The Beatles, “Blue Jay Way” from Magical Mystery Tour (1967): Deep Beatles

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Eerie. Mystical. Hallucinatory. Numerous words have been used to describe “Blue Jay Way,” one of George Harrison’s Magical Mystery Tour contributions. A kind of sibling to “I Am the Walrus” with its eerie string arrangement, the track represents Harrison’s continued growth as a songwriter and his willingness to experiment with avant-garde structure and themes.

“Blue Jay Way” originated from a rather mundane situation. George Harrison and wife Pattie Boyd, Neil Aspinall, and Alexis Mardas (better known as “Magic Alex”) were visiting California. They were staying at a rented house in the Hollywood hills on a street called — yes — “Blue Jay Way.” One day, Beatles publicist Derek Taylor was driving to meet them at the house, but had gotten lost in the Los Angeles canyon fog. Bored, Harrison jotted down his thoughts to ward off ennui and, frankly, stay awake.

“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,” Harrison explained in 1968. “There was a little Hammond [S-6] organ in the corner of this house which I hadn’t noticed until then … so I messed around on it and the song came.”

Recording began a month later on September 6, 1967 at Abbey Road’s Studio Two. Under George Martin’s direction as well as engineers Geoff Emerick and Ken Scott, the Beatles recorded the basic rhythm track and Hammond organ section. These parts were completed in only one take.

Day two of the recording presented the most challenges. As Mark Lewisohn writes in The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, “‘Blue Jay Way’ was to George Harrison what — in recording terms — ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ or ‘I Am the Walrus’ were to John Lennon, in that it seized upon all the studio trickery and technical advancements of 1966 and 1967 and captured them in one song.”

To achieve these unusual sounds and create a dreamlike atmosphere, the Beatles and Martin relied on Artificial Double Tracking, a technique created by Abbey Road engineer Ken Townshend in 1966. This created a “flanging” effect, or mixing two identical signals together, continually changing tape speed. The method is similar to phasing — in other words, flanging created the swirling organ part heard throughout “Blue Jay Way,” adding a crucial element to its overall sound.

In addition, backwards looping was incorporated; after George Harrison (occasionally joined by John Lennon and Paul McCartney) recorded his backing vocals, they were looped backwards in the final version. Harrison also taped his lead vocals during this session.

The Beatles revisited the song on October 6, when the cello and tambourine parts were overdubbed onto the recording. Mono mixing began on October 12 and resumed November 7. Martin, Emerick and second engineer Graham Kirkby also completed the stereo mix.

The swirling organ, mournful cello, and Ringo Starr’s initially plodding rhythm introduce the tune, the cello recalling “I Am the Walrus.” Harrison’s wispy voice enters the proceedings, at first simply telling the story of waiting for Taylor to arrive. However, he adds an intriguing line; not only are George Harrison’s friends physically lost in the fog, they have “lost themselves instead.” Is he suggesting they have somehow lost their identities? He begs them to hurry, or “I may be asleep,” admitting the boredom he felt while waiting for Taylor.

After the chorus, he recommends that Taylor and friends ask a policeman for directions, again stressing that “it’s past my bed I know” and that he wants to leave. Instead, Harrison laments, he most likely will wait all night on Blue Jay Way; in other words, waiting in limbo, in suspended animation, forever waiting for something to happen, trapped in tedium.

Listen to “Blue Jay Way” through headphones for the best experience, particularly hearing the backwards loops interwoven throughout the song. Harrison, Lennon, and McCartney’s reversed backing vocals lend a haunting tone to the track, suggesting that “Blue Jay Way” is more than just a physical location, but a state of mind or other dimension. Ringo Starr’s drums are also a standout, altering from plodding rhythm to a powerful, pounding style. His instrument effectively underscores the narrator’s anxiety and boredom, wanting to escape from his state of inaction.

Not surprisingly, “Blue Jay Way” perfectly fits Magical Mystery Tour’s psychedelic themes. In the song’s visual sequence, Harrison is seen through a prism lens, sitting on the floor playing a keyboard drawn in chalk. Swirls of smoke almost engulf him, mimicking the “fog” described in the lyrics. The scene suddenly shifts to the other Beatles romping in a garden, playing instruments in a crazy manner. The sequence is one of the film’s too-few bright spots, a perfect representation of the track’s hallucinatory qualities.

One of George Harrison’s most eccentric and abstract compositions, “Blue Jay Way” requires repeated listenings to fully appreciate its complicated arrangement and Harrison’s impressive singing style; as on tracks like “Love You To” and “Within You, Without You,” he uses his voice as another instrument, imitating the sound of a sitar. Magical Mystery Tour represents the last gasp of the Beatles’ experimental, psychedelic period, and “Blue Jay Way” provides the perfect snapshot of the Beatles’ most unusually creative artistic phase.

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole is a lifelong music enthusiast who maintains a stand-alone music blog called Listen to the Band. In addition, she is the internet columnist and a contributing editor for Beatlefan magazine. She also holds an Ed.D. in Instructional Technology. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Kit O'Toole
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  • Greg Breit

    It has been a long time since I listened to Magical Mystery Tour through headphones. Thanks for the great suggestion. One thing I discovered just now: Those groovy backwards loops are not present in the mono version. I often find those hard-panned Fab stereo mixes to be a little jarring, but in this case the stereo is a much more enjoyable listen.

  • Sean Bentley

    And don’t forget the ambiguity of “don’t be long” and “don’t belong”…

  • Ramppion

    Sonically amazing track. Love the heavy strange sound of the drums for example.

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