11th Favorite Beatles Album: Magical Mystery Tour

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Magical Mystery Tour.
1967, Capitol. Producer: George Martin.
Purchased CD, Approx. 1992.

IN A NUTSHELL: Magical Mystery Tour is another soundtrack in The Beatles’ discography. But this time the record was embellished with a few singles on the American release. It’s a terrific blend of the band’s psychedelic and melodic-pop tendencies. It swings easily between the weird and the cute. Some of the band’s most enduring songs are here, as well as some of their most obscure. The band can do anything, and this record is a delight from end to end.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.

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Rule-breaking evidence.

I’ve broken my own rules several times on this blog. No compilation albums? Well too bad! Sometimes a band’s history is so fraught and disarrayed that a compilation album is one of the few things you have. And sometimes there’s an album that a bonehead like me doesn’t realize is a compilation until after writing the blog post! Hell, even the whole idea of my list being definitive was undercut by the realization that I made some mistakes and omissions. I’m going to make mistakes. As XTC brilliantly put it, I’m merely a man.

And I’m acknowledging right here that this selection is both a rule-breaker AND a mistake. It’s NOT a UK release, which is what I said I’d review, AND, given the incredible songs on it … it should probably be much higher. And yet – here it is at Number 11. How did I – a presumably moral and honest man – fall so far? Where did I go wrong?

I was a natural rule-breaker as a child, but all children are natural rule-breakers. Parenting is, basically, one big push to get your kids to manage and contain their natural instincts to hit, kick, steal, manipulate, scream and generally act like little assholes. In fact, rules were probably first established by cavemen and cavewomen who were getting sick of their whiny little cavekids. They wanted that bullshit to stop.

My parents turned out to be very effective bullshit-stoppers. So effective, in fact, that I quickly became a kid who was TERRIFIED to break the rules. I became one of those pain-in-the-ass, wet-blanket kids who tell their friends they shouldn’t copy each others’ homework, and pay the movie theater admission even though all their friends just sneaked in for free. (I did learn quickly NOT to be a tattle-tale, an important rule among kids.)

But I’ve discussed all this before, in that Stone Roses link above, and I probably have some rule somewhere about not repeating myself, so I’m just going to skip ahead and say that somewhere along the line I grew to understand that life is like that book, 50 Shades of Grey: rich people torture you and try to convince you that you enjoy it. And also, there are so many gray1 areas in life that it becomes almost impossible to follow all but the most basic rules: don’t kill people, don’t hurt people, change the toilet paper roll when you use the last bit.

So the fact that Magical Mystery Tour was a double EP in the UK, and I’m reviewing the US-released full-length LP even though I stated I’d review the UK releases … well, the gray area is that I didn’t realize there was a difference until I started putting this list together, and I wasn’t gonna go out and buy the UK version just to comply with some dumb rule I gave myself, so I just decided to review the US version. Is that gray enough?

You can read all about how Magical Mystery Tour came to be a double EP in the UK and an album in the US, and all about the details of the movie, in any number of books about the band. I have neither the time, nor space (nor the knowledge) to dive in too deeply. But basically, The Beatles made a weird movie for British TV called Magical Mystery Tour, in which regular folks rode around the country in a bus with the band, and this album is the soundtrack for it. (Well, actually, the British double EP is the soundtrack. This US version is the soundtrack PLUS a few other Beatle singles tacked on.) The movie used to play on the cool, 80s US late-night TV show Night Flight, and I saw it back then. If you’re sadly thinking, “Aw, man, I never got to see it!” let me tell you this: it was BORING. The idea was “let’s travel by bus and see what happens!” – and nothing happened.

But the soundtrack is great2! Magical Mystery Tour opens with a perfect opener, the title track, which starts with a trumpet fanfare and gets right to a driving beat, courtesy of Ringo.

Whenever I’ve written about any artist or song, I’ll always point out when I love the harmony vocals. I think this focus on harmony vocals comes from my love of The Beatles. The harmonies – classic three-part – on the “Roll up for the mystery tour” lyrics are terrific. The lyrics set the stage for all the wonder to come on the record. For the first thirty seconds the song really sounds and feels like one of the band’s early, fast-paced hits, like “I Saw Her Standing There,” or “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” But the band transitions to the slower chorus, “… hoping to take you away …” They go back and forth between the parts with ease because of Ringo’s smooth playing. It’s a fun little song, but what makes it for me is the weird ending, beginning at 2:23. Also, producer George Martin’s horn charts throughout are really great. This is one of those popular Beatle songs that I forget about, then hear and think, “Hey, I really like that!”

This is a much different situation than I find myself in when I hear the next song, “Fool On the Hill.” For many years, its melancholy lyrics and haunting flute seemed to speak to me, and I adored it. Nowadays, I sort of find it tiresome. It’s still a great song, a brilliant Paul3 track, and I do like how the song turns a bit upbeat during the flute solo. But it’s not a favorite of mine. The instrumental “Flying” is notable as one of only two Beatles’ songs on their original albums with composition credited to “Lennon/McCartney/Harrison/Starkey” (the other being “Dig It,” from Let It Be), but otherwise sounds rather like music you’d hear while on hold during a phone call with your insurance company.

The fourth song on Magical Mystery Tour is one I have ANOTHER changing attitude on. I used to dislike it, and now it’s one of my favorites on the record. It’s the trippy, somber story of George Harrison’s friends driving on a foggy night in Los Angeles, “Blue Jay Way.”

George’s early contributions to the band, like “Don’t Bother Me” and “You Like Me Too Much,” sounded like attempts to write like Lennon/McCartney. But with every album he seemed to move closer to his own ‘thing,’ and “Blue Jay Way” is an example. It begins quietly and builds, with a droning quality that is filled out with Ringo’s terrific drum fills. He’s the master of the mid-tempo fill. The sounds are warped and distorted, and Martin’s string orchestration fits perfectly.

Next up is “Your Mother Should Know,” the kind of bouncy, music-hall style song that McCartney can write in his sleep (although it sounds nothing like “Yesterday,” which he famously DID write in his sleep). It’s a song about a song that, well, your mother should know. I do like the bass, particularly how it starts the song, and it is catchy as heck. And I find it interesting that on The Beatles (the White Album) John’s song “Cry Baby Cry” features the lyric “Make your mother cry/she’s old enough to know better.” What was it about Beatle mums not knowing things?

The final track on the British EP, and the last song from the film, is the iconic Beatle psychedelia number “I Am the Walrus.”

The song somehow manages to be catchy, weird, nonsense and moving all at the same time. I’d recommend reading more about this song, even if it’s just wikipedia. There’s more to this song than I can fit in a paragraph. It’s a ballsy John song, and after the first five songs really stands out, as if John said, “Okay, boys, step aside and let me show you something.” The nonsense lyrics clash (in a good way) with a powerful chord progression that seems stately and important, a feeling enhanced – once again – by Martin’s orchestral score. There are sounds galore throughout, including a recording of a radio broadcast of King Lear. A written description of the song would read like a total mess, so I’ll just say – listen to it. It’s wicked cool.

Okay, here’s where my dilemma with rating this work starts. Magical Mystery Tour, to this point, has been pretty good. These are all the new songs the band recorded for the movie. As a double-EP, it’s decent by Beatles’ standards, but not particularly awesome. However, on the US version, Capitol records added some singles the band had been releasing, and these are some of my favorite Beatle songs ever. Given how much I love these songs, the record should be higher than #11. But since most of the songs I love weren’t really for an album, and I did say I’m rating UK releases, well, I don’t think I can rank this one any higher.

But who gives a shit, right? Let’s get to the next song – the international hit “Hello Goodbye.” It’s a song about the difficulty communicating in a relationship. Like “Fool on the Hill,” it’s a song I’ve grown tired of. George’s buzzing guitar is still cool, and Ringo’s drums, too. He plays the snare on the 1 &3 at the start of the song, but from then on sticks mainly to high-hat and toms, then from 1:17 to 1:35 and again 1:55 to 2:15 he plays classic Ringo fills. But that keening violin throughout the song just grates on me nowadays. I do like the coda – beginning at 2:45, but it’s a song I rarely play.

One song I do play a lot is a song that, since I was about 10 years old in fifth grade, I have responded with wherever someone asks, “What’s your favorite song?” There’s something about “Strawberry Fields Forever” that has always drawn me in.

I was a shy kid who always wished I could be more confident, and I think the lyrics in the verses such as “no one, I think, is in my tree,” and their fumbling nature (“I think I know, I mean, er, yes, but it’s all wrong …”) really spoke to me. And I loved how weird the song sounded4 while retaining a melody. The older I got, the more I found to love about the song. George’s ringing guitar throughout, and Paul’s guitar fills at 2:58 and 3:11. Ringo’s excellent drumming, his strange fills and chugging beat near the end. Martin’s orchestration again perfectly suits the song. It’s still my favorite song. And speaking of Paul, this is one of the very few Beatle songs (particularly non-acoustic songs) that does NOT have a distinctive bass line.

A song that does have a distinctive bass line, and that may be my second-favorite song ever, is the wonderful “Penny Lane.”

You probably know the story – John and Paul decided to write songs about the memories and places of their childhood, and John wrote “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and Paul wrote “Penny Lane.” Two very different songs that are both great for different reasons. I love the bass in this song, how high it starts and how far it ranges. The lyrics are perfect, painting a scene with precision and perspective that makes the listener believe they’ve actually visited it as a child. John’s high harmonies throughout are wonderful, as are Martin’s horn parts. The two songs were originally released together as a double A-side single5

Next up is a song that was originally a B-side to the huge hit “All You Need is Love” (more on that in a bit), called “Baby You’re a Rich Man.”

Paul’s cool bass is paired with an oboe sound created by John using a “clavioline,” which creates an exotic, Indian feel. John’s vocals (on lyrics that may be a swipe at their manager, Brian Epstein, or may be a message about the power of spirituality in a material world) establish a sarcastic tone in the verse, as his sweet falsetto lines are undercut by his sneering follow-up comments. Ringo, as he’s done throughout Magical Mystery Tour, accents things with great fills, as at 0:49 and 1:45. The chorus is classic sing-along Beatles, with Paul’s bass driving the whole thing. And if you listen closely, you can hear George’s close picking on electric guitar across the whole song. It’s a simple, fun song.

The final track on the album is “All You Need Is Love,” a song that is one of my favorite Beatles’ songs, and also one I discussed when it appeared on Yellow Submarine. You can read about it there!

It always amazes me how The Beatles can seemingly throw together a record and still have it be outstanding. The four were clearly serious about the music they produced, and even if it was going to be part of a silly movie, they made sure the songs were strong. (Well, okay, maybe not “Flying.”) I’m happy I broke my UK rule for this record – the extra songs are outstanding.

TRACK LISTING:
“Magical Mystery Tour”
“The Fool On the Hill”
“Flying”
“Blue Jay Way”
“Your Mother Should Know”
“I Am the Walrus”
“Hello, Goodbye”
“Strawberry Fields Forever”
“Penny Lane”
“Baby You’re a Rich Man”
“All You Need is Love”

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