This essay about the Beatles and the influence of Further on the Magical Mystery Tour was sent in by Steve Ellerhoff. Thanks Steve.
“Dying to Take You Away”
Once upon a time, way back, you know, in the ’60s, Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, led a group of “freaks” in an old converted 1939 International Harvester bus, psychedelically-painted and named “Furthur,” across America. They enrolled many notable heroes of the counterculture, old and new, like Neal Cassady and Jerry Garcia, and filmed the whole shabang’Kesey saying, “Get them into your movie before they get you into theirs” (Lee 121)’all while taking internal trips through the use of LSD. Tom Wolfe immortalized it all in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and little did they know that their Technicolor dream-trek would spawn off countless trips for people in the decades to come; or maybe they did know. In the seventies, Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear traversed America in a psychedelically-painted Studebaker in The Muppet Movie and elsewhere in Muppethology you can see the Electric Mayhem Band driving around in a psychedelic bus. I also remember when I was a kid, there were commercials on TV for something called Sweet Pickles where you sent in money and got books about anthropomorphic animals. I wanted them because in the commercials a gang of animals would drive to your house in a giant green bus and deliver the books; I didn’t believe my mom when she insisted they wouldn’t visit me if we ordered their books. Even more recent than that has been a series of children’s books all about taking trips on a magic bus. But before all of those, the Merry Pranksters inspired the Beatles.
In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test when the Pranksters head out to see the Beatles in concert on September 2, 1965, they display a special sign to welcome the Fab Four: THE MERRY PRANKSTERS WELCOME THE BEATLES. They had successfully welcomed the Hell’s Angels so why not try the Beatles, too? Well, the concert, as Wolfe records it, is a disaster for the Pranksters. The mass hysteria of Beatlemania is too much for them to handle and, as they’re all tripping, they see the concert to be the cancerous offspring of immense power ignorantly controlled by the Beatles. It’s appropriate that the Pranksters has been listening to “Help!” on the way to the concert because they need it, and God knows the Beatles need it, too. On top of the fear and confusion, as if that wasn’t enough, four or five hundred people were waiting for the Beatles at Kesey’s house once the Pranksters returned’and John, Paul, George, and Ringo didn’t show up (Of course, in 1968, Ken Kesey and twelve others, including some Hell’s Angels, were welcomed to Apple in London by the Beatles. Kesey admits to going so he could avoid some of the attention he’d received since The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was published. Derek Taylor, an Apple employee, says, “Ken Kesey was in, borrowing a typewriter and tape recorder and doing poetry readings in my office in the morning. I would arrive and find the Hell’s Angels sitting around’scratching and farting’and saying, ‘Hey Ken, read some more, man'” (Beatles 312). The whole story, how an unnamed Apple employee got punched by a Hell’s Angel, and how he first met John Lennon dressed up as Santa Claus is told wonderfully by Kesey in his short story “Now We Know How Many Holes it Takes to Fill the Albert Hall” in his book Demon Box). However, the legendary LSD manufacturer, Owsley, is there and gets everyone high but he turns out to be an asshole’ Wolfe goes on to explain that Owsley was the guy who’d made the acid that the Beatles eventually came to trip on:
‘after Owsley hooked up with Kesey and the Pranksters, he began a musical group called the Grateful Dead. Through the Dead’s experience with the Pranksters was born the sound known as “acid rock.” And it was that sound that the Beatles picked up on, after they started taking acid, to do a famous series of acid-rock record albums, Revolver, Rubber Soul, and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band (Wolfe 189).
What Wolfe didn’t know when he wrote The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is that in August of 1965, when the Beatles were at a party in Los Angeles, they took their first deliberate acid trips’all except Paul. Incidentally, it was at that party where Lennon ran into Peter Fonda, who was actively telling a story about a near-death operation he’d undergone at the age of ten. As Fonda later put it, “John was passing at the time and heard me saying, ‘I know what it’s like to be dead.’ He looked at me and said, ‘You’re making me feel I’ve never been born. Who put all that shit in your head?'” (Turner 111). Unknowingly, Fonda had inspired a Lennon song that would turn up the next year on the Beatles’ album Revolver: “She Said She Said.” The point here is that on September 2, 1965, unbeknownst to the Merry Pranksters at that Beatles concert, John, George, and Ringo had already taken LSD and were just starting down the path of psychedelia.
Once on that path, an interesting evolution took place in the Beatles’ music and before getting into what happens in their Magical Mystery Tour, I think it’s important to look at their psychedelic progression. The obvious change is that their songs became more introverted and insightful and they demanded closer inspection; within their rhetoric, among other observations, was a repeated study on loneliness. Scholars have picked up on their views of loneliness and written extensively on the subject. In 1972, David R. Pichaske explored the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP entirely in terms on loneliness, for his book Beowulf to Beatles & Beyond, and makes a strong point. “Two things are important: the band is lonely, and it is performing [the Beatles are pretending not to be the Beatles]. Perhaps the two are interrelated: performers are generally lonely people, lonely people perform when they pretend not to be lonely and in an attempt to escape their loneliness” (Pichaske 522). He says that through the repeated line in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise) that goes, “Sgt. Pepper’s lonely,” the crucial word is “Pepper’s”‘”Pepper is”‘all together, “Sgt. Pepper is lonely.” Once you break that code, practically every line in the album can be examined in terms of loneliness.
More recently though, a much stronger case has been made by historian Nick Bromell in his compelling study on psychedelia, Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s.
We hunger for songs about loneliness not just because they express what we dread but because they offer what we need: a space, a place to go’When in 1966 the Beatles asked where all the lonely came from, I already knew the answer: they came from the way life is, from the way things have been set up. We are Eleanor Rigby’We needed a form that could represent this vision to ourselves, that could express our second sight and our fear of, and need for, loneliness. Rock was the form we found, and for good reason (Bromell 44-45, 48).
Bromell’s interpretation goes right along with Lennon’s vision of his own music. When describing “Strawberry Fields Forever,” one of the earlier psychedelic songs that was released, Lennon said, “Strawberry Fields is anywhere you want to go’It’s just about me really, or anybody else, who’s thinking like that. It’s pretty straightforward’I saw loneliness” (Badman 264). No wonder Elizabeth Wurtzel in Prozac Nation finds some suicidal comfort in “Strawberry Fields Forever.” “Those are the words I want to leave the world with. Let me take you down. Down as low as I am. Yes, that’s it, that’s the plan, to die with John Lennon’s voice seems just right” (Wurtzel 318).
Thus the desire to take a trip. I know when I’m lonely I want to get away from where I am at the time. And though it may be a mistake on my part, I’m assuming that many other people feel the same way and that, to quote “Imagine,” “I’m not the only one.” Therefore, after the Beatles’ exploration of loneliness through Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it’s only natural that they would want to take a trip. The trip that ensued was a thoroughly British road trip that followed a strange mix of people across the English countryside. What’s great for us is that they filmed everything and edited it into a movie.
Not an ordinary movie, but a totally spontaneous movie, using hand-held cameras, shooting the experience as it happened’off the top of the head!’cavorting, rapping on, soaring in the moment, visionary chaos’a daydream! a black art! a chaos! They finished up with miles and miles of film, a monster, a veritable morass of it, all shaky and out of focus’blissful Zonk!’which they saw as a total breakthrough in terms of expression but also as a commercial display’shown on British TV it was’that might be appreciated even outside the esoteric world of the heads’THE MOVIE’called Magical Mystery Tour (Wolfe 189).
As Wolfe shows, the Merry Pranksters were the initial influence for the Beatles’ own road trip, but they also applied the idea to their own culture. A tradition in Britain is the Mystery Tour, where a bunch of people hop on a bus without knowing where they’re headed, and they just go. I’m familiar with the idea here in America because my grandmother goes on trips similar to these that are sponsored by her bank. The use of a Mystery Tour is perfect because it includes all the lonely people, not just counterculture “freaks”‘the Beatles are taking all types of people on their trip, from children to midgets to the elderly.
Songs are interspersed all through the film, six in total, alluding extensively to movement and travel, or sadness and melancholy. The ordering of the songs is intersting in itself, too. “Magical Mystery Tour” is the commercial-like intro to the trip, begging people to “roll up” and come along for the ride. “The Fool on the Hill” is all about a sophomoric (a wise yet foolish) guy who is completely ignored by the people around him.
“Flying” is a melancholic instrumental that plays during a fluorescent-neon plane ride over various landscapes (which was footage borrowed from Stanley Kubrick that was left out of his own road trip through space: 2001: A Space Odyssey [Turner 144]).
“I am the Walrus,” one of the most famous psychedelic compositions, deals with both movement and sadness through its Jabberwockian gobbledygook. It’s full of running, flying, climbing, and kicking; but the song also has a melancholy sort of two-note structure, which Lennon based on the sound of British police sirens, and besides doing a lot of waiting, the voice in the song keeps returning to, “Crying.” The song is very complex, and was deliberately written to be impossible to analyze and confusing, but nevertheless these themes of movement and loneliness shine through the nonsense.
“Blue Jay Way,” the only song written completely by George Harrison in the film, is actually named after a road that can be found high in the Hollywood Hills. Harrison wrote the song when he was staying at a rented house, belonging to Peggy Lee, that was on Blue Jay Way. Apparently it is very tricky to get onto that road because of the way the narrow canyons affect the roadways, and some of George’s friends got lost on their way to the house. While he was waiting, he sat in the corner and wrote this song about it, and the song ended up in the film, complete with a sequence of George playing an organ drawn with chalk on the pavement in front of some cars. “One critic thought the line in which George urged his guest not to ‘be long’ was advice to young people telling them not to ‘belong’ (to society, that is). Another acclaimed musicologist believed that, when George said that his friends had ‘lost their way,’ he meant that a whole generation had lost direction” (Turner 145). In any case, the song, which establishes itself in L.A., is a mellow exercise in what it is to wait and wonder about people who may have become lost along the way and is full of overt references to streets.
The last song, and the one to pretty much wrap up the film, is “Your Mother Should Know.” There’s something delightful about the song and yet at the same time, there are those spooky wavering “Oooh” sounds that fill up the backing vocals on the track. To push it further, or as the Pranksters would spell it, “furthur,” Paul sings the majority of one verse by scatting at first with the sound “Die,” which eventually changes to “Dah.” Why are these spooky “Ooohs” and Paul singing “Die” there? The result is a song that’s kind of fun and optimistic, but rooted in a strange sort of melancholy.
The songs aren’t the only psychedelic aspects of the film. The live action in the film, made up of bizarre segments, makes up a plotless whole. How can you have a film without a plot? Well, you can’t if you’re an old schooler. But if you’re a psychedelic artist you can produce a narrative where nothing really happens. For example, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (which incidentally, Lennon loved. According to biographer Robert Rosen, “He was so taken by it, he imagined himself playing Thompson in the movie” [Rosen 53]. Apparently Lennon found it humorous or didn’t take much issue with Thompson writing, ” ‘That poor fool [Lennon] should have stayed where he was,’ said my attorney. ‘Punks like that just get in the way when they try to be serious'” [Thompson 21].). The book is an excellent example of yet another psychedelic road trip that follows no real plot and conflict. Of course, it was published four years after Magical Mystery Tour was screened, but it still fits, doesn’t it?
So what goes on in those confusing segments in Magical Mystery Tour might be worth looking at individually. Upon inspection, it is clear that the Beatles are being completely subversive, and that they’re doing it in the genre of madcap British humor. Sure, this was several years before Monty Python, but utter madness has been a part of British culture for a long time. The Beatles themselves, especially Lennon, had been greatly influenced by a group of wacky radio characters who called themselves the Goons, of which Peter Sellers was a member. The Goons would do skits where they would play all sorts of silly characters who spoke funny and satirized society around them. This subversive style of British humor is the tradition that the Beatles are working through, albeit in a psychedelic way, in Magical Mystery Tour.
In one segment, the Beatles attend a strip show. The Beatles? At a strip show? Shots of Lennon and Harrison clapping with anticipation before the stripper comes out, and then a shot of Lennon sprawled across the table and watching the show with unflinching eyes wasn’t what people would expect from their lovable Beatles. John, Paul, George, and Ringo have grown; they’re perverts’or are at least showing the world where lonely people go when their hormones are raging. Still’the Beatles are that desperate???
Another rule they break, and with this one I say more power to ’em, is that they show a couple in love that is neither young nor physically fit. An instrumental version of their earlier hit “All My Loving” plays while Buster Bloodvessel, a senile old man who thinks he runs the tour, and Ringo’s aunt Jessica, an obese woman, frolic around at the beach. They hug. They kiss. Mr. Bloodvessel even draws a heart around Jessica in the sand at her feet and kneels before her. What the hell are the Beatles doing? Why aren’t they showing all the hot groupies we all know they had and, you know, like, putting them in skimpy swimsuits so we can have a good vicarious romp at the beach? The Beatles choice to show the “unbeautiful” people in love is in itself a very beautiful segment, and it lends a refreshing and unexpected view of love itself. Because after all, aren’t people who look like this, the old and the fat, supposed to be lonely?
Possibly the most subversive of all acts in the film is the way the Beatles mock the military. It’s important to remember that the year is 1967 and that the war in Viet Nam is raging away. In one segment, Paul plays a General seated behind a desk while an Army Sergeant (played by Victor Spinetti, who co-starred with the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night and Help!) leads people on the tour through military headquarters. As Paul sits quietly, the Army Sergeant (Pepper?) barks his lines at length incoherently at all the tour members. Finally, Ringo simply asks, “Why?” The Sergeant is confused so Ringo asks again. The Sergeant’s response is to bark with more conviction, the only intelligible words out of his mouth being, “Get your bloody hair cut!” Suddenly, the tour is teleported to the countryside and the Army Sergeant begins giving a presentation concerning a stuffed cow that is set beside him. After the Sergeant has yelled a bit and danced by the stuffed cow a bit, the tour members are bored and they file away before he finishes his presentation. If that isn’t mockery of the military, I don’t know what is. Also, it’s interesting to see how the Sarge is left behind so he is all alone. Once everyone is gone, he pets the dead cow on the head and begins a conversation with it’definitely an act of a lonely man. This especially makes sense if this Sergeant really is Sgt. Pepper, who we’ve already found to be a lonely man, according to the Beatles.
The other act of parody of the military within the film comes during the song sequence for “Your Mother Should Know.” After the Beatles, clad in white tuxedoes with roses in their lapels, descend a staircase, they salute a stream of girl cadets who pass by, all dressed in uniforms. What’s most important here is the fact that the Beatles are saluting them. Why would the Beatles salute the girl cadets, who are really just Britain’s version of the girl scouts, which was set up by the Royal Navy? Is this a comment on the Viet Nam War, the one that sucked in thousands of young men (including my uncle I’m named for)? If so, the Beatles are saying that the only uniforms young women have to worry about wearing are those of the girl cadets, a non-militaristic organization maintained by the militaristic Royal Navy, because women couldn’t be drafted or even properly enlist like men could. The Beatles are pointing out the fishiness of having youth organizations led by the military, especially when the reality of the military was that thousands of young men were being killed in Viet Nam.
Well, when Magical Mystery Tour was first aired on December 8, 1967, on the BBC, a lot of viewers were utterly confused by the whole thing. Not helping matters, the film was shown in black and white’a big mistake considering the fact that this was a technicolorful psychedelic adventure. The reviews weren’t good. James Thomas of the Daily Express said, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall. And what a fall it was” (Badman 332). The Sun reported, “The BBC switchboard was overwhelmed last night by people complaining about The Beatles’ film Magical Mystery Tour. Some People protested that the BBC1 programme was incomprehensible” (Badman 333). The Daily Mirror: “Rubbish’Piffle’Nonsense!” (Badman 333).
Lennon defended the film saying, “I loved it, because it was a trip, you know. Everyone was down on it, but it was all right. But there was too much ‘nothing happening'” (Badman 333). Paul said, “We thought we would not underestimate people and would do something new. It is better being controversial than being boring” [my italics] (Badman 333). Aha! So they were definitely aiming at creating a controversial trip.
I believe the whole key to the film is actually a small shot within it where Lennon is walking through a field with the rest of the tour members. Talking to no one in particular, and in a deep and silly Liverpudlian voice, he says, “There’s no business like show business. There’s no business I know. Everything about it’s so appealing.” Well, if Magical Mystery Tour is show business, then it’s an awfully confusing business to be in. The Beatles themselves have cracked their own fame wide open. At a time when they were riding high on the wave of success, the deliberately produced a film that would confuse people.
The music was great, and indeed sold well (and continues to). Released on two EPs in the UK, it went to #1 on the charts; and released as an LP in the US, with extra tracks that had originally been released as singles, it also went to #1. Still, the film remains problematic, even for fans. In Chris Bruton’s short story “Beatles 4ever,” some friends looking back on the Beatles’ career frown upon Magical Mystery Tour. One character says, “Just look at it: the fat lady wolfing down a mountain of spaghetti, the Beatles in white tuxes dancing a two-step, and all of these cosmic ‘special effects”where’s the great meaning? It’s just stupid, man. It was stupid then, it’s stupid now” (Cording 280). I have to admit, when I first rented the film at the video store, and sat down to watch it one summer afternoon during my adolescence, I fell asleep. I thought it was horrible, boring, self-indulgent. I was even embarrassed that my beloved Beatles had done such a crappy movie; I believed I could have done something better with my friend in my backyard. After some years though, and some thought, I’m convinced that Magical Mystery Tour, though not even an hour long, is actually a very controversial and subversive film.
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