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The Meaning Behind “Magical Mystery Tour” by The Beatles and the Subtext Running Just Beneath the Surface

Four individual movies about the four Beatles due in 2027? Sounds like a fascinating project, just like the one the Fab Four embarked on when they made the film Magical Mystery Tour in 1967. Although the film served as fodder for critics, the title track delivered a jolt of psychedelic energy and still stands as one of The Beatles‘ most strikingly original singles.

What does this song mean? What exactly is a “Magical Mystery Tour”? And why was the film that contained it one of the few artistic endeavors by The Beatles met with less than universal acclaim? Let’s take a look at the origin and meaning of this classic.

“Tour” of Duty
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It’s a common misconception that The Beatles made the Magical Mystery Tour film because they insisted on pressing on with some project following the death of their manager Brian Epstein. In truth, the “Magical Mystery Tour” song sessions took place months before Epstein’s death in September 1967, and filming for the movie was already underway when he died.

In any case, Paul McCartney did indeed push for the band to continue a busy pace in 1967, perhaps to stave off the lethargy that might have accompanied their lack of touring. Hence, the sessions for “Magical Mystery Tour” took place just days after the group had put a bow on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. McCartney explained in the Barry Miles’ book Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now what inspired the song:

“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.”

John Lennon and McCartney wrote the song from that basic idea. The recording manages to sound both refreshingly old-fashioned, thanks to the bright, shiny brass, and eerily forward-looking, courtesy of the somewhat unsettling coda. It was yet another example of The Beatles’ ability to meld different music styles, all while keeping things undeniably catchy. The group released the song as a single in the United Kingdom to precede the film’s release, and it went to No. 2 in the British charts.

As for the film, The Beatles created a surreal pastiche that felt less like a coherent film and more like a collection of skits. Its avant-garde silliness isn’t all that unlike what Monty Python would do in the coming years. But at the time, viewers and critics were baffled. The Fab Four had to endure some of the first negative reviews of their career. The music, which included beauties like the title track, “The Fool on the Hill,” and “I Am the Walrus,” proved that they were certainly on top of their game in that department.

The Meaning of “Magical Mystery Tour”
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Taken at face value, “Magical Mystery Tour” does indeed refer to a bus trip. But there’s a subtext running just below the surface that isn’t too hard to realize. The year 1967, when the song was released, stood out as a time in history when drug experimentation was running rampant through the culture. The Beatles had already used a few of their songs to promote psychedelia, including when they sang, I’d love to turn you on at the end of “A Day in the Life” to close out Sgt. Pepper’s.

That idea seems to be working its way through “Magical Mystery Tour.” McCartney, who sings the lead vocal, takes on the role of a barker trying to get crowds of people to join the traveling circus: Roll up for the magical mystery tour / Step right this way. You can certainly take it literally if you wish. But the idea of a mystery trip that’s going to take you away certainly could refer to tripping on acid or some other recreational drug.

Perhaps that’s why the movie failed. It attempted to put definitive visuals on a mind-altering journey. But it couldn’t quite capture the flights of fancy conjured by the song “Magical Mystery Tour,” which gives you the perfect soundtrack for the movie in your mind.

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