Today is the 50th anniversary of the American release date of The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour album. It also happens to be the birthday of Jimi Hendrix, and both Charles Manson and David Cassidy passed away a few days ago. High Time to Contemplate the Seven Psychedelic Buses That Have Served Our Nation:
Furthur, a.k.a. Further (1964-1969)
The Mother of Psychedelic Buses was this converted school bus which author Ken Kesey and his fabled band of Merry Pranksters drove around the country on various LSD-fueled escapades between the years 1964 and 1969 as chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and the 2011 film Magic Trip. In the 1990s a new version of it was re-created. The importance of any of this has always eluded me — why any of it was worth chronicling as some sort of historic or legendary event. What did it accomplish or change? Some people rode around in a bus on acid. To the best of my recollection, none of them even played any “pranks”. It’s supposedly inspired by Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), but the chief significant product of On the Road is the novel itself — the events themselves are not exactly the exploits of Ulysses. This self mythologizing of nothing, or close to nothing (Wavy Gravy stealing candy bars from a gas station, or whatever, I just made that up but that’s the caliber of it) seems all too typical of the Baby Boom generation, who didn’t change the world, apart from the extent to which they go around celebrating how they changed the world.
The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour Bus (1967)
I was surprised when I went back to fetch a picture of the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour Bus and saw how comparatively straight it was. The music was psychedelic, their clothes were psychedelic (extending even to animal masks for I am the Walrus), the behavior was psychedelic, but the actual bus they road around on was a conventional British tour bus, reflecting the project’s concept as suggested by Paul McCartney: that the Beatles would just drive around with a bunch of ordinary people having “magical” adventures. The soundtrack album and accompanying television movie came out in late 1967. The results were spotty and half-baked and became the band’s first serious critical stumble. As with the Merry Pranksters’ voyages, very little happens on the actual bus ride. This is counterbalanced with fantasy segments to accompany their songs, which are just fine.
The Who’s Magic Bus (1968)
I was always a bit nonplussed by this song. The Who had always been cutting edge, ahead of everyone else. Yet this tune, released a year after Magical Mystery Tour, gives the impression of being thematically derivative and even musically reactionary. After all, the Who was already recording Tommy by this point. They were light years ahead of this little Bo Diddly homage. The answer is that Pete Townshend had written the tune back in 1965, at the time the group was recording My Generation. It’s all about a dude who is so frustrated standing in line to take the bus to see his baby that he eventually buys the bus. Funny, it never occurred to me to imagine it as a double decker ’til I saw this album cover!
Manson Family Bus (1967-1969)
This, too, is timely, what with Charlie now belatedly mouldering in his grave. Accounts of the Manson Family’s early formation in San Francisco and later move to Los Angeles describe the bunch of them living and travelling in an old school bus which, like the Stones’ song, had been “Painted Black”. I was unable to find a photo of the bus in its active days. The picture above was taken at their final hideout in Death Valley after it was quite dead and had been used for target practice. Let the “magic” begin!
Partridge Family Bus (1970-1974)
With David Cassidy now gone, too, this one has also acquired a sad timeliness. The Partridge Family’s ride is also a converted school bus. This one looks like it was inspired by Piet Mondrian — artistic and modern, yet not anarchistic and chaotic. There are kids on board, after all. And while a school bus does seem more than appropriate for Danny, Chris and Tracy, I hope the poor things don’t have to sleep on it. The seats on those things are murder!
In the film version of the classic rock opera, there is a framing device where the cast get off an Israeli tour bus and do their thing, tell their story, you dig? They wanna tie it to now, man! Unavoidably, though when we watch it in the 21st century, the images seem inextricably liked to then.
The Electric Mayhem Bus, The Muppet Movie (1979)
Long about 1979, “the Sixties” were already beginning to recede into the past and be looked-back upon as another time. As a social, political, aesthetic “era”, I tend to think of it extending as late as 1973. By the end of the ’70s, you could already put quotes around the Sixties as an idea because now we were already beginning to be in a different place. The Reagan era was only months away. But with great affection for that earlier time, Jim Henson had created Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem for The Muppet Show a few years previous. When he made his first movie in 1979, it was not only natural that the popular hippie characters should appear in it, but that they should drive around in a psychedelically painted school bus. The bus plays a central role in the movie — it becomes, like all psychedelic buses are intended to be, a caravan of adventure! And for once, an adventure actually emerges on one of these goddamn things, even though it happens to puppets! It was already true at the time of The Partridge Family, however, and even truer of The Muppet Movie: when it’s being used in family entertainment, the time of the psychedelic bus is over, man.
In its next phase (1994-1997), the phenomenon would be the complete property of toddlers, to wit: