The Beatles: Blue Jay Way Is a Hidden Masterpiece

George Harrison’s “Blue Jay Way” from The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour film and album pointed east from the west coast hills.

George Harrison is today best remembered as the spiritual Beatle, but when he wrote “Blue Jay Way,” he was still helping invent rock star protocol. The Beatles already formed rock music from the Cavern they were carved in, and Harrison lived the lifestyle to its fullest. He was single the longest, married a model – perennial musical muse Pattie Boyd, rented rich people’s houses in the Hollywood Hills and went slumming in Haight-Ashbury. He was the youngest Beatle, born on Feb. 25, 1943. For what would have been Harrison’s 75th birthday, the band’s official Vevo YouTube site dropped the music video for “Blue Jay Way.” The clip is an excerpt of The Beatles’ 1967 television film Magical Mystery Tour.

The song began in the fog of bad directions, as publicist Derek Taylor circumnavigated the hills, in the pre-GPS days, after a flight from London to Los Angeles while Harrison struggled to stay awake. It wound up on the BBC Television, which broadcast Magical Mystery Tour on Boxing Day, Tuesday, December 26th 1967. The film was the band’s first project after the death of their manager, Brian Epstein.

The Backstory

George Harrison wrote “Blue Jay Way” on a Hammond organ after arriving in Los Angeles on August 1, 1967. Harrison was in town to see his former sitar tutor Ravi Shankar, who needed help plugging his Kinnara School of Music and was playing the Hollywood Bowl on August 4th. Epstein asked the band’s attorney Robert Fitzpatrick to lease the house from entertainment lawyer named Ludwig Gerber, who managed the singer Peggy Lee. Harrison was waiting with Pattie, Neil Aspinall and “Magic” Alex Mardas for a visit from former Beatle publicist Taylor was now promoting West Coast bands like the Byrds and the Beach Boys.

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“Derek Taylor got held up,” Harrison recounted to Hunter Davies in the 1968 book The Beatles. “He rang to say he’d be late. I told him on the phone that the house was in Blue Jay Way,”  Blue Jay Way was one of the “bird streets” overlooking the Sunset Strip. 1567 Blue Jay Way is a 4,116-square foot home, which features walls of glass, a screening room, a theater room, a spa, and an outdoor swimming pool, according to a real estate listing, which also mentioned a Hammond S-6 organ. According to some reports, Paul Simon wrote “Bridge Over Troubled Water” at the same house. 

Taylor told Harrison he could find the rented house “okay. He could always ask a cop,” Harrison remembered to Davies. “So I waited and waited. I felt really knackered with the flight, but I didn’t want to go to sleep until he came. There was a fog and it got later and later. To keep myself awake, just as a joke to pass the time while I waited, I wrote a song about waiting for him in Blue Jay Way. There was a little Hammond organ in the corner of this house which I hadn’t noticed until then…so I messed around on it and the song came.”

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“By the time I had reached them, the song was virtually intact,” Taylor later explained in Davies’ biography. “Of course, at the time, I felt very bad because here were these two wretchedly jet-lagged people, and I was about two hours late to meet them. But here, indeed, was a song that would turn up on Magical Mystery Tour.”

The Beatles encapsulated the Summer of Love with their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. During the trip Harrison and company visited the hippie community in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco. He expected to find an enlightened community immersed in love and art, but said in The Beatles Anthology he found junkies, “hypocrites,” and “bums.” Harrison was already “losing interest in being ‘fab’ at that point,” and he also lost interest in the idea of finding enlightenment through chemicals. “Blue Jay Way” and “It’s All Too Much,” which was recorded in May 1967, have been called Harrison’s farewell to the “dreaded lysergic acid diethylamide,” as he called it in The Beatles Anthology, in favor of Transcendental Meditation under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

The Song

The video opens with Harrison sitting cross-legged over a chalked-in keyboard. The songwriting lead guitarist was still in the process of applying his evolving adoption of Hindu philosophy into everyday life. He was already instrumental in introducing Indian music to the Western world. He played the sitar lead on “Norwegian Wood” in late 1965. The songs “Love You To,” “Within You Without You,” and “The Inner Light,” and his own solo film soundtrack album Wonderwall Music featured Indian Instrumentation.

“Blue Jay Way” uses aspects of Indian classical ragas Kosalam, Multani and Marwa. It begins in ad libitum, or free time, with a drone in C, which is persistent throughout the song. The song which varies between C major and C diminished, with added D# and F#. The verses fall short of even eight bars to reflect impatience. “Blue Jay Way” captures the Eastern feel with Hammond organ, cello and drums replacing tambura, sitar and tabla. The band explores the structures of Indian music without a single Indian instrument being played.

There is also no guitar on the song. The lead instrument is a cello played by Peter Willison, who was paid £27. The classical musician came to the session straight from a show at the Albert Hall and was still in his tux. He later remembered Ringo telling him he didn’t have to get dressed up for The Beatles. Willison later performed on Paul McCartney’s solo album Tug Of War. Regardless of the instrumentation, the song was transcendent. The track is one of the most studio-heavy, using flanging, phasing, varied speed recording, tape echo, the Leslie speaker rotary effect, reversed tape sounds, ADT – the Artificial Double Track technique invented by Abbey Road engineer Ken Townsend in 1966, and tons of compression.

Paul McCartney’s bass locks into Ringo Starr’s toms and kick drum to keep a steady throbbing bottom. Ringo brings some of the best fills of his career to this song. They are controlled and increasingly frenetic, threatening chaos on the already delicate balance of the subtly varied rhythm. The first refrain is eight measures long instead of nine, the sixth measure is in 2/4. Refrains two and three are only seven measures, the fifth measure is 6/4. Refrain four is five measures long and ends in 6/4. Ringo plays all the refrains a swing beat, except for the last which he keeps as a straight 4/4 rhythm that continues to the end of the song. Ringo always points to the work he did on the single “Rain” as his most complicated, but he is insane on this record and nobody gives him credit.

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The rhythm track to “Blue Jay Way” song was recorded a month after it was written, on September 6th, 1967, at EMI Studio Two. The band had just finished the second days’ work on Lennon’s “I Am The Walrus.” After rehearsing the song, George, Paul and Ringo caught the rhythm track in one take. Some Beatles biographers say Harrison was the only organ player on the song, others say Lennon played the second keyboard part.

“Perhaps the main problem was that George had written and played it on organ, and he really only knew a few chords, he was even less of a keyboardist than John was,” Geoff Emerick wrote in his book Here, There And Everywhere. “It was, to my way of thinking, a bit of a dirge, and, frankly, I was a bit relieved when previous commitments kept me from completing the song the next night.” Peter Vince substituted for Emerick as engineer for the overdubs. The overdubs transformed the song. “Blue Jay Way” was as technologically experimental as Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “I Am The Walrus.” The song ends on a nightmarish dissonant swirling chord saturated in effects.

George Martin and engineers Ken Scott and Jeff Jarratt produced a mono mix be used in the Magical Mystery Tour film on September 16, 1967. John Lennon produced the first official mono mix on October 12th, 1967, with engineers Ken Scott and Richard Lush. The stereo mix was made November 7th, 1967. The rhythm track was mixed to the left, lead vocals, cello and tambourine was mixed to the right. The center featured background vocals and recordings.

The Film Sequence

Paul McCartney came up with the idea to do the film Magical Mystery Boy on the flight home from Los Angeles and San Francisco, where he’d been hanging out with The Beach Boys and Jefferson Airplane in between meeting his girlfriend, the actress Jane Asher, in Colorado for her birthday. He wanted the band to make “a crazy roly-poly Sixties film” that captured the  spirit of Ken Kesey’s “Merry Pranksters,” who travelled the country in a brightly colored bus in 1964 giving out the still legal LSD. Tom Wolfe wrote about it in his book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

The “Blue Jay Way” segment of the film Magical Mystery Tour is as advanced, for the time, as the recording. The scene starts with everyone on the bus cramming themselves into a little tent, which opens into a space large enough to house a theatre. A a film within a film is projected on ultimate Beatle insider and designated “Magical Mystery Boy” Mal Evans’ chest, while the other Beatles watch, Lennon riding Ringo’s two year old son Zak’s rocking horse. The sequence mixes numerous experimental film techniques. A cat’s face is projected onto Harrison’s face. The filmmakers use prismatic photography and refracted images.

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The footage of George lip-syncing “Blue Jay Way” was shot in an aircraft hangar at the West Malling Air Station in Kent between September 19 and 24, 1967. Additional shots of the Beatles playing cello were shot in the back garden of Ringo’s country house in Weybridge, Surrey on November 3rd, 1967. The sequence filmed while fireworks from a Guy Fawkes Night celebration popped overhead was shot at George’s house in West Malling. 

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The Mystery Tour bus was supposed to run into George at the end, but the song freezes while the bus is still coming up behind George. That isn’t the spookiest bit about the song, though. According to “Paul is Dead” conspiracy enthusiasts, the song is filled with coffin nails.

If you listen carefully to the backing vocals, recorded backwards phonetically by John, Paul, and George in hamony, you can hear them sing the word “Paul,” after the line “There’s a fog upon LA.” After “and my friends have lost their way,” they appear to sing the word “died.” Following “We’ll be over soon they said” allegedly sounds like they are singing “Paul is bloody.”

The phrase “don’t be long,” is repeated 29 times in the song. Some interpret this to mean the replacement to the “dead” melodic bass player didn’t “belong” in the group. Others took this to be a message to the counter culture warning them not to “belong” in society, Some reports say the song was one of the first Charles Manson noticed when he was coming up with his counter-revolutionary Helter Skelter plan.

The handwritten lyrics George wrote on the night he was waiting for Taylor one more verse than the final song: “When I see you at the door/ I know your worth waiting for/ for the moment when you speak/ I know I’d wait here all week.” 

Magical Mystery Tour was released in America on November 27th, 1967. “Blue Jay Way” is the fourth song on side one, right after “Flying,” which was also in the key of C. “Blue Jay Way” was the last song on the British album, which came out as a double EP on December 8, 1967, right around the same time as the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request and Cream’s Disraeli Gears.