Yanni “Magic Alex” Mardas, the self-styled inventor who died of natural causes in Athens last week, was quite easily one of the most bizarre personages among the Beatles’ menagerie of hangers-on during the late 1960s. While much of the band’s entourage consisted of inveterate loyalists such as Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans, Magic Alex was cut from decidedly different cloth, peppering the Beatles—and especially John Lennon—with bold promises of futuristic inventions that rarely, if ever came to fruition.
Born as Yanni Alexis Mardas in Greece in May 1942, Magic Alex died on January 13th at age 74 after a bout with pneumonia. He originally made his way to London in 1965 on a student visa, later working as a television repairman. Not long after arriving in the UK, he came into the orbit of John Dunbar, the owner of the Indica Gallery, the hip exhibition space frequented by the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones during its heyday.
Introduced to Lennon by the Stones’ Brian Jones, Mardas impressed the Beatle with his “Nothing Box,” a collection of random blinking lights that Lennon deployed as a colorful accompaniment for his acid trips. While Lennon took to calling Magic Alex his “new guru,” Dunbar saw right through the young Greek’s façade: “He was quite cunning in the way he pitched his thing. He knew enough to know how to wind people up and to what extent.” Eventually, Mardas managed to worm his way into the Beatles’ inner circle, making an appearance in the “Magical Mystery Tour” film and later being ensconced as the head of the short-lived Apple Electronics.
During his years at the center of the Beatles’ maelstrom, Mardas participated in a number of key instances in their story—and in some cases, he may have even instigated a few of the stranger episodes in their legend. One such moment occurred in the summer of 1967 after Lennon floated the idea of the Beatles building an island retreat where they could live in peace with their friends and families. McCartney remained unconvinced, attributing his partner’s scheme to “a drug-induced ambition.” In an effort to nurse Lennon’s bizarre ambition, Magic Alex helpfully suggested that the Beatles consider purchasing an island off the coast of his native Greece. Not missing a beat, the group dispatched Magic Alex and Alistair Taylor, manager Brian Epstein’s loyal assistant, to the eastern reaches of the Mediterranean Sea.
On July 21st, John and Paul flew to the island of Leslo, where they joined George, Ringo, and their families. During the trip, the Beatles were swarmed by fans and media at nearly every stop. Apparently, Magic Alex had struck a deal with the Ministry of Tourism in which he would share details of the band’s every move if the government promised not to search their luggage for contraband at the airport. Yet by the time that the group encountered the pristine beaches of Leslo, their enthusiasm for island living had dissipated, and the entourage returned to England empty-handed. “We were great at going on holiday with big ideas, but we never carried them out,” Ringo later remembered. “It was safer making records, because once they let us out we went barmy.”
But as it happened, Magic Alex was only just getting started with his shenanigans. In February 1968, Mardas accompanied the Beatles to Rishikesh for their famous Indian sojourn. As Lennon gravitated ever closer to their host, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Magic Alex grew increasingly suspicious of the holy man, eventually engaging in character assassination and alleging that Maharishi was making advances upon the women in the Beatles’ entourage. Lennon quickly became incensed, and the remaining members of the entourage departed the ashram at once. When the incredulous Maharishi inquired about his guest’s sudden impulse to leave, Lennon offered a bitter riposte: “Well, if you’re so cosmic, you’ll know why.” Lennon would later memorialize the episode in the White Album’s “Sexy Sadie.”
Within a matter of weeks, Magic Alex would strike yet again. In May 1968, Lennon and Yoko Ono finally consummated their fledgling relationship. A few days later, John’s wife Cynthia returned from her vacation only to discover John and Yoko ensconced together at the Lennons’ Kenwood estate. In her grief, Cynthia understandably fled the scene, finding temporary shelter in the house that her friend Jenny Boyd shared with Magic Alex. Legend has it that Cynthia expelled her grief in the eager arms of Magic Alex, that she exacted her vengeance by sleeping with one of her husband’s closest friends. It’s a rumor, of course, that the self-styled wizard did nothing to quell. Years later, Cynthia put an end to the story that had dogged her for so long, writing that “Alex crept into the bed and was attempting to kiss and fondle me, whispering that we should be together. I pushed him away, sickened.”
But for the most part, Magic Alex’s energies were devoted to wowing the Beatles—namely, Lennon—with his outlandish ideas for a host of futuristic electronic devices, including a force field that would surround Ringo Starr’s drum kit in the studio, a telephone that would answer to its owner’s voice, and a magical paint that would render anything that it touches invisible. In one of his more outrageous moments, he promised to build a 72-track recording studio for the group in the basement of the Apple building at 3 Savile Row in Soho.
When producer George Martin arrived at the studio, he was shocked to discover 16 speakers arrayed along the basement walls, with Magic Alex’s multitrack system nowhere in evidence. As Harrison later recalled, “Alex’s recording studio was the biggest disaster of all time. He was walking around with a white coat on like some sort of chemist, but he didn’t have a clue what he was doing. It was a 16-track system, and he had 16 tiny little speakers all around the walls. You only need two speakers for stereo sound. It was awful. The whole thing was a disaster, and it had to be ripped out.”
Consequently, Martin spent the next few days turning Apple’s basement into a respectable recording studio by bringing in two mobile four-track mixing consoles from EMI and overhauling the basement’s amateurish soundproofing. “I’m a rock gardener,” Magic Alex said in his own defense, “and now I’m doing electronics. Maybe next year, I make films or poems. I have no formal training in any of these, but this is irrelevant. Man is just a small glass, very, very clear, with many faces, like a diamond,” he rambled. “You just have to find the way, the small door to each face.”
For Magic Alex, that small door quickly transformed into an exit. When notorious American businessman Allen Klein took over the reins of Apple Corps in the spring of 1969, his first order of business was to fire much of Apple’s enormous staff, which had bloated to some 200 employees. One of the first casualties of Klein’s bloodletting was the not-so Magic Alex, his days as the Beatles’ resident inventor and self-styled electronics expert having finally come to an end.
During his latter years, Magic Alex would continue in his fast-talking vein, famously reimagining himself as a “security consultant” and talking his way into the upper echelons of a number of Middle Eastern royal families. In 1977, the Sultan of Oman contracted Magic Alex to bulletproof a fleet of Mercedes limousines. In order to test out the cars’ armor, one of the Sultan’s bodyguards fired on one of the Mercedes, only to see it explode into flames. A few months later, King Hussein of Jordan asked Magic Alex to customize his own fleet of limos. To his bodyguards’ dismay, bullets easily penetrated the cars’ protective armor, rendering them useless.
In many ways, the chicanery involving the armored vehicles makes for a fitting epitaph for Magic Alex, who across the balance of his lifetime proved to be all flash and no substance. But for a time at least, he had walked among the rarified air of John, Paul, George, and Ringo at the height of their powers. He may have been a con artist, but there he walked.
Ken Womack is an internationally renowned Beatles authority regarding the band’s enduring artistic influence. His latest book, Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin (The Early Years: 1926-1966), is forthcoming in 2017. His previous Beatles-related books include Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles and The Beatles Encyclopedia: Everything Fab Four. You can learn more about Ken’s work at kennethwomack.com.