Reconsidering the Beatles at Their Psych Height with ‘Magical Mystery Tour’
Even with all of the incredibly strong material which continued to stretch out what was possible with pop music, the U.S. version of Magical Mystery Tour is never really given the love it deserves. The album represents not just the height of their psych phase but also the end of it.
Most of us still love the Fabs, but try to sit through their 1967 movie and you’ll regret losing about an hour of your life. It’s telling that in this video age, it’s only now that Magical Mystery Tour gets a re-release and a PR push, which their label and management has been brilliant at over the last decade as they resell their catalog again and again. Regardless, Magical Mystery Tour now gets lumped it in the dubious category of crappy movies with great soundtracks like Less Than Zero, Judgment Night, One from the Heart and Singles.
It didn’t have to be that way though. About one year before the movie, Macca had a wonderfully child-like idea, straight out of a Mickey Rooney movie: “Let’s pretend that we’re another band and put on a big show!” Despite their studio hibernation and zero touring promo, the boys scored commercially and artistically with the epochal and era-defining Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a pop-art milestone on the level of Warhol. Buoyed by that incredible success, the group’s new de facto leader (the future Sir Paul) hatched another cute idea for their next project: “Let’s pile into a bus with our friends, go out into the country and film whatever happens!” This time though, things didn’t work out as well.
Granted, Magical Mystery Tour was a much riskier proposition than Pepper, including a grander visual element in the form of an entire movie behind it. Part of the problem was that the band that didn’t have a track record as film-makers, yet they somehow thought that they could pull off another bold move -- a movie with no script. Though an auteur like Woody Allen would have his actors improvise their lines, he would still have an overall structure to everything he did. But like Allen with A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, the Fabs found that once they left the city and roved around the country looking for inspiration, they floundered. Instead of going around Cornwall and Kent (England’s southwest tip), it would have been much more interesting to turn the cameras on in the middle of the swinging capital for a snapshot of that time and place, the way that the cult classic of that same year Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London did so effectively.
After the literal and figurative high of Pepper, the band got taken down a notch only months later with the Magical Mystery Tour movie, with the UK public justifiably wondering what the hell was going on with this confusing mess. At roughly 50 minutes, Magical Mystery Tour was too long for a featured short and too short for a full-length film. Instead of Richard Lester (who helmed their first two films), the band worked with director Bernard Knowles, who had a distinguished history working as a cinematographer for Hitchcock during his UK years and had a brief career directory afterwards, with Magical Mystery Tour being his last film, passing away eight years later. Watching it, you get the feeling that he let the boys have their way with the movie (tellingly, McCartney does the director’s commentary in the recent reissue), as the action jumps from one silly scene to the next, making it more like a series of comic scenes without punch lines and any kind of plot line being tossed out the bus window. See Ringo get a lot of screen time! See the Beatles dressed up as magicians! See the tour group race around on bikes and cars! See an army guy yelling at the group! See a strip show! See your eyes roll to the back of your head as you watch all of this, trying to figure out how it’s supposed to all fit together somehow!
Even the release of the Magical Mystery Tour film was a flub. As Bob Spitz reports in the self-titled biography of the band, even the closest members of the group’s inner circle were appalled by the film and concerned that the group had thrown away 40,000 pounds (which comes to nearly one million dollars in 2012) on making the movie and should just forget about it or risk losing their reputation. Even with the Beatles’ name on the product, they couldn’t convince theatres to show it, again partially thanks to the ill-timed length of it, not to mention the content (or lack of it). Even several of the UK TV stations passed on it before BBC1 finally agreed to broadcast it. The soundtrack had already been out of a few weeks (which was also a flub, more on that later) when the film was premiered on the Boxing Day (December 26, a huge holiday in Blighty) in 1967. At first blush, it seems self-defeating that such a colorful film would be shown in black and white format but at the time, only a fraction of the Brit public had color TV’s so that even when it was rebroadcast in color soon afterwards, few viewers could see the film as it was originally intended. Just in case you’re curious, watching Magical Mystery Tour without color does make a difference, damping down a lot of lively visuals that the boys wanted to come out (especially the wild color-rush of the “Flying” sequence and the zany antics seen in “I Am The Walrus,” not to mention the flashy tour bus), though it does give an oddly appropriate look to the old-style musical number “Your Mother Should Know". But it doesn’t make that much of a difference in the end and doesn’t turn the movie into a beloved classic. Basically, the film still sucks, and the British press wasn’t shy about pointing that out.
For a group with such a sterling track record with their albums and singles, it’s strange that the Beatles’ legacy on film is so spotty. After the smash of A Hard Day’s Night, it was all downhill from there. They wisely hooked up with Richard Lester again for Help! (which mistakenly cast the band as Bond wanna-be’s, allowing them to vacation in various locales) but is anyone going to really say it’s anywhere as good, as lively, as inspired or memorable as A Hard Day’s Night? After Magical Mystery Tour, they ended with Let It Be, showing the band falling apart on film. Their only unqualified success on film after A Hard Day’s Night was Yellow Submarine, a cartoon feature that they had the least amount of involvement with.
In hindsight, there are a few ways that the Magical Mystery Tour could have been salvaged as a much better movie. They could have made it a full-length movie and gone all the way with head-scratching insanity in the same way that the Monkees did one year later with Head, which is justly remembered as a misunderstood cult classic. Otherwise, Tour could have been shorted to just include the best parts of the film which were, not surprising, the music sequences, including the intro with the title song, the wonderfully kooky “I Am the Walrus” sequence, Paul’s sweet “The Fool on the Hill” (gorgeously filmed in the French countryside), Bonzo Dog Band’s night club scene for “Death Cab For Cutie” (a nice reminder of where the later band’s name comes from), George’s creepy, kinda dreary “Blue Jay Way", and “Your Mother Should Know". As such, here’s an alternate, improved tour of Tour:
Part 2: The Album - All You Need Is Label Tampering
For the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack, the Beatles didn’t do themselves any favors with the original release either. Just as the film’s in-between length didn’t make it either a short film or a feature film, the songs were too long for an EP and too short for an album, so they made into a double EP, not exactly a wide-spread format then or now. Though it featured a nice extensive booklet of photos from the movie, the musical sequencing was pretty haphazard, pairing the title song with “Mother” on the first side, “Walrus” was by itself on the second side, “The Fool on the Hill” and “Flying” were the third side and it ended it off with “Blue Jay Way” alone on the fourth side. Sure, anything that they released after Pepper would inevitably be a letdown but this was almost as incomprehensible as the movie itself. It’s no wonder that the original version of the Magical Mystery Tour record didn’t exactly receive sparkling reviews at the time.
The unlikely hero that turned this odd mish-mosh into a classic worthy of the band was their meddling American label, Capitol Records. Previously, Capitol’s m.o. was to peel off songs from their earlier albums, shortening them and sometimes re-sequencing them and collecting the leftover scraps into new albums that they could then sell to the fans. The band poked fun at them for this practice with the original, rare ‘butch-block’ cover of Yesterday and Today. On the surface, this kind of intrusion into the band’s catalog seemed like the worst kind of manipulation but corporate greed aside, there was actually an upside to this. Arguments will brew about this but there’s a good case to be made that Capitol’s refiguring of Rubber Soul and Revolver actually improved the flow of those albums, giving them each a more consistent feel.
Wisely deciding that the American public wouldn’t know what to make of a double EP, even from the Beatles, Capitol decided to take an opposite tack with the Magical Mystery Tour material. Instead of shedding songs, they actually started collecting them from singles that the band was putting out around this time. The original material from the soundtrack filled up the A-side of the U.S. album and these singles were put together on the B-side. How well did this work out? The U.S. version of Magical Mystery Tour is now seen as the definitive version, always released that way in the many reissue campaigns that the band’s catalog goes through.
Even the sequencing that Capitol did with the original set of songs on the first side of the album actually makes you think that they knew what they were doing much more than George Martin and the Fabs themselves did. The much-improved pacing on the Yank release starts with Macca’s flashy title song (as it does on the UK version) and then glides to the sweet and sad “The Fool on the Hill”. The bit of a lull in material is kept in the middle of the side then with the pleasant, trippy little instrumental “Flying” (which unfortunately cuts off the jazzy coda that Lennon originally added on mellotron) and George’s drone-a-thon on “Blue Jay Way,” which could do without three hundred or so chants of “please don’t be long". But things pick up with an expert piece of whimsy from Paulie on “Your Mother Should Know” (which he tried again less successfully on the next album with “Honey Pie”). That provides a good lead-in and contrast with one of Lennon’s masterpieces- the bizarre, angry (listen to his vocals) “I Am the Walrus,” which matches purposely oblique lyrics with odd string/horn combos and ends with radio interference from a Shakespeare play. Appropriately, this ends the first side of the album as nothing could effectively follow it there.
The U.S. album’s B-side is an amazing sequence of singles that jumps all over the map in terms of mood and sound, even more effectively than either side of Pepper. Starting off with Macca’s cherry sing-a-long “Hello Goodbye” (ending with a great, ridiculous chant of ‘Heba, heba hello!’), it moves along to one of Lennon’s other great complex pieces, the wonderfully dreamy and forlorn “Strawberry Fields Forever", whose lyrics manage to seem like nonsense and truth at the same time, which is no easy task. Mac picks up the mood again with the spritely, homey “Penny Lane” (paired with “Fields” as one of the best A-side/B-side singles of that era) and then there’s Lennon’s joyous but coy ode to their manager, “Baby, You’re a Rich Man", featuring Lennon doing more experimenting, here on an early electronic device called the clavioline (previously used by Sun Ra and Joe Meek). And then the ultimate capper here comes in the form of John’s hippie anthem “All You Need Is Love", which featured bits of Beatles songs, the traditional ballad “Greensleeves” (which led to a lawsuit), the French national anthem (heard in the intro) and a background chorus that included the Stones, Clapton, Graham Nash, Keith Moon and Marianne Faithful among others. Like “Walrus", nothing could really follow it and it suitably ends off the album.
(Similarly, the band could have compiled together the ace pre-MTV-era videos that were done for these songs instead of the film, as you’ll see at the end of the article.)
Even with all of this incredibly strong material which continued to stretch out what was possible with pop music, the U.S. version of Magical Mystery Tour is never really given the love it deserves. Though it’s not at the bottom of the list of their fave albums as Let It Be usually is in the Beatles catalog, the string of albums before it (Rubber Soul, Revolver, Pepper) and the ones after it (the "White Album", Abbey Road) usually get touted as their peak. Magical Mystery Tour represents not just the height of their psych phase but also the end of it -- there was only traces of it in their work afterwards as they tried to ‘get back’ to basics mostly, much as the Stones did at the time too. Maybe it’s the post-Pepper syndrome or that the film dragged it down, weighing down on Magical Mystery Tour’s rep as an album. Macca actually felt obliged to apologize for the flick and the band then moved on from it with a retreat to India and on to their next phase, trying to quickly leave the memory of Magical Mystery Tour in the dust.
Regardless of the blowback from the film, song for song, the American version of Magical Mystery Tour is the finest Beatles album, which we have some unknown corporate lackey to thank for it. Maybe you should listen to the record again, just to prove it to yourself.