Magical Mystery Tour
It’s the last act in an amazing trilogy that began with the highly experimental Revolver and found its pinnacle in the picturesque Sgt. Peppers. Yet even when put alongside those musical masterworks, this extended EP for the failed TV film clearly represents some of the Beatles best in-studio musings. In fact, everything that George Martin did to expand the boys’ creative recording repertoire comes to fore in this magnificent collection of tracks. Like the celebrated concept album before, Magical Mystery Tour tells its own story—the saga of how a band of upstarts from Liverpool became the biggest pop phenomenon of the decade and, so far, of all time.
It was also the lasting document of the band’s attempt to replace live performance with something equally satisfying. Since 1966, the group had sworn off touring, arguing that they were never appreciated in concert, since more times than not, the screaming of the crowd drowned out their playing. A little less than a year later, they decided that TV might be a good way to stay connected to their fans. The Beatles tended to enjoy their time making movies (outside of some of the more pragmatic elements like having to get up early, memorize lines, etc.) and so a new project was proposed—a home movie like holiday with the boys playing wizards who mix things up for a group of travelers. Mostly improvised and showcasing the group’s lack of cinematic acumen, many continuously point to Magical Mystery Tour, the movie, as the Beatles first outright flop.
Luckily, the music still retains its majesty. The actual LP release contains an odds and sods assortment of various Fab Four finery. The first six tracks represent the material forged specifically for the broadcast showcase. The rest is made up of classic singles (“Penny Lane”, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “All You Need is Love”), the equally brilliant “Hello, Goodbye” and “Love"s brooding B-Side “Baby You’re a Rich Man” (intended for the film Yellow Submarine). All present Peace generation psychedelia at its most potent and influential. Even when McCartney breaks out the music hall memorabilia for “Your Mother Should Know” or Lennon ratchets up the wordplay for “I Am the Walrus”, we wind up with the aural equivalent of an acid-induced trip through the band’s collective consciousness.
Those who’ve accused the compilation of being nothing more than a series of session outtakes, remnants and unrealized ideas, are clearly misguided. Aside from “Flying”, the rare instrumental in the group’s catalog (credited to all four members, by the way), the tunes here hold up as well—or in some cases better—than the so-called masterworks of Pepper. Indeed, “Walrus” matches “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” in its intricate and playful language, while the clear carbon copies—“Fixing a Hole”/“Getting Better”—can’t match the title track, or anything from the “Strawberry Fields”/“Penny Lane” starting point.
Where it stumbles, if only slightly, is in the contextual department. Locked into the loony travelogue concept of the script, the band had to balance the needs of the narrative (thus the mandatory ‘dance’ number, “Your Mother…”) with the wants of the individual. This is clearly seen in George Harrison’s sole contribution, the plaintive private dirge “Blue Jay Way”. In the film itself, the fabled Beatles guitarist is viewed as a kind of street shaman, fingering a chalk drawing keyboard on the actual Hollywood Hills Boulevard that inspired the title. McCartney also wanted to celebrate his somber, saccharine love song “The Fool on the Hill”. Thus, a trip to the South of France was in order.
But there’s none of the resonance of “Tomorrow Never Knows”, no morbid mental clarity as in “A Day in the Life”. Instead, this is experimentation taken to its most commercial ends, a work of wondrous imagination that, ultimately, is often dismissed as an anthology of surplus. Still, the lessons learned from Pepper were polished and perfected here, so much so that the group would (mostly) abandon such aural opulence for the stripped down rock and roll of The White Album. And this is perhaps the Beatles last “happy” recording, a work that retains their endless optimism before the darkness descended and took over. By the time Abbey Road offered its own sunshine omnibus of sonic bits and pieces, the innocence of the ‘60s was long gone.
Today, it’s almost impossible to resist the temptation to “roll up” and prepare yourself for a trip through major musical history. While revisionists would like to somehow sell the Beatles as a boy band overrated by out of touch sound scholars, a melodic magnum opus like The Magical Mystery Tour reminds one of the actual truth. After the initial inroads of Revolver and the full bore embrace of Sgt. Peppers, the lads from Liverpool once again proved that there was no format they couldn’t master, no genre they couldn’t mimic and make better. While some still want to dismiss it as “second tier” Beatles, it says something about their enduring talent that such low rent material remains so memorable four decades later.
// Notes from the Road
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