Sunday, March 25, 2018

A Beatles Failure

Coming off Sgt. Pepper, The Beatles' next project had a similar conceptual theme that would prove to be the Fab Four's first "failure." The concept, no odder than that of Pepper, incorporated the British craze known as the "mystery tour," in which day-trippers boarded a bus with its destination unknown, adding that extra bit of excitement to the journey. The project was not just limited to music, of course; a short film would be released for TV, and therein lies the unraveling. While the project was destined for failure in America from its onset, Americans having no idea what a mystery tour was, that would be a moot point in that the film would not air in the U.S.

The McCartney-themed project consisted only of the British EP release of what would, in America, be Side One of the LP. In the Beatles/Parlophone tradition of not releasing on an album any song that was previously released as a single, the EP omitted many of what are arguably the band's greatest achievements; namely, "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields," as well as "All You Need Is Love," "Hello Goodbye" and "Baby You're a Rich Man." 

While the inclusion of these tracks on the American release guaranteed the LP's phenomenal success, the EP did not have the same dynamics in Britain. Indeed, on their own, the songs are slight at best with an intro piece in the title track, the Beatles' only instrumental in "Flying," Harrison's "Blue Jay Way" and McCartney's vaudeville construct, "Your Mother Should Know." The focus of the EP, of course, is Paul's phenomenal "Fool on the Hill" and John's wonderfully absurd, "I Am the Walrus." While these songs spelled success, add-on Capitol's genius (at least in this respect) and a good EP transforms into an album nearly as iconic as its predecessor.

The concept was McCartney's. Inspired by the drug-fueled road trip across the U.S. made by author Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in a psychedelic-painted school bus, the idea was to gather a motley collection of friends and vaudevillians to travel around Britain on a tour bus. Along the way, the quartet, who were experimenting with LSD, would have madcap adventures. Unfortunately, The Beatles, particularly Paul, were so confident in their cultural infallibility that they didn't bother to write a script. Their hopes of filming spontaneous, wacky happenings that would emerge naturally from their inherent fabulousness turned into a free-for-all with little dialogue (the best of it banter from Ringo and his Aunt Jessie, played by actress Jessie Robins). There are random scenes of wrestling dwarves, cars racing the bus around an airport, a waiter piling buckets of spaghetti on to fat aunt Jessie's plate (inspired by a dream of John Lennon's the night before) and scenes in a laboratory where the band appears in red magicians' hats cooking up spells. Interspersed are intensely crafted Technicolor videos of the soundtrack. All of it would come to naught with the BBC's airing the film in black and white to the disappointment of 15 million British viewers, an audience of nearly ¼ the entire population of the UK.

Recorded from April 25, 1967 to November 2 and released at the end of the year, the LP version of Magical Mystery Tour would go on to top the charts the first two months of 1968. The album's packaging as well was top notch. A psychedelic gatefold cover is adorned with a glossy comic book of the film's shenanigans, presented far more stylistically than in the film. Americans would not see the disastrous film until the 1980s when it no longer mattered. Call it a failure if you like; a Beatles' failure. Doesn't mean much.

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