So how do you follow up an album like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (no pressure, right?). There are a goodly number of otherwise diehard Beatle fans who would prefer to pretend that MagicalMystery Tour(the 1967 film, not the album) never happened. But it did. Right after Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play. And try as we might, we can’t change history. Now, for all you youngsters in the audience this evening, MMT was originally presented as a holiday special on BBC-TV in December of 1967. According to a majority of critics (and puzzled Beatles fans), the Fabs were ringing out the old year on a somewhat sour note with this self-produced project. By the conventions of television fare at the time, the 53-minute film was judged as a self-indulgent and pointlessly obtuse affair; a real psychedelic train wreck. Added up over the years, it’s probably weathered more continuous drubbing than Ishtarand Heaven’s Gatecombined.
However, despite the fact that this tragical history lore has become the meme, a newly restored Blu-ray release that hit shelves earlier this week begs a critical reappraisal (after all, it’s been 45 years). Granted, it remains unencumbered by anything resembling a “plot”, but in certain respects, it has actually held up remarkably well. Borrowing a page (one assumes) from the Merry Pranksters, the Beatles came up with a simple premise. They would gather up a group of friends (actors and non actors alike), load them all on a bus, and take them on a “mystery tour” across the English countryside. Everybody was encouraged to improvise around the, erm, “script” that did exist (sort of). They would just film whatever happened, then sort it all out in the editing suite. The resulting footage provided transitional padding between the (slightly) more choreographed music numbers.
It’s the musical sequences that benefit the most from the audio/video cleanup; those washed out VHS prints with horrendous sound quality that have been floating around for years certainly did no favors for the film’s already tarnished reputation. The luxury of hindsight reveals that several (particularly “Blue Jay Way”, “Fool on the Hill” and “I Am the Walrus”) vibe like harbingers of MTV, which was still well over a decade away. Some of the interstitial vignettes uncannily anticipate Monty Python’s idiosyncratic comic sensibilities; not a stretch when you consider that George Harrison’s future production company HandMade Films was formed to help finance Life of Brian. As for the film’s episodic approach and surrealist touches, it falls right in line with some of the work being done at the time by art house darlings like Fellini and Godard. That being said, MMT is far from what I’d call a work of art, but when taken for what it is (a long-form music video and colorful time capsule of 60s pop culture)-it’s lots of fun. Roll up!
Sir mix-a-lot: Produced by George Martin
While no one can deny the inherent musical genius of the Beatles, it’s worth speculating whether it would have reached the same dizzying heights of creativity and artistic growth (and over the same 7-year period) had the lads never crossed paths with Sir George Martin. It’s a testament to the unique symbiosis between the Fabs and their gifted producer that one can’t think of one without also thinking of the other. Yet there is still much more to Martin than his celebrated association with John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Martin is profiled in an engaging and beautifully crafted 2011 BBC documentary called (funnily enough) Produced by George Martin(now available on Blu-ray). The film traces his career from the early 50s to present day. His early days at EMI are particularly fascinating; a generous portion of the film focuses on his work there producing classical and comedy recordings (including priceless footage of Peter Sellers from his Goon Show days). Disparate as Martin’s early work appears to be from the rock’n’roll milieu, I think it prepped him for his future collaboration with the Fabs, on a personal and professional level. His experience with comics likely helped the relatively reserved producer acclimate to the Beatles’ irreverent sense of humor, and Martin’s classical training and gift for arrangement certainly helped to guide their creativity to a higher level of sophistication.
The film is a bit of a family affair as well. You get a good sense of the close and loving relationship Martin has with his wife Judy (who he met while working for EMI) and son Giles (who is following in his dad’s footsteps; they collaborated on the remixes of Beatle songs for the LOVE soundtrack album). At 81, Martin is still spry, full of great anecdotes and a class act all the way. He provides some very candid moments; there is visible emotion from the usually unflappable Martin when he admits how deeply hurt and betrayed he felt when John Lennon rather curtly informed him at the 11th hour that his “services would not be needed” for the Let it Besessions (the band went with the mercurial Phil Spector, who famously overproduced the album). Insightful interviews with artists who have worked with Martin (and admiring peers) round things off nicely.