Reviews

'Magical Mystery Tour' Is Not as Bad as Everyone Says

Magical Mystery Tour is an occasionally awesome mess full of odds and sods and in some regards an appropriate artistic hangover from the Summer of Love.


Magical Mystery Tour

Director: The Beatles
Cast: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr
Distributor: Capitol
Release date: 2012-10-09

Having never had the opportunity to view Magical Mystery Tour all the way through, I looked forward to this DVD with a mixture of anticipation and a sense of settling unfinished business. Of course, I’d seen various clips (some good, some not) but mostly I’d heard the oft-repeated assessment from those who had watched the film in its entirety. It was, of course, considered a disaster and signaled the first unadulterated flop of the Fab Four’s career. An ill-advised caper gone not so magically off the rails, the only mystery being how and why it got made in the first place. The fact that it has never been properly released, all these years later, suggested that the band was not especially eager for it to see the light of day.

Perceptions can –and should—change, and certainly the way people received this venture almost half a century ago might not be applicable to today’s tastes. Would considerable time and distance eliminate (or add) baggage, knowing this was, after all, The Beatles? Or, would knowing it was almost universally panned, then, soften one’s expectations? Could we, in short, be surprised by how bad it wasn’t, after all?

The most direct answer to all of these questions is that Magical Mystery Tour is not as bad as everyone says. It’s worse.

Well, judged by virtually any criteria, the movie fails in virtually every regard. It’s sloppy, unfocused, and manages to be one thing The Beatles never were before or after: boring. Considering the band was fresh off the artistic and cultural touchstone that Sgt. Pepper was –and remains—it's almost impossible to imagine how poorly they acquit themselves here. Or is it? Looking back on how productive the lads were all through the ‘60s, churning out a string of albums that continued to set the bar (for themselves; for everyone else) higher, some sort of letdown was inevitable.

Magical Mystery Tour remains worthwhile as a period piece, and a cautionary tale. It isn’t calculated enough to be a proper vanity project, but it’s not nearly daring or adventurous enough to be a true piece of experimentation, either. It’s an occasionally awesome mess full of odds and sods and in some regards an appropriate artistic hangover from the Summer of Love.

The concept, a trip following the Fabs around the countryside, could (or, should) have either been a forthright documentary, or else a full-blown lark. What results is a bit of both, which is fine, but too much of the material is plodding or uninspired.

Needless to say, the sequences featuring the band performing are never less than satisfying. Some of the segments, like the performance art for “I Am The Walrus”, are remarkable. Indeed, this installment practically justifies the entire ordeal, serving as the first truly successful combination of avant-garde and old school music video. The renderings of “Blue Jay Way” and “Your Mother Should Know” endure as straightforward opportunities to see the lads doing their thing with a minimum of pretense—at least by the standards of 1967. The footage of them, in Sgt. Pepper regalia, miming “Hello Goodbye” for “Top of the Pops” is equal parts embarrassing and exhilarating.

In terms of “plot”, the sequences following the “action” range from tedious to painful. The forced silliness has not aged well, and while some of the low budget set pieces show initial promise, they too often feel like Monty Python skits, without the humor. Seeing the lads (particularly Paul and Ringo) appearing unguarded amongst their fans is a reminder of why the band was—and is—so likeable.

Listening to McCartney, who was at this time asserting himself as the dominant force within the collective, fondly recall his vision of filming a psychedelic charabanc ride, one can appreciate what might have been. If there had been more time, or energy, or discipline, Mac may have been on to something. Interestingly and more than a little ironically, the end result gives short shrift to the psychedelia, and it mars the proceedings. More moments, such as Lennon as a waiter shoveling spaghetti onto a woman’s plate (appropriately lifted directly from a dream) would have been welcome.

Then again, the music itself (“Flying”, “Blue Jay Way”, “The Fool on the Hill”) accomplishes what the best music—Beatles’ and otherwise-often manages to be: miniature movies for the mind. Nothing the band could film is capable of surpassing the images the songs conjure up on their own.

Magical Mystery Tour, then, is the soundtrack to many things: excess ambition, insufficient attention, whimsical self-deprecation, experimental folly, and semi-choreographed skylarking from the biggest band in the universe. It is, ultimately, a reminder that these geniuses were human. We would see this play out literally as the cameras recorded the tension during the Let It Be sessions. This project showcases the band’s ambition while exposing their aesthetic limitations.

Bottom line: the dramatically improved sound of this Blu-ray edition validates its acquisition, and a careful listen to songs you’ve heard a thousand times before is sufficient evidence that when The Beatles focused on making music, no one did it better.

The bonus/special features certainly make an already appealing purchase even more so. Surely, any extra footage featuring reminiscence from Paul and Ringo is most welcome. There is a 20 minute “Making Of” feature that has additional commentary and perspective from both Ringo and Paul, and there is also a brief “Meet the Supporting Cast” addendum. Neither of these will warrant repeat viewings, but they add value and will be appreciated by aficionados.

Perhaps the ultimate selling point (for those not already sold) is the Director’s Commentary by Paul McCartney. As always, Macca is honest, humble and amiable. For us die-hard Beatlemaniacs, any opportunity to hear one of the original members looking through the onion, glassily, is golden.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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