The Beatles third and most experimental film, Magical Mystery Tour, came out in late 1967. It debuted on the BBC on Boxing Day, where most people in Britain watched it on their small black and white TV sets, rendering its psychedelic splendor irrelevant. It was the Beatles first bomb. Originally a McCartney idea, the hour long film was a disjointed and surreal montage about a coach trip throughout the English countryside and to the seaside (with a plethora of musical montages and pre Monty Python-like sketches thrown in).
Whatever one thinks about the success or failure of Magical Mystery Tour, it definitely captured a playful free-for-all psychedelic experience of 1967. The filmmaking seemed to be influenced by the experimental european filmmakers Michelangelo Antonioni, Luis Buñuel, Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard and others, who instead of a conventional narrative, presented a series of apparently disconnected events in many of their films.
Another cinematic sharing, was the montage sequence for Flying (originally titled Aerial Tour Instrumental), which used footage of Icelandic clouds that had been shot, but never used, by Stanley Kubrick for his film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now, a newly restored version with crisp visuals and a remastered soundtrack has been released, making it totally worth a visit if you have any interest in the music or avant-guarde cinema of the 1960s. Either way, the musical numbers alone are worth the trip.
Much of Magical Mystery Tour was shot in and around RAF West Malling, an airfield in Kent that had recently been decommissioned. Many of the interior scenes, such as the final ballroom sequence for Your Mother Should Know, were shot in the disused aircraft hangars. The exteriors, such as the I Am the Walrus and Blue Jay Way sequences, along with the marathon race, were filmed on the runways and taxi aprons.
In the spring of 1980, David Bacon, a school buddy of mine, and I, spent two weeks driving around England, researching and photographing our book, the Beatles England. One of the highlights of our road trip was arriving at the West Malling Airfield in the South West area of Kent County. For some reason as I recall, it was difficult finding this old abandoned airfield. We had our paper maps marked up with all of the places on our Daytripping list (which included Beatle sites outside of London and Liverpool), but it took time finding an area of entry. Finally we discovered a boarded up checkpoint and drove right past it and over to the taxi track where we recognized the tall concrete slabs from the I Am the Walrus segment.
After several minutes of driving around the track at breakneck speeds in our bright red rental car (recreating a segment from the film for our own enjoyment), we saw a truck pulling in across the long field. It was then we remembered that we were in possession of a wrapped up wad of tin foil, containing a lump of hashish that was given to us by someone in London the day before. As we watched the truck drive across the open field, our paranoia forced us to discard the substance out of the car’s window as we spun around one of the short ends of the track. Our paranoia subsided once we saw the truck cross over the far end of the field and out the other side, disappearing from view.
David Bacon and Norman Maslov, co authors of the Beatles England at the West Malling Airfield 1980.
West Malling Airfield A 228 Highway, West Malling, Kent County
Nestled away in the English countryside south of London is the West Malling Airfield. All that is visible amidst the grass and bushes that skirt the abandoned runways are massive cement slabs, reaching upward out of the nothingness. All is quiet except for the sound of birds and the scrapping of wind against the surrounding trees.
Suddenly you turn around, only to be greeted by the music from a band of cellos and then a set of drums that crash against the soft daylight. From out of nowhere, four half-man and half-beastly musician. One plays the guitar, another bass, a third pounds on the drums and the last is perched behind a large, white grand piano. As they perform, a line of pretty policemen form a perfect row, and mutated eggmen surround these storybook creatures.
Has the world gone mad? Or have the Beatles just released another new record? Yes friends, it is I Am the Walrus and the scene is from Magical Mystery Tour. It is here at West Malling that much of the adventure was filmed. As an alternate to the overbooked Shepperton Film Studios, abandoned airplane hangars were used as a studio for interior shots. The West Malling Airfield was an ideal retreat, lending itself perfectly to the production of this madcap, Felliniesque episode.
From the book, The Beatles England by David Bacon and Norman Maslov
The West Malling Airfield is now developed into a new village community of mixed residential, commercial, and civic amenities called Kings Meadow, but still retains several features of its military aviation heritage.
And finally, the complete Rolling Stone review of Magical Mystery Tour. January 20, 1968
“There are only about 100 people in the world who understand our music.”—John Lennon, 1967.