If you wanted to define “on top of the world,” you could just point to The Beatles in 1967. In July, the band released Sgt. Pepper’s, which included “A Day in the Life” and other classic songs. It was widely hailed as a masterpiece.
Commercially, the band could hardly have more success. Starting in July, Sgt. Pepper’s held onto No. 1 on the Billboard charts for nearly four months. In those days, the only thing that could stop a Beatles album from taking the top spot was usually another Beatles album.
However, amidst all the success, The Beatles had to deal with a major tragedy. Brian Epstein, the band’s manager and friend since the Liverpool days, died of an accidental drug overdose in August ’67. John Lennon later said the band “collapsed” after his death and actually “broke up then.”
John pointed to the Magical Mystery Tour film, completed the month after Epstein’s death, as evidence. That film, which was mainly the work of Paul McCartney, got received with such contempt at the time it’s hard to believe. It lacked a plot and was simply too trippy for British audiences of the day.
Nearly everyone agreed ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ was utter ‘rubbish.’
The Magical Mystery Tour album, released in November ’67, got the typical excellent reviews from critics and sold well, too. But at the end of the year the fantastical film made its premiere on the BBC. Immediately, the hour-long movie generated an utterly hostile response from the public.
Thousands of the movie’s 15 million viewers called into the BBC with angry comments that day. According to the BBC’s reaction index, it was the worst-received TV program it had ever shown. Critics mostly agreed that it was awful.
The Beatles Bible compiled some of the beatings handed out by journalists at the time. “The bigger they are, the harder they fall,” wrote a critic in the Daily Express.
“Whoever authorized the showing … should be condemned to a year squatting at the feet of the Maharishi [the Beatles guru],” said one writer in The Daily Sketch.
In the Evening News, the writer couldn’t find the precise word to bash the movie, so he included every one he could think of. “Take your pick from the words, ‘Rubbish, piffle, chaotic, flop, tasteless, non-sense, emptiness and appalling!'”
The reaction killed any chance of a US release for ‘Magical Mystery Tour.’
With the lambasting it took in England, U.S. distributors didn’t consider it viable for theaters or TV. It barely showed anywhere in America the following year and didn’t make it onto U.S. television until the 1980s.
Watching excerpts today, it comes off as goofy and a bit self-indulgent. However, the music remains powerful. The clip of George Harrison’s “Blue Jay Way” basically sums up the best and worst of Magical Mystery Tour.
Where did The Beatles go from there? Well, they went on to make some of the best music the band ever recorded. The White Album (1968), while a difficult album to make on many levels, stands as a bona fide masterpiece. After that came Abbey Road, which is equally hard to top.
Obviously, The Beatles survived (they thrived as no band ever has) following the disaster that was the Magical Mystery Tour film. But John Lennon was right about one thing. With Brian Epstein gone, The Beatles wouldn’t overcome their many hostilities and stay together much longer.
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