Roll Up! (The transport songs of The Beatles)

If you want another example of how transport has influenced culture (you do, don’t you? Go on…) then you could do worse than reflect on the fact that it keeps popping up in popular music. After all, we’re talking about an industry that has created a dance sensation or two in its own right, including The Locomotion and trip-sharing-inspired The Hitch-Hiker.

Where better to look than at one of the biggest British pop groups of all time, The Beatles? What’s interesting is not just the influence of transport on The Beatles, but the influence of The Beatles on transport. It was very much a two-way street (I’d ask you to pardon the pun, but I’ve been waiting for an excuse to use it for absolutely ages). And before you think that this is all a terribly shaky premise on which to build a blog entry, The Beatles genuinely were inspired by transport. In particular, George Harrison recalled early skiffle bands performing in Liverpool. “There were so many great songs; train songs like ‘Midnight Special’, ‘Wabash Cannonball’ and ‘Rock Island Line’,” he said (The Beatles 2000, p28).

xx Photo by Roger [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
The Beatles. From left to right, George Harrison, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney. Photo by Roger [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page

“She’s got a ticket to ride / But she don’t care”

The first transport song released by The Beatles was ‘Ticket to Ride’, released as a single in April 1965, and subsequently released on the Help album , having been used in the soundtrack to the film of the same name. Born in Liverpool myself, I used to fondly imagine that ‘Ticket to Ride’ referred either to a Liverpool bus ticket (as a child I was always being taken places on the bus), or was perhaps a reference to travel on Liverpool’s lost and much-lamented Overhead Railway which resides to this day as a livid scar in the collective memory of Liverpudlians. But no.

According to Paul McCartney, the song title was a pun based on the idea of a British Railways ticket to Ryde, a seaside town on the north coast of the Isle of Wight (Miles 1997, p193), where Paul had a cousin who worked in a pub. So far, so inoffensive except as a bad pun, of course.

Ian Capper [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
A train in the town of Ryde, Isle of Wight, which might or might not have been the inspiration for ‘Ticket to Ride’. Ian Capper [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

John Lennon, on the other hand, had a much less salubrious explanation for the song’s title and meaning, which was that it referred to the dockets showing a clean bill of health given to sex workers in Hamburg – tickets to ride. Hamburg had been a city where The Beatles played several gigs early in their career. Thanks to The Beatles, it’s become such a catchy title that it still gets reused by transport companies from time to time in promotional campaigns, or even as company names (see here, for instance).

“I got no car and it’s breaking my heart / But I’ve found a driver and that’s a start / Baby, you can drive my car”

‘Drive My Car’ was released in December 1965 on the Rubber Soul album, then later on a single as the B-side to ‘Michelle’. The Beatles themselves don’t seem to be terribly clear on what – if anything – the song is really about. McCartney recalled the song having a troubled genesis, but eventually cracking it with the lyric “drive my car” itself, which led on to ideas of Los Angeles (that great automobile city) and chauffeurs (The Beatles 2000, p194). The character in the song might simply be offering a job as a chauffeur or it might be something a little less straightforward. As McCartney suggests, it’s all very ambiguous. Once again, The Beatles popularised the phrase to the extent that it’s made its way back into the transport industry, for instance as the name of an Australian micro-hire car company.

“One way ticket – yeah / It took me so long to find out”

‘Day Tripper’ was released in Dec 1965 as a double A-side with ‘We Can Work It Out’, promoting the Rubber Soul album which was released at the same time. It drew nothing from the transport industry in terms of inspiration. John Lennon said it was simply a drugs song, with the trip of the title all to do with drugs and nothing to do with physical journeys. However, the phrase has become so thoroughly lodged in the collective consciousness thanks to its use in the song, that it has proved irresistible to transport operators. Several companies have seized upon it, presumably without doing very much research into the title’s origins, because if they had one imagines they might have had second thoughts.

Probably most notable is Centro, the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive, which many years ago invented the “Daytripper” ticket, allowing unlimited bus, train and tram travel in and around Birmingham.

By Lilidor at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
By Lilidor at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

It’s latterly been rebranded as the “n-network daytripper”, issued on special ticket stock like that at top right of the image above. Latest details on prices and availability can be found here. It’s not the only one, either. Strathclyde Partnership for Transport offers a similar ticket covering Glasgow, also called a Daytripper (see here).

“Standing by a parking meter / When I caught a glimpse of Rita”

‘Lovely Rita’ was released two years after ‘Day Tripper’ in June 1967, as part of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. It’s the tale of Rita the meter-maid, apparently based on an encounter between McCartney and a female traffic warden (the preferred British term, until the release of Sgt. Pepper anyway) outside Abbey Road Studios. That story is contradicted elsewhere (The Beatles 2000, p247) where McCartney suggests it was based on a newspaper story about the eponymous Rita. Although subsequently common in Britain, the term ‘meter-maid’ was an American one, not much used in Britain until The Beatles made it synonymous with traffic wardens on both sides of the Atlantic.

2133306054_dea597be2d_o
The American term Meter Maid was introduced to Britain by The Beatles. Image by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page

It’s notable for being a song that illustrates the tensions that existed within The Beatles, and which would eventually tear the group apart. “You hear lots of McCartney-influenced songs on the radio – these stories about boring people doing boring things….I like to write about me, because I know me,” said Lennon (The Beatles 2000, p247), illustrating the difference between his and McCartney’s approaches very succinctly.

“The Magical Mystery Tour / Is waiting to take you away”

It is, however, The Beatles’ final transport song which has had probably the most lasting on-street impact of any of the tracks detailed here. ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ is the title track from the film and album, released in December 1967. Although band members have admitted that many of the song’s words can be seen as references to drug trips (once again; shocking…) in the film The Beatles are seen on board a coach, enjoying a mystery tour that turns increasingly magical, or just plain weird, depending on your point of view.

Bus or coach mystery tours were a very real phenomenon which began in the late nineteenth century. The Beatles would undoubtedly have been familiar with what had become a British institution by the time the group hit the charts. In the days before cheap international air travel revolutionised holidays, British holidaymakers in search of excitement during a stay-at-home holiday would travel to a nearby bus station and book onto a bus/coach operator’s mystery tour. They would set off with a group of other people to an unknown destination, running the not insubstantial risk that the mystery tour would simply return them to their own home towns. This is what they looked like:

Photo by Martin Deutsch [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page
It’s a recent photo, but this old bus has been restored complete with “mystery tour” destination blinds. Photo by Martin Deutsch [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

Given the fact that the world wide web has now made it possible for individuals to book complex itineraries in far-flung destinations, the idea of willingly travelling without knowing where you’re going seems vaguely extraordinary, though it bears comparison with contemporary last-minute internet deals for stays in mystery hotels, where the actual hotel name is revealed only after the booking is confirmed. In fact, bus-based mystery tours do occasionally still run (as you can see here) although their popularity has waned considerably.

In Liverpool, however, Magical Mystery Tours are still going strong. Using coaches that resemble the one in the Magical Mystery Tour film, Liverpool’s Cavern Club offers coach-based Beatles-themed Magical Mystery Tours of Liverpool. As with so many of The Beatles’ songs, transport fed into music, and fed straight back out again into the world of transport, as these brightly coloured coaches making their way around Liverpool so eloquently and forcefully demonstrate.

By calflier001 [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By calflier001 [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

References / further reading

¹ The Beatles (2000). Anthology. London: Cassell & Co

² Miles, Barry (1997). Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now. New York: Henry Holt and Company

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