"Blue Jay Way" is a song recorded by the English rock band the Beatles. Written by George Harrison, it was released in 1967 on the group's Magical Mystery Tour EP and album. The song was named after a street in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles where Harrison stayed in August 1967, shortly before visiting the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. The lyrics document Harrison's wait for music publicist Derek Taylor to find his way to Blue Jay Way through the fog-ridden hills, while Harrison struggled to stay awake after the flight from London to Los Angeles.
As with several of Harrison's compositions from this period, "Blue Jay Way" incorporates aspects of Indian classical music, although the Beatles used only Western instrumentation on the track, including a drone-like Hammond organ part played by Harrison. Created during the group's psychedelic period, the track makes extensive use of studio techniques such as flanging, Leslie rotary effect, and reversed tape sounds. The song appeared in the Beatles' 1967 television film Magical Mystery Tour, in a sequence that visually re-creates the sense of haziness and dislocation evident on the recording.
While some reviewers have dismissed the song as monotonous, many others have admired its yearning quality and dark musical mood. The website Consequence of Sound describes "Blue Jay Way" as "a haunted house of a hit, adding an ethereal, creepy mythos to the City of Angels". Among its continued links with Los Angeles, the song was one of the first Beatles tracks that cult leader Charles Manson adopted as the foundation for his Helter Skelter theory of an American race-related countercultural revolution. Artists who have covered the song include Bud Shank, Colin Newman, Tracy Bonham, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Greg Hawkes.
George Harrison wrote "Blue Jay Way" after arriving in Los Angeles on 1 August 1967 with his wife Pattie Boyd and Beatles aides Neil Aspinall and Alex Mardas. The purpose of the trip was to spend a week with Derek Taylor, the Beatles' former press officer and latterly the publicist for California-based acts such as the Byrds and the Beach Boys. The visit also allowed Harrison to reunite with his sitar tutor, Ravi Shankar, whose Kinnara School of Music and upcoming concert at the Hollywood Bowl he helped publicise.
The title of the song came from a street named Blue Jay Way, one of the "bird streets" high in the Hollywood Hills West area overlooking the Sunset Strip, where Harrison had rented a house for his stay. Jet-lagged after the flight from London, he began writing the composition on a Hammond organ as he and Boyd waited for Taylor and the latter's wife, Joan, to join them. The home's location, on a hillside of narrow, winding roads, together with the foggy conditions that night, created the backdrop for the song's opening lines: "There's a fog upon L.A. / And my friends have lost their way." Harrison had almost completed the song by the time the Taylors arrived, around two hours later than planned.
The week with Taylor proved to be important for the direction of the Beatles. At the height of the Summer of Love and the popularity of the band's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album, Harrison, Taylor and their small entourage visited the international "hippie capital" of Haight-Ashbury, in San Francisco, on 7 August. Harrison had expected to encounter an enlightened community engaged in artistic pursuits and working to create a viable alternative lifestyle; instead, he was disappointed that Haight-Ashbury appeared to be populated by drug addicts, dropouts and "hypocrites". Following his return to England two days later, Harrison completed work on "Blue Jay Way" at his home in Esher. He also shared his disillusionment about Haight-Ashbury with John Lennon, soon after which the Beatles publicly denounced the popular hallucinogen LSD (or "acid") and other drugs in favour of Transcendental Meditation under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. While noting Harrison's role in "inspir[ing] the West's mainstream acquaintance with Hindu religion" through his leadership in this aspect of the Beatles' career, author Ian MacDonald describes "Blue Jay Way" as a "farewell to psychedelia", just as "It's All Too Much", which the Beatles recorded in May 1967, became Harrison's "farewell to acid".
"Blue Jay Way" was one of several songs that Harrison composed on a keyboard over 1966–68 – a period when, aside from in his work with the Beatles, he had abandoned his first instrument, the guitar, to master the sitar, partly under Shankar's tutelage. The song is in 4/4 time throughout; its structure consists of an intro, three combinations of verse and chorus, followed by repeated choruses. While MacDonald gives the musical key as "C major (minor, diminished)", musicologist Alan Pollack views it as a mix of C major and C modal, and acknowledges the "highly unusual" incorporation of the notes D♯ and F♯. The inclusion of the latter note suggests the Lydian mode, which, according to musicologist Walter Everett, had only been heard previously in popular music in the Left Banke's 1966 single "Pretty Ballerina".
The song's melody oscillates over the chords of C major and C diminished, a chord favoured by Harrison in his Indian music-inspired compositions for the Beatles. Acknowledging Harrison's statement that the tune is "slightly Indian", Everett considers "Blue Jay Way" to be related to the ragas Kosalam and Multani. According to author Simon Leng, however, Harrison based the song partly on Raga Marwa. Following the inclusion of a raga-style introduction (or alap) in his previous Indian compositions, "Love You To" and "Within You Without You", "Blue Jay Way" begins with a preview of the song's melody played softly, in free time, over the opening drone. Author Ian Inglis credits the song's incorporation of ambient drone, specifically its role in providing "an anchorage point for vocal and instrumental improvisation", as one of the first examples of a musical device that soon became prevalent in the work of Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band and other folk artists.
The length of the verses falls short of an even eight bars through the omission of a final beat. Pollack recognises this detail as reflecting a sense of impatience, in keeping with the circumstances surrounding the song's creation. Following the third verse–chorus combination, the outro comprises four rounds of the chorus, with the lyrics to the final round consisting of the repeated "Don't be long" refrain. As a feature that Pollack terms "compositionally impressive", each of the four sections in this outro varies in structure by being either shorter in length or less musically detailed.
The lyrics to "Blue Jay Way" relate entirely to Harrison's situation on that first night in Los Angeles. He refers to fighting off sleep and recalls his advice to Taylor to ask a policeman for directions to Blue Jay Way. Author Jonathan Gould views the song as "darkly funny", with the singer's concern over his friends' tardiness almost resembling "a metaphysical crisis". In the choruses, Harrison repeatedly urges "Please don't be long / Please don't you be very long", a refrain that Inglis identifies as central to the composition's "extraordinary sense of yearning and melancholy".
Taylor later expressed amusement at how some commentators interpreted "don't be long" as meaning "don't belong" – a message to Western youth to opt out of society – and at how the line "And my friends have lost their way" supposedly conveyed the idea that "a whole generation had lost direction". With regard to whether Harrison was telling contemporary listeners not to "belong", Inglis writes, this "alternative reading" of the song aligned with Timothy Leary's catchphrase for the 1960s American psychedelic experience, "Turn on, tune in, drop out". In Gould's opinion, the continual repetition of the line at the end of "Blue Jay Way" transforms the words into "a plea for nonattachment – 'don't belong'". Rather than attaching any countercultural significance to this, however, Gould views it as the Beatles repeating the wordplay first used in the chorus of Lennon's 1963 song "It Won't Be Long".
The Beatles began recording "Blue Jay Way" on 6 September 1967 at EMI's Abbey Road Studios in London. The song was Harrison's contribution to the television film Magical Mystery Tour, the first project undertaken by the band following the death of their manager, Brian Epstein. Author Nicholas Schaffner describes "Blue Jay Way" as the first Harrison-written Beatles recording on which he "adapt[ed] some of his Indian-derived ideas to a more Western setting", with Hammond organ, cello and drums serving the function of, respectively, tambura drone, sitar and tabla.
The group achieved a satisfactory rhythm track in a single take. On 7 September, this recording – comprising two organ parts, bass guitar and drums – was reduced to two tracks on the 4-track master tape, after which Harrison overdubbed his double-tracked lead vocal, and he, Lennon and Paul McCartney added backing vocals. Among Beatles biographers, MacDonald credits Harrison as the sole organ player on the song, while Kenneth Womack and John Winn write that Lennon played the second keyboard part. Recording was completed at Abbey Road on 6 October, with the addition of tambourine, played by Ringo Starr, and cello. The latter was performed by an unnamed session musician. As with all the songs recorded for Magical Mystery Tour, final mixing was carried out on 7 November.
"Blue Jay Way" features extensive use of three studio techniques employed by the Beatles over 1966–67: flanging, an audio delay effect; sound-signal rotation via a Leslie speaker; and (in the stereo mix only) reversed tapes. Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn compares "Blue Jay Way" with two Lennon tracks from this period, "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "I Am the Walrus", in that the recording "seized upon all the studio trickery and technical advancements of 1966 and 1967 and captured them in one song". Together with the pedal drone supplied by the keyboard parts, the various sound treatments reinforce the sense of dislocation evident in the song.
In the case of the reversed-tape technique, a recording of the completed track was played backwards and faded in at key points during the performance. This effect created a response to Harrison's lead vocal over the verses, as the backing vocals appear to answer each line he sings. Due to the limits of multitracking, the process of feeding in reversed sounds was carried out live during the final mixing session. Described by Lewisohn as "quite problematical", the process was not repeated when the Beatles and their production team worked on the mono mix.
The song's segment in Magical Mystery Tour was shot mainly at RAF West Malling, an air force base near Maidstone in Kent, during the week beginning on 19 September. Described by Womack as "the movie's hazy, psychedelic sequence", it features Harrison sitting on a pavement and playing a chalk-drawn keyboard. Dressed in a red suit, he is shown busking on a roadside; next to his keyboard are a white plastic cup and a message written in chalk, reading: "2 wives and kid to support". The depiction of Harrison, seated in the lotus position and seemingly zoned out, matched his public image as the most committed of the Beatles to Transcendental Meditation and Eastern philosophy.
The filming took place in an aircraft hangar, with the scene designed to re-create a typically smog-ridden Los Angeles. Music journalist Kit O'Toole writes that the smoke surrounding Harrison "almost engulf[s] him, mimicking the 'fog' described in the lyrics". Through the use of prismatic photography, the "Blue Jay Way" segment also shows Harrison's "image refracted as if seen through a fly's eye", according to author Alan Clayson, who describes the scene as mirroring "the requisite misty atmosphere" suggested by the recording. In its preview of Magical Mystery Tour in 1967, the NME highlighted the segment as one of the film's "extremely clever" musical sequences, saying: "For 'Blue Jay Way' George is seen sitting cross-legged in a sweating mist which materialises into a variety of shapes and patterns. It's a pity that most TV viewers will be able to see it only in black and white."
At other times during the sequence, the four Beatles alternate in the role of a solo cellist. These scenes were filmed on 3 November, on the rockery at Sunny Heights, Starr's house in Weybridge, Surrey. Tony Barrow, the production manager for Magical Mystery Tour, recalls that, as "a colourful conclusion" to the segment, they set off fireworks that had been bought for the upcoming Guy Fawkes Night celebrations. The version of "Blue Jay Way" appearing in the 2012 DVD release of Magical Mystery Tour is an alternative edit and includes some previously unused footage. O'Toole admires the "Blue Jay Way" sequence as "one of the film's too-few bright spots" and "a perfect representation of the track's hallucinatory qualities".
"Blue Jay Way" was issued in Britain as the final song on the Magical Mystery Tour double EP on 8 December 1967. In America, where Capitol Records had combined the six EP tracks with five songs issued on the band's singles throughout the year, creating a full album, the release took place on 27 November.
Reviewing the EP for the NME, Nick Logan considered it to be "Sergeant Pepper and beyond, heading for marvellous places", during which "we cruise down 'Blue Jay Way' with [Harrison] almost chanting the chorus line. A church organ starts this one off and leads us into a whirlpool of sound ..." Among reviews of the US release, Saturday Review admired the album as a "description of the Beatles' acquired Hindu philosophy and its subsequent application to everyday life", while Robert Christgau wrote in Esquire that, despite three of the new songs being "disappointing", Magical Mystery Tour was "worth buying ... especially for Harrison's hypnotic 'Blue Jay Way'". Christgau described the track as "an adaptation of Oriental modes in which everything works, lyrics included".
In a combined review of concurrent releases such as Magical Mystery Tour, the Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request and Cream's Disraeli Gears, Hit Parader praised the Beatles for further "widening the gap between them and 80 scillion other groups". The reviewer added: "The master magicians practice their alchemy on Harrison's 'Blue Jay Way', recorded perhaps in an Egyptian tomb, and 'I Am The Walrus', a piece of terror lurking in foggy midnight moors. These two songs accomplish what the Stones attempted."
A critic of the Beatles' output immediately post-Sgt. Pepper, Ian MacDonald found "Blue Jay Way" "as unfocused and monotonous as most of the group's output of this period", adding that the song "numbingly fails to transcend the weary boredom that inspired it". Writing for Rolling Stone in 2002, Greg Kot considered it to be "one of [Harrison's] least-memorable Beatles tracks … a song essentially about boredom – and it sounds like it". Similarly unimpressed with Magical Mystery Tour, Tim Riley describes "Blue Jay Way" as a song that "goes nowhere tiresomely", with a vocal that "sounds as tired and droning" as the musical accompaniment.
Ian Inglis writes that the emotion Harrison conveys on the track "belies its apparently trivial lyrics" and that, together with the instrumentation and backing vocals, his pleas "create an unusually atmospheric and strangely moving song". Writing for Rough Guides, Chris Ingham deems the song to be "essential Beatlemusic"; he views it as Harrison's "most haunting and convincing musical contribution of the period", after "Within You Without You", as well as "possibly the most unnerving of all Beatles tracks". In a 2002 review for Mojo, Charles Shaar Murray described the song as "eerie, serpentine" and "a fine and worthy companion for Pepper's Within You Without You". Writing in Uncut that same year, Carol Clerk called it "a weirdly atmospheric triumph".
In his book Indian Music and the West (1997), Gerry Farrell refers to the song when discussing its author's contribution to popularising Indian classical music, writing: "It is a mark of Harrison's sincere involvement with Indian music that, nearly thirty years on, the Beatles' 'Indian' songs remain among the most imaginative and successful examples of this type of fusion – for example, 'Blue Jay Way' and 'The Inner Light.'" Simon Leng writes of the song: "Harrison was working at a sophisticated level of extrapolating Indian scales to the Western setting, something no one else had done … 'Blue Jay Way' explores the structures of Indian music just as 'Within You Without You' debates its philosophical roots." In her song review for the music website Something Else!, Kit O'Toole describes "Blue Jay Way" as one of its composer's "most eccentric and abstract compositions" and "the perfect snapshot of the Beatles' most unusually creative artistic phase". Former Record Collector editor Peter Doggett, writing in Barry Miles' The Beatles Diary, similarly admires the recording, saying that the Beatles rendered the song "an exotic, almost mystical journey" that evokes a mysterious Eastern mood "without a single Indian instrument being employed". Music critic Jim DeRogatis ranks "Blue Jay Way" at number 7 in his list of the Beatles' best psychedelic rock songs.
In a 2009 review for Consequence of Sound, Dan Caffrey highlights the track among the "stellar moments in the album's first half" and considers it to be "George Harrison's most underrated song". Caffrey adds: "For a piece inspired by the simple act of waiting for a friend to arrive at his Los Angeles home on a foggy night, 'Blue Jay Way' is a haunted house of a hit, adding an ethereal, creepy mythos to the City of Angels." Writing for The A.V. Club, Chuck Klosterman describes the song as being among "the trippiest ... material [the Beatles] ever made", while Mark Kemp of Paste views it as "wonderfully wobbly". Scott Plagenhoef of Pitchfork Media includes "Blue Jay Way" among the EP's four "low-key marvels", about which he opines: "Few of them are anyone's all-time favorite Beatles songs ... yet this run seems to achieve a majesty in part because of that: It's a rare stretch of amazing Beatles music that can seem like a private obsession rather than a permanent part of our shared culture."
According to Ian MacDonald:George Harrison – lead vocals, Hammond organ, backing vocal
John Lennon – backing vocal, Hammond organ
Paul McCartney – backing vocal, bass guitar
Ringo Starr – drums, tambourine
Session musician – cello