Recorded just four days after the completion of the Sgt Pepper album, ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ was Paul McCartney’s attempt to maintain momentum within The Beatles and to give them a new direction and sense of purpose.
John and I remembered mystery tours, and we always thought this was a fascinating idea: getting on a bus and not knowing where you were going. Rather romantic and slightly surreal! All these old dears with the blue rinses going off to mysterious places. Generally there’s a crate of ale in the boot of the coach and you sing lots of songs. It’s a charabanc trip. So we took that idea and used it as a basis for a song and the film.
Inspired by Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and their LSD-fuelled bus, McCartney decided The Beatles should try something similar. He devised a rough concept for the new project, which would involve the group travelling around the England in their own coach, filming whatever took place.
I used to go to the fairgrounds as a kid, the waltzers and the dodgems, but what interested me was the freak shows: the boxing booths, the bearded lady and the sheep with five legs, which actually was a four-legged sheep with one leg sewn on its side. When I touched it, the fellow said, ‘Hey, leave that alone!’ these were the great things of your youth. So much of your writing comes from this period; your golden memories. If I’m stuck for an idea, I can always think of a great summer, think of a time when I went to the seaside. Okay, sand sun waves donkeys laughter. That’s a pretty good scenario for a song.
The resulting TV film was a mess, and critically panned, though the soundtrack double EP (expanded to a full album in the US) was a best-seller.
‘Magical Mystery Tour’ was co-written by John and I, very much in our fairground period. One of our great inspirations was always the barker. ‘Roll up! Roll up!’ The promise of something: the newspaper ad that says ‘guaranteed not to crack’, the ‘high class’ butcher, ‘satisfaction guaranteed’ from Sgt Pepper. ‘Come inside,’ ‘Step inside, Love‘; you’ll find that pervades a lot of my songs. If you look at all the Lennon-McCartney things, it’s a thing we do a lot.
The title track was McCartney’s initial idea, based on ideas written on an overnight flight from America on 11 April 1967, though what he took to the studio was little more than the title and three chords. He attempted to rouse the other Beatles into contributing lyrics, but their enthusiasm was low and later completed the lyrics alone.
Because those were psychedelic times it had to become a magical mystery tour, a little bit more surreal than the real ones to give us a licence to do it. But it employs all the circus and fairground barkers, ‘Roll up! Roll up!’, which was also a reference to rolling up a joint. We were always sticking those little things in that we knew our friends would get; veiled references to drugs and to trips. ‘Magical Mystery Tour is waiting to take you away,’ so that’s a kind of drug, ‘it’s dying to take you away’ so that’s a Tibetan Book of the Dead reference. We put all these words in and if you were just an ordinary person, it’s a nice bus that’s waiting to take you away, but if you’re tripping, it’s dying, it’s the real tour, the real magical mystery tour. We stuck all that stuff in for our ‘in group’ of friends really.
‘Magical Mystery Tour’ was the equivalent of a drug trip and we made the film based on that. ‘That’ll be good, a far-out mystery tour. Nobody quite knows where they’re going. We can take ’em anywhere we want, man!’ Which was the feeling of the period. ‘They can go in the sky. It can take off!’ In fact, in the early script, which was just a few fireside chats more than a script, the bus was going to actually take off and fly up to the magicians in the clouds, which was us all dressed in red magicians’ costumes, and we’d mess around in a little laboratory being silly for a while.
In the studio
The first ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ session took place on 25 April 1967. The Beatles spent much time rehearsing and improvising the song, with Paul McCartney at the piano suggesting ideas to the others in the group.
Eventually they recorded three takes of the basic rhythm track: two guitars, piano and drums. Take three was the best. After this they raided the Abbey Road sound effects collection, creating a tape loop of the sound of coaches to be added at the mixing stage.
On 26 April McCartney recorded his bass part, and all The Beatles plus Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans played percussion instruments, including tambourine, maracas and cowbell. McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison also taped extra vocals.
The following day still more vocals were added. McCartney taped his lead, with backing from Lennon and Harrison.
An overdub of four trumpets was added on 3 May. The session began by McCartney humming notes to the brass players to let them know what he wanted, but he mostly failed to get his intentions across.
In the end the players were sent away while McCartney and George Martin worked out the notation on the piano in Abbey Road’s studio three. One of the trumpeters, Gary Howarth, reportedly became so impatient that he wrote a score himself. According to Philip Jones, a friend of the session musicians, that was the idea The Beatles ended up using.
The recording of ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ was completed on 7 November. During the editing of the film, Lennon had added a spoken introduction: “Roll up, roll up for the Magical Mystery Tour! Step right this way! Hurry, hurry, hurry!” It was decided that this should be added to the record release too.
McCartney recreated Lennon’s spiel, although he left out the “Hurry, hurry, hurry!” section. A tape loop of traffic noise, assembled back on 25 April, was also added. The song was then mixed in stereo and mono.