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Magical Mystery Tour: The Beatles, John Peel, “it” and Jimmy Savile

Perhaps you had to be there…

Here is a track called Way Back in the 1960s from The Incredible String Band’s 1967 album The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, released one month after The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album:

Tomorrow night, BBC2 is screening The Beatles’ film Magical Mystery Tour for the first time in 33 years. It is being preceded by an Arena documentary about the making of the film.

I saw a preview of both at the National Film Theatre earlier this week. What people who were not alive at the time of the film’s first screening will make of both I cannot begin to imagine.

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” is how L.P.Hartley started his 1953 novel The Go-Between.

The same could be said of the 1960s. They are almost unimaginable now.

I remember seeing what was, this week, the wonderfully colourful and beautifully stereo-sound-mixed Magical Mystery Tour when it was first broadcast by the BBC on Boxing Day 1967 in black and white on mono TV sets. Like most other people, I thought it was a right old dog’s dinner of incomprehensibility.

It mostly still is, but it has aged rather well.

The movie is basically a series of pop videos – before pop videos had been invented – loosely linked with the story of strangely old-fashioned people (and The Beatles) going on an old-fashioned mystery coach trip travelling through an old-fashioned Britain shot and edited in then avant-garde, occasionally psychedelic, style.

One point well made in the Arena documentary is that Magical Mystery Tour was a cross-over between the old and new cultures. And it is very British. Even the concept of a mystery tour in a coach to an unknown destination is in itself bizarre to Americans.

The documentary is very evocative of 1967 and features, I’m glad to see, occasional mentions of hippie newspaper the International Times (I wrote for a much later and not-very-good rebirth of it in 1974) and plentiful quotes from the highly influential Barry Miles whom I blogged about last year.

As a schoolboy, I kept a diary but, annoyingly, wrote nothing about watching the original Magical Mystery Tour transmission. And, equally annoyingly, I have copies of International Times issue 21 (17th-30th November 1967) and issue 23 (5th-19th January 1968) but not the issue published at the time Magical Mystery Tour was transmitted.

it Issue 21 – Kill The Blacks!

The cover of issue 21 of what was then billed simply as The International Times said:

It’s not the colour of your skin, it’s the colour of your heart. KILL THE BLACKS! KILL THE BLACKS!

The cover of what was by then called “it The International Times” said:

A GUIDE TO A NEW AGE AND THE ECSTATIC RETURN OF EVERYONE BLESSED

In that issue, DJ John Peel wrote in his regular Perfumed Garden column:

it Issue 23 – Everyone Blessed!

1967 was a year when I finally broke out of the shadows and found sunshine and laughter all around and within me. Many people have walked into my open heart and lodged there and I find that the more who wander in the more room there is for others. I’m certain that during this amazing year I must have unwittingly offended a few by forgetting a name, a face, a meeting, a phone number or a letter. To anyone so hurt, I’m truly deeply sorry. I would not have done it for the world – and there have been many new worlds this year.

This winter you should not overlook the trees. There is still so much to see without the leaves. They cast such shapes against the sky and make mosaics of the clouds. Even in dark, wet and hurried-feet London there is beauty everywhere and everywhere is unmarked.

Your wardrobe leads to Narnia, your mirror leads to a wonderland. It is better than you can know to breathe the air that you breathe because, by so doing, I kiss you and you me and there is something now unseen and unknown that connects us. Thinking about that is really good, it warms me and I inhale you and you refresh me. Thank you.

That was written in the issue of International Times dated 5th January 1967.

Three years earlier, on 1st January 1964, BBC TV had transmitted the first edition of Top of The Pops, presented by DJ Jimmy Savile.

Now we know Savile was feeling-up and raping under-age girls in BBC TV dressing rooms during that period.

Different people have different perceptions of reality at different times.

Now we are in the 21st century.

The BBC screenings tomorrow are timed to plug a release of Magical Mystery Tour on DVD, Blu-Ray and a double vinyl edition of the original UK EP release.

Oddly, the YouTube trailer for the new release has had embedding disabled, but this is a less high-res clip from the original Magical Mystery Tour film, first screened only six months after The Beatles released their Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album:

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Punks were Hippies with short hair – the link from beatniks to The Beatles

When I was in my teens, I used to read the hippie newspaper it (International Times – the title was reduced to the iconic it after The Times threatened to sue, on the somewhat unlikely grounds that people would confuse the hippie International Times with The Times, serious recorder of world events). Later, I wrote a column about movies for a briefly-revived it.

In the earlier issues I read, though, there was a far more prominent column by a guy called only Miles.

He was and is an interesting man. He had created the International Times with that other seminal Swinging London figure John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins.

Miles managed the legendary Better Books shop in London’s New Compton Street and later, with Marianne Faithfull’s husband John Dunbar, he ran the Indica gallery/bookshop where Dunbar introduced John Lennon to Yoko Ono. Still later, Miles ran the Beatles’ Zapple record label and lived in the Chelsea Hotel in New York.

Last night, he was chatting to the Sohemian Society, who shrewdly billed his talk with the line:

If You Can Remember The 60s, You Are Probably Miles

And – though this might be affected by a comparison with my own terrible memory – he does have an extraordinary, fluent memory for names, dates and descriptions of locations… they all tumbled out, recreating the height of the Swinging Sixties, which he reckons really ran from about 1964 to about 1976.

“I always thought punk was really the end of that same period,” he says, “I used to know The Clash quite well, because I used to write for NME, and they told me Well, of course, we grew up in the years of Oz and Kerouac and Burroughsbut we couldn’t tell anybody, because Malcolm McLaren had told everyone to say ‘Who gives a shit?’ It was all ridiculous.

“You see early pictures of Mick Jones and The Clash with hair out to here, it looks like something out of Mott The Hoople who were, of course, his favourite band.

“I always thought that the punks were just hippies with short hair.

Joe Strummer cast the I Ching to decide whether to join The Clash or not – you can’t get more hippie than that.

“Somebody like John Lydon was probably a bit more authentic and generally more angry and cut off from that underground culture, but most of them were still arts students. I used to know Rat Scabies’ mum. She used to come to the UFO club.

“It was part of the same scene as far as I was concerned. Joe Strummer was only eight years younger than me.”

Miles’ start in trendy London, though, was much earlier, after seeing a TV documentary on the American ‘Beat Poets’ – Allen GinsbergGregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

He became the 21-year-old manager of Better Books, which had links with the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco (run by Ferlinghetti) and the Peace Eye Bookstore in New York’s Lower East Side (run by Ed Sanders of The Fugs).

This ultimately resulted in an astonishing poetry reading – the International Poetry Incarnation – at the Albert Hall in London on 11th June 1965.

At the beginning of 1965, Allen Ginsberg went from the US to Cuba to “check it out” and managed to get himself deported. They could not send him back to the US because there had been no official transport connection between the two countries since the Bay of Pigs/Cuban Missile Crisis problems.

So they deported Ginsberg to Czechoslovakia where eventually, according to Miles, he “fell foul of the secret police. He got so involved with the students there that he was elected the King of May and 100,000 people paraded through the streets and he was wearing a crown and the authorities started to take a very dim view of this, so the secret police managed to get hold of his secret notebook which, unfortunately, had a long description of some insertions of a broom handle. So they put him on the next plane out of town and that was going to London.”

Ed Sanders had given Ginsberg a list of interesting contacts which included Miles at Better Books.

For a time, Ginsberg stayed at Miles’ flat in Fitzrovia which, then, was a ‘beat’ area.

Ginsberg, according to Miles, was “hanging out at all the local beatnik bars around there. In the winter, everybody used to wear long greatcoats with long white scarves – I think that was the symbol of being a proper English beatnik.”

Ginsberg, though widely-travelled, had never encountered the concept of gas meters, where you put a coin in the meter to obtain a power supply.

“One day,” says Miles, “a man from the Gas Board came to empty the money from the meter and had to stand on a chair to get the half-crowns out. I just left him there as usual and went off to do something in the back room. Then, suddenly, I heard him say: I’m finished now, sir. Can I go now, sir? which was odd.

“Normally, he would just go and let himself out. I went back into the room and the man from the Gas Board was on the chair with Allen standing stark naked next to him asking him all these questions about the money going in the meter and how it worked. The man refused to come down from his chair until Allen moved away from him.”

Ginsberg later turned up at an event naked and, according to Miles, John Lennon’s reaction was: “You don’t do that in front of the birds.” Ironically, says Miles: “John himself did it two-and-a-half years later on the album sleeve of Two Virgins, so everybody could see.”

When Ginsberg had first walked into Better Books, Miles had asked him: “Would you like to do a reading?”

“Of course,” came the immediate reply.

At that time, Ginsberg had a policy of not charging for readings – because poetry had to remain “pure”… Look, it was the 1960s.

The reading was unadvertised but the shop was filled for it, with people halfway out into the street.

Donovan was pressed against the window,” Miles remembers, “and there was Gypsy Dave and Andy Warhol was in the front row – he would never have been outside.”

This Better Books reading was so successful, they decided to have another more ambitious one because they found they could get Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and Corso together in London at the same time.

Ginsberg was almost entirely gay but had an on-off girlfriend, underground film-maker Barbara Rubin

“She was very, very aggressive,” according to Miles, “just like his own mother and poor Allen was quite scared of her.”

Both Barbara and Ginsberg’s mother had mental problems: his mother died in a mental hospital.

“When the idea of having this big Beat Poet reading came up, Barbara asked: What’s the biggest hall in town? and my wife said, Well, the Albert Hall, I suppose. So Barbara phoned the Albert Hall and booked it. Pure American chutzpah. My weekly wage at the time was, I think, £8.16s.8p. The Albert Hall cost £400; an unbelievable amount of money. Plus another £100 for every hour we ran on.

“The booking was in ten days time, but we got quite a lot of publicity in the Sunday Times, the Observer and so on. At that time, Hoppy (John Hopkins, co-founder of it) was a press photographer and handed photos out all around Fleet Street.

“We got so many people turning up, we had to turn people away. I think the Albert Hall holds about 7,000. It was just an unbelievable evening.

“The one flaw in it was that we ended up with 17 people on the bill and an awful lot of them had never read in anything bigger than the upstairs room in a pub. And they were just frozen sometimes with all the lights and 7,000 people looking at them.”

Very 1960s.

The film-maker Peter Whitehead made a short documentary Wholly Communionon the 1965 International Poetry Incarnation, which is on YouTube in four parts.

Miles’ books include London Calling: A Countercultural History of London Since 1945.

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Flower Power! Prince Charles vindicated! – How to receive television signals using an indoor potted plant

When satellite television was first starting up, I remember watching an edition of BBC TV’s late and much-lamented science show Tomorrow’s World. They said you didn’t need a dish to receive satellite television: just a roughly parabolic dish-shaped object aligned towards the satellite and a feed antenna (the little box suspended in front of the satellite dish). They demonstrated this by using a metal dustbin lid and received a perfect television picture. (That’s a trashcan lid, if you are an American.)

Last night, I was standing at the checkouts in a local B&Q store, waiting to pay, when my friend suddenly said:

“Wait here, I’m just going to see if I can find a busy lizzy to use for my TV aerial.”

And off she went.

No explanation.

It seemed a little odd, but I try to be understanding.

She came back a few minutes later, before I reached the till, but she had not managed to find any busy lizzy plants in the B&Q gardening section.

She told me that, in the late 1970s, she saw an edition of Tomorrow’s World in which they demonstrated that, if you connect a wire from the aerial socket of your TV set to an indoor plant, it will receive and display a picture just as good as any normal metal TV aerial.

Tomorrow’s World successfully demonstrated this with a busy lizzy and my friend tried it herself at the time – baring the wire at the end of the lead connected to the aerial socket of her TV and sticking it into the 12-inch high stalk of her presumably slightly surprised busy lizzy.

It worked. She got perfect TV reception.

“You mean you feed the wire right down inside the whole stalk of the plant?” I asked her last night.

“No,” she explained to me. “You just stick the end of the wire into the side of the stalk.”

“At right angles?”

“At right angles. A busy lizzy has quite a fleshy stalk.  You just stick the end of the wire at 90 degrees into the stalk and the plant acts as a TV aerial for the set and receives signals.”

I looked at her.

“It makes me think Prince Charles might be on to something,” I said. “Talking to plants… What about sticking it into a cannabis plant?”

“Too weak and weedy,” she told me.

“I rather like him,” I said.

She looked at me disapprovingly.

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Filed under Science, Strange phenomena, Television