The Magical Mystery Tour: Fifty Years On

The “fab four” decked out after their transformation during the Magical Mystery Tour era.

The worldwide popularity of the Beatles endures a half-century after the lads from Liverpool led the British Invasion of the ’60s, as evidenced by a full house last week at Malibu City Hall for the Library Speaker Series kickoff event of 2017. Beatles expert Scott Freiman presented “Roll Up! Deconstructing The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour.” Fab Four fans of all ages were treated to a two-hour multimedia presentation detailing how the groundbreaking rock group created their psychedelic tour de force.

Freiman, who is a composer and musician himself, gave a detailed song-by-song account of the album to a rapt audience. As referenced in Sgt. Pepper, it really was 50 years ago today that Magical Mystery Tour was released to a confused public. Freiman explained that a disastrous tour preceding the making of the album led the group to retreat to the relative calm of the recording studio. The Beatles’ unprecedented popularity made touring difficult as audiences screamed so loudly that the musicians — relying on primitive monitors — couldn’t hear themselves. A hostile stop in The Philippines cemented the decision: They would no longer play live.

With their newfound freedom, the Beatles first produced Sgt. Pepper, as well as the Double A-sided single of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane,” which found its way onto the American version of Magical Mystery Tour. Left to studio work with innovative producer George Martin, the Beatles started experimenting with then-cutting edge recording techniques such as multi-tracks, tape reductions and other effects that couldn’t be replicated live. As history tells us, John, Paul, George and Ringo were also experimenting with drugs, fueling their drive to shed their “mop top” pop image, and reeling from the death of manager Brian Epstein. Popular reaction to the new music and image was decidedly mixed. One of the highlights of the night was rare footage shown from a black and white American Bandstand television broadcast, which aired what was then referred to as a “promotional video” from Magical Mystery Tour. Most of the teens surveyed by Dick Clark were shocked by the group’s transformation in appearance from matching Pierre Cardin suits and Beatle boots to mustaches and hippie regalia. 

Freiman noted, “In 1967, the Beatles were at their experimental peak.” He diagrammed the elaborate use of the multiple tracks used in recording sessions on Magical Mystery Tour, culminating with the group incorporating a live BBC broadcast of King Lear into the mix of “I am the Walrus.” Professional singers were used as backups, while John Lennon’s vocals were sped up and slowed down to change pitch and tonality. 

Magical Mystery Tour the LP was the only American release now accepted as part of the official Beatles’ canon (the British version was a shorter double EP). The film received a more equivocal reception. With confusing direction stitched together by Paul McCartney from 10 hours of footage, the 52 minutes was hastily edited to meet a Boxing Day deadline. The original viewing on British television was further marred by the bizarre decision to show the colorful psychedelia in black and white on BBC1. The film was widely panned by the press as “rubbish,” while McCartney defended the film on the David Frost show as a “success failure.” A reassessment has begun in the past several years, which has seen the movie praised by Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorcese, among others.

Freiman, who called himself “a fan since age 10 and ever since,” said he started studying the Beatles in depth in 2009 when “I created my first lecture.” He’s now an internationally recognized expert and has produced many programs about Beatles history. Freiman responded like a true fan when asked if he had a favorite Beatles song. His response, “They’re all great.”

While Magical Mystery Tour was remastered by Abbey Road engineers as part of the 2009 reissues and several cuts were remixed by Giles Martin for the Cirque du Soleil Love show and accompanying soundtrack, die-hard audiophiles continue to seek out the vinyl version of the album on the German Horzu label, which offered the first true stereo versions of some of the songs.

The speaker series event was well-received by Malibu residents in attendance. 

“I’m fascinated by the Beatles. Who isn’t? The band is multigenerational,” Malibu resident and fan Jim Goyjer said. “It’s amazing that so many of their albums are still being sold. This presentation was fascinating — how a classical producer came to produce them — how kids from the streets came together to make this incredible music that is going to last forever.”

The next Malibu Library Speaker Series event will be a talk with renowned women’s rights and anti-discrimination attorney Gloria Allred on Wednesday, Feb. 15, at 7 p.m. at Malibu City Hall. RSVP required.