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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 gray 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 great! 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 Paul 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 sounded 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 single

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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13th Favorite Beatles Album: Yellow Submarine.

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Yellow Submarine.
1969, Apple Records. Producer: George Martin.
Purchased CD, Approx. 1991.

IN A NUTSHELL: Yellow Submarine is an album that I find difficult to rate higher than any other Beatles’ albums simply because there are only 4 new Beatles songs on it! The band contributed four excellent new songs to the soundtrack, and a couple older favorites were added, and that’s the extent of the band’s contribution. Brilliant producer George Martin adds some orchestral background pieces from the movie, and that’s that.

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

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I’m 52 years old, so it’s no use lying, or even minimizing, what I’m going to say: I don’t mind kids’ music. I’m talking about music produced and aimed directly at kids, not music recorded by kids, although some of that’s pretty good, too. I liked kids’ music when I was a kid, and I liked it as a parent, and I’ll probably like it again when I’m a grandparent.

I think somewhere over the past several years on this blog I’ve discussed my love, as a child, for the LP Havin’ Fun with Ernie and Bert. It was released in 1972, the year I turned 5, and it’s the first album I recall that was all mine, that wasn’t a family record, or one of my sisters’. I used to go to the basement every day to play its songs and, as my mom has recalled, “march around the basement.”

The album had fun songs with lots of activities, and a gatefold opening that included a map (for helping Cookie Monster with “The Magic Cookie“) and pictures and tips on how to best enjoy it. (“Get some pots and pans from your pantry to bang on!“) The songs on the album were purely for kids – fun, silly, simple. The only (subtle) tip of the hat to the larger world of pop and rock into which it was released was the cover art that seemed to be a nod to Simon & Garfunkel.

The other kids’ albums I remember from my childhood are selections from Walt Disney movies. I think we may have had a “Disney Greatest Hits” type record, and perhaps a soundtrack from Mary Poppins, or Bedknobs and Broomsticks, although I may be conflating my memories of childhood jigsaw puzzles with childhood music. But the point is, these were orchestral, Broadway-style songs. Back then Kids’ Records were not interested in staying current with pop music tastes and sounds.

I moved on from Ernie and Bert pretty much directly to my sister’s Elton John albums and the 70s version of Weird Al Yankovic: albums of collected novelty songs sold on TV by companies like K-Tel and Ronco. But my childhood musical tastes – Ernie & Bert, Disney songs – have maintained through adulthood: the music I like continues to skew strongly toward good melodies. (This is probably a big reason why I love The Beatles.)

The Wiggles (and pals)

By the time I had kids of my own, in the late 90s and early 00s, an entertainment juggernaut had completely transformed kids’ music: The Wiggles. Many parents disliked The Wiggles when they first saw them, and I think a big part of it was that in the 90s it was unusual to see grown men performing for kids with no women. That may seem odd today, in 2019, but in 1999 it was really jarring to see. Myself, I immediately loved the band – mainly because my toddler son LOVED THE BAND. It was impossible for me to see him sing and dance along to the songs and NOT feel some love for the geniuses that gave that to him.

Dan Zanes & Friends

What I really liked about The Wiggles, however, was the fact that they took rock music sounds and styles and put them into kids’ songs. The Wiggles were a band, playing their own songs, on their own instruments, and they touched off a wave of “rock music” kids bands. The fabulous Dan Zanes & Friends, The Laurie Berkner Band, The Imagination Movers … There were just so many! Then there was Choo-Choo Soul, a show that made R&B-style kids’ songs. It was the Golden Age of Kids’ Music for Gen-X Adults.

The proof was when bands for grown-ups began getting into the act. The wonderful They Might Be Giants released several terrific kids albums, including Here Come the ABCs and Here Come the 123s. Def Leppard, Barenaked Ladies, even former freshmen, and one-hit wonders, The Verve Pipe, released kids’ albums. (Of course, Johnny Cash was ahead of everyone by 30 years.) Soon, parents were demanding rock music as kids music.

But leave it to the best band in the history of the universe to have presaged all of this kids rock music by a couple generations. The band, and Paul McCartney, in particular, had been writing Wiggles-style songs since the start of their run. They also produced flat-out, old-school kids-style songs (i.e. not Wiggles-style) throughout their career. Catchy, singalong melodies were right in their wheelhouse. And although they usually sang about love, which any child will tell you is “icky,” many of their songs are about less icky stuff, like colorful submarines and counting with friends, and, in fact, would sound really good as the soundtrack to a cartoon movie!

For details about how the movie Yellow Submarine and its soundtrack came together, you should consult any Beatles biography, particularly one by Mark Lewisohn. Or, to save time, check out the Wikipedia page. Basically, the band was contractually obliged to produce four new songs for the movie, which they did. These songs were slapped onto some other old Beatles’ songs used in the movie, a few orchestral selections from the film, written by producer George Martin, were tacked on, and Voila! Beatles album.

So, basically, even without trying, The Beatles could produce an excellent album – albeit one that mostly sounds like it’s made for kids. In particular, the title song (originally released on the band’s Revolver album) seems aimed squarely at the elementary-school, let’s-sing-a-song age group. This is a difficult song to write about because it seems like it’s become a children’s staple – like “Old MacDonald.” Nearly every kid in America, Europe, perhaps the world, has heard and sung along to it. I’d wager more people know the song than know that it’s by The Beatles.

It was written together by McCartney and John Lennon expressly for drummer Ringo Starr to sing, and its simple, contagious melody and magical lyrics suit him well. Perhaps the coolest thing about the song is all the sound effects created for it. The band and its friends blew bubbles in water, rattled chains, and talked in tin cans to create the undersea atmosphere. It’s a fun recording, and if you haven’t listened closely to the original in years, it’s worth a listen.

One of the best things about the album is that George Harrison contributes a higher percentage of new songs (two of the four) than on any other Beatles album. The first is the weird, wonderful “Only a Northern Song.”

The song’s (hilarious) lyrics show Harrison’s justifiable frustration (“It doesn’t really matter what chords I play/ What words I say …/ As it’s only a Northern Song.”) about the band’s publishing arrangement, in which his songs were owned by publisher Northern Songs, a company of which Lennon and McCartney each owned 15%, compared to Harrison’s 0.8%. This meant he made far less from the publishing rights to his own songs than John and Paul. It opens with a spooky organ, which suits Harrison’s laconic delivery. McCartney’s bass is terrific, and Starr’s drums fills are really great. About 1:10 a section of crazy dissonance appears, then recurs at 2:30 to finish the song. It’s a song that benefits from listening on headphones, and for a song that the band (and many listeners) has frequently dismissed, it’s pretty cool.

Next, the band goes all-in on kids’ music again with “All Together Now.”

It’s a cute little number that has some cool Beatle-y things in it. For one, it’s one of their songs where both Paul and John sing lead – Paul on the “1-2-3-4,” etc., and John on the “sail the ship,” etc. I love when they sing in harmony, because their voices blend perfectly. But I also love when they are co-lead singers because I like to think of them as best buddies, and they sound like it when they trade off lines. It’s got a fun build up, from acoustic guitars, then adding bass guitar and drums and harmonicas and voices and I think some sort of saxophone. Then it speeds up at 1:15 through to the end. It’s a fun, goofy, terrific song for kids.

Speaking of John and Paul singing harmony, and acting like best buddies, the next song up on Yellow Submarine is one of my all-time favorites from the band: “Hey Bulldog.”

There’s a cool story about recording this gem, and you can watch a video about it here. The song opens with Lennon playing a piano riff that is somehow both dark and upbeat at the same time. Harrison’s guitar joins in on it, with Ringo’s terrific tom-heavy drums, and finally McCartney adds his bass to the riff. Lennon’s voice is perfect on lyrics that are part nonsense (“sheepdog/ standing in the rain”), part koan (“some kind of innocence is measured out in years”), and part simple kindness (“if you’re lonely you can talk to me”). McCartney’s bass on this song is outstanding, constantly changing, holding down the low end while providing, basically, a second lead guitar. And while we’re talking lead guitar, check out Harrison throughout, but especially his solo at 1:13. Lennon and McCartney’s superlative harmony singing is on display, and I love how near the end they dissolve into silliness and banter and make each other laugh. I ESPECIALLY love near the end, when they completely break down then pull it together for one final, terrifically harmonic “Bulldog,” at 3:03. It’s these tiny things that bring me joy, and really underscore the fact that I’m rather obsessed by this band.

So obsessed, in fact, that Harrison’s “It’s All Too Much,” his second number on Yellow Submarine, is a song I often find going through my head, especially when I’m stressed out and thinking, well, “it’s all too much.”

It’s a noisy, droning, psychedelic song, with a tooting organ riff throughout. Harrison’s voice, beginning about 1:03 sings a great, rangy melody that seems to ignore the crazy sounds around it. And this really suits the lyrics, which are a positive reflection on all the joyful wonder of the world. Ringo’s drums, once again, are really cool. He plays off-kilter fills that accent the song perfectly. The guitar is cool, played by both Lennon and Harrison. A variety of horns are added, McCartney & Lennon add harmonies, and the whole thing begins to sound on the verge of breakdown beginning around 3:45. From there it becomes a kind of meditative drone, as Harrison wails about 4:40 and the three singers sing “too much,” well, perhaps too much, but that’s kind of the point of it. It’s one of the band’s most distinctive songs.

Next up is another all-time great Beatles song, “All You Need Is Love.”

The song was released as a single a year before the movie, but since it appeared in the film it was included in the soundtrack. It’s one of my favorite Lennon compositions, including the lyrics, and one of my favorite performances by the band. Since it was recorded partially live, as part of “Our World,” a worldwide live TV broadcast, there’s a party atmosphere to it. As usual, McCartney plays lead bass and Harrison’s guitar solo is unforgettable. It’s a timeless classic, and actually has a bit of kids’ song cheer and simplicity to it.

The rest of the album, well, look. I’m not gonna try to bullshit you people: I can’t get through it. It’s a suite of 7 orchestral pieces by George Martin, the band’s longtime producer, that were written as the film’s score. There’s “Pepperland,” “Sea of Time,” “Sea of Holes,” “Sea of Monsters,” “March of the Meanies,” “Pepperland Laid Waste,” and “Yellow Submarine in Pepperland.” I’m sure they are brilliant pieces, and I have Beatle-y friends who swear they are some of the best works to appear on any Beatles’ albums. But I am not a classical music guy, nor a recorded orchestra guy, and I haven’t seen the film in 35 years, so it just doesn’t connect with me.

So there you have it. Yellow Submarine is my least-favorite Beatles record, but still probably my 13th-favorite all-time record. It make me happy, it makes me feel good, and that’s what we were all taught music was supposed to do back when we were kids. It’s what I learned from Ernie and Bert, and it’s a big part of why I love The Beatles!

TRACK LISTING:
“Yellow Submarine”
“Only a Northern Song”
“All Together Now”
“Hey Bulldog”
“It’s All Too Much”
“All You Need Is Love”
“Pepperland”
“Sea of Time”
“Sea of Holes”
“Sea of Monsters”
“March of the Meanies”
“Pepperland Laid Waste”
“Yellow Submarine in Pepperland”

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