Just after the recording process officially ended for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles decided to go right back to work. They were on a creative roll, expanding their musical possibilities while returning to the settings of their youth, so why stop? On April 25th, just four days after the final sounds of Sgt. Pepper’s were officially mixed and completed, John Lennon and Paul McCartney returned to EMI Studios with an idea based on an activity of the past.
“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,” McCartney remembers in Barry Miles’ Many Years From Now. “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.”
What came out was ‘Magical Mystery Tour’, the title track for what would eventually become an EP, a full-length album, and a television film. But at the first recording session, there were no cinematic ambitions or talks of potential concept albums. Instead, just as they had done with ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’, Lennon and McCartney recalled their pasts to channel something fresh and modern.
“‘Magical Mystery Tour’ was co-written by John and I, very much in our fairground period,” McCartney continued. “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.”
Of course, this being The Beatles, a straightforward mystery tour didn’t stay straightforward for very long. “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,” McCartney explained. “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.”
Adding: “‘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.”
As the song continued to be refined and pieced together, McCartney began to hatch an idea for a potential film, with the new track serving as a sort of theme song for the entire production. “‘Magical Mystery Tour’ was the equivalent of a drug trip and we made the film based on that,” McCartney said. “‘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 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.”
Although the initial idea for the film received only tepid enthusiasm from the rest of The Beatles, the death of Brian Epstein in August of 1967 convinced McCartney that the group needed a project to keep them together and focused. Without a stronger idea among them, Magical Mystery Tour became the band’s next production, with McCartney taking the reigns as the new captain of The Beatles’ ship.