably didn’t have much of a plot.”
It was filmed in color but the 1967 Boxing Day audience in the UK would first view Magical Mystery Tour in black and white. That was not the only problem they had seeing what was going on. Over the past three years, the Beatles had pushed beyond the shaggy antics of 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night. Even their pot-fueled performances in the headier 1965 followup farce Help! gave little hint at what the wonders of psychedelia would do to enhance an evening of family entertainment on the night after Christmas.
As another new year awaits, McCartney’s resilience in the immediate aftermath of that debacle points a way toward finding a deeper meaning in life and work—one based on your own guideposts, along a path all together different from those marked by traditional signs of success.
“If we’d learned by putting ourselves in someone else’s hands and then letting them say, ‘We’ve got to do the vaudeville here,’ then it isn’t us doing it…” McCartney told Frost. “You know, we’ve always just made records according to how we thought they should have been made, and a lot of people said, ‘Well, that’s not the way they’re doing it now.’ And we said, ‘We’ll carry on and do ’em like this, and see if you like ’em when you get used to ’em.’ And it’s worked.”
Yes, one can go a long way in life by playing by the rules. Conformity keeps traffic intersections from being battle zones, and paying down a mortgage requires making regularly scheduled payments. Yet true innovation and fulfillment in any field come only from those who design a new course.
It takes some nerve and the development of an inner reserve to silence the critics, or at least ignore them. Then, after dispensing with the need to obey the voice of a producer, a parent, a partner—or even that fearful one inside your head—you just might discover something truly unique and new: You.
Let a Beatle explain.
A lack of the usual “unanimous enthusiasm”
The movie, shot over two weeks and edited down to under an hour, unspooled as a scattering of scenes from a fictional bus tour, including one with John Lennon as a waiter shoveling mounds of spaghetti, a sequence based on a dream he had related to McCartney. There were songs that featured the Beatles at their druggiest, from Lennon’s epic “I Am the Walrus” to McCartney’s “Flying” and George Harrison’s “Blue Jay Way.” Magical Mystery Tour also nodded back to McCartney’s love of traditional music-hall ditties, with all four Beatles stepping down a long and winding staircase in white tie and tails for “Your Mother Should Know.”
The group, coming off its album-of-albums Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, worked without a script, anticipating the anarchic, free-flowing music videos of decades to come. The US album, which added “Strawberry Fields,” “Penny Lane” and other 1967 singles to the movies’ songs, was an immense hit. It would be a phantasmagoric turning point. The Beatles’ final years together turned toward intimate, individual expression, culminating in the glory of Abbey Road.
Decades on, Martin Scorsese is among the filmmakers who have cited Magical Mystery Tour as an inspiration. “Of course, the emphasis on professionalism and polish and politeness has come back now with a vengeance,” he said in a 2012 documentary. “It’s expected. And there’s a tendency to forget that really that’s only one choice, one way of going.”
Yet on Dec. 27, 1967, the reaction in the London newspapers was so harsh the seemingly compliant McCartney went on Frost’s show that very night to try to explain what the Beatles were up to. “The Beatles’ music brings unanimous enthusiasm and approval pretty well,” Frost said in his introduction. “Last night, their television show did not bring unanimous enthusiasm and approval, and everyone seems to be discussing it today. Here is the man most responsible, Mr. Paul McCartney.”
Nothing is real and nothing to get hung about
A look at The Frost Programme transcript, as recounted at BeatlesInterviews.org and other fan sites and presented here in condensed excerpts, offers both a time-capsule view of the strait-laced entertainment world the Beatles helped upend as well as the sincere words of an artist trying to explain how ingenuity, imagination and experimentation contribute to producing mass entertainment. (Left unsaid on this night was the impact of drugs like LSD.)
In the somewhat stilted chat-program environment, McCartney lands on truisms about the universal search for meaning in work—and life—that resonate for anyone.
Breaking new ground is lonely work
Did you have a point in mind when you—I mean, some point to get across at all when you did this?
No. See, that’s the trouble, seriously. You gotta do everything with a point or an aim, but we tried this one without anything—with no point and no aim. It’s like, you know, we make a record album and all the songs don’t necessarily have to fit in with each other, you know. They’re just a selection of songs. But when you go to make a film, I don’t know, you seem to have to have a thread to pull it all together. We thought that doing a mystery tour, you know—it’s all happening on a bus to this group of people—would be enough of a thread.
A label is a limit other people put on you
Would you call it a success or a failure today?
It’s both. You know, it’s a success-failure. You can’t say it was a success, you know, ’cause the papers didn’t like it. And that seems to be what people read to find out what’s a success. But I think it’s alright. I think the next one will be a lot better, and it will have a fat plot…as opposed to a thin plot.
Can it be a success when people don’t like it?
It obviously matters. If this morning, we’d awoke to find fantastic reviews then we would have all said, “It’s a success.” And I wouldn’t have been on tonight, David. But it doesn’t matter all that much, ’cause people said about two of our records like “Strawberry Fields'” and “I Am the Walrus,” to name but two, they said, “Those are terrible,” you know, “You can’t talk about ‘let your knickers down’ on telly. You can’t do it.” But you can, you know. I just done it! And it’s alright, you know. Because, in about a year or two, these things that didn’t look like successes will look a bit more like successes, you know, as people get into that kind of thing.
The message you divine is up to you
How often do you have a message, actually? Do you often say, “I hope a point gets across to people out there”?
Umm, no. I never say that. But everything has a message—but you can’t just pick out one little thing and say, “Is that their message?” You know, everything we do is never intended to have a great deep message, but it has. Like everything you do, like everything everybody does.
Like when John and George were talking about the Maharishi, they were saying that the main sort of point of his message was “know thy self” and so on. Is that what you—
It’s got to be. It’s the only point in anything anybody does ever, if you just get to know what it is you’re doing. We don’t do it deliberately—like “OK, we gotta get this message over in our songs.” We just do songs. But if you ask the question about the message, I think there is one there. I still don’t know what it is.
Only you can be true to yourself
Frost asks McCartney what advice he can offer to old friends from Liverpool, based on the experience of his career
Right now, the only advice is the one that I’ve always had—to always be meself. Because the advice is often to not be yourself, you know. It’s like the show last night. The advice really, if we had taken it, after today’s Trib would’ve been, “You get a good choreographer, lads. A good director, producer. And get a lot of money behind ya, and we’ll have 5,000 dancing girls, and we’ll have you hanging from a Christmas tree. And it’ll be great because it’ll be.” And it’s true, it would have been safe and set and everything. But we thought “We’ll try it our way, and if it doesn’t work…” It doesn’t matter too much that it wasn’t the success that we’d hoped, you know, for that reason. Because still, at least we were able to be ourselves. And do what we thought was right.
The walrus was Paul
Magical Mystery Tour includes the only filmed instance of Lennon performing “I Am the Walrus,” which opens with the lines: “I am he as you are he as you are me. And we are all together.”
In a 2015 appreciation for Rolling Stone, singer and songwriter Liz Phair wrote that Lennon’s nonsense verses and all that surrounded them were a window into how the Beatles “had become really famous and it all became a circus to them, and they were playing with the idea that society is a farce and using absurdity as a weapon against authority.”
It’s a tool you have at your disposal, too. Happy New Year.