The Beatles were such incredible tunesmiths that it would be specious to assert that they ever put out a bad album, British or US versions notwithstanding. But Magical Mystery Tour in fact has more of what was great about the Beatles in its grooves than any of their other releases. It is the only album that so completely reveals the entire range of their abilities: the masterful pop single, thematic work, sophisticated and innovative song structure, and poetry. No other Beatles album can match it in all of these areas.
Magical Mystery Tour, coming on the heels of Sgt. Peppers may have seemed (and even been) a bit ‘patched together’ but time has erased that perception. Side One is the soundtrack to the surreal and boundary-smashing television film of the same title. I don’t care that it commercially flopped as a film—we’ll get to that—the music is exquisite. Overall, the side contains all of the pop loveliness that Paul McCartney can ooze, but placed in the crazed, playful context of John Lennon’s world. The opening title song is a pop masterpiece. Everything is in place and great: the mix, the use of the piano as a power chord instrument, Paul in the mix giving dimension to John’s lead, strong background vocals, rolling wheels special effects, hooks, amazing horn parts, and everything we love about the collective voice of the Beatles. Never released as a single in the US, it reached #2 in the UK and stayed on the charts for nine weeks.
The Fool On The Hill is as good as any of Paul’s signature ballad hits, right after Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby—just not released as a single, and it has the added feature of the staccato accordion, used to great effect, minus the preciousness Paul would come to affect soon enough.
Flying is movie music. Cool. George uses a campy surf guitar reverb tone not heard in any other Beatles song. Blue Jay Way is a dog; you might enjoy it if you’re stoned. It fits the mood of the album, with string parts reminiscent of I Am The Walrus, but George deserved whatever ridicule he received at the merciless hands of John and Paul for this one. Sorry. Yet even this song can be seen as emblematic of the Beatles chance-taking and transitions, in this case to Harrison’s stunning contributions to the White Album (Long, Long, Long, Savoy Truffle, Piggies and While My Guitar Gently Weeps).
I like Your Mother Should Know as much as any of Paul’s other cute songs; a remake of When I’m Sixty-Four with Paul’s music hall sensibilities. Notice Ringo’s very cool sustained cymbals between the first two verses.
Do I need to convince you that I Am The Walrus is the Beatles greatest song ever? John’s most obscure yet evocative lyrics. Signature rock swagger in a gorgeous pop setting, with wailing backgrounds, rock ‘cellos, psychedelic interlude going out of rhythm and leading perfectly into the bridge, music concréte set in the background. The best of the art rockers, from Roxy Music to Radiohead still wish they could write and perform songs this good. Look, you weren’t going to like Revolution #9. This is the Revolution #9 that worked beyond John’s wildest dreams. In fact, this was his wildest dream. And A Day in The Life, masterpiece that it is, didn’t transport the pop listener as far into the Ether of Music that Walrus does. That’s an accomplishment.
And there is psychedelic ‘cello dripping all over every tune like hairy walrus syrup. In fact this most abundant use of ‘cello on a Beatle’s album gives it an (unintentional?) unity, a theme if you will, just as acoustic guitar and muted drums dominated Rubber Soul. ‘Cello is prominent on no less than half of the ten songs on the album.
If people want to criticize this as the ultimate ‘over-artiness’ of the Beatles…let them. Where else do Beatles so conspicuously quote other tunes (Greensleeves and She Loves You in Strawberry Fields Forever, and that Hail to the Queen in All You Need Is Love.
And I’ll raise the ‘art’ stakes further.
The film Magical Mystery Tour is as close as we get to a Beatles ‘dark side,’ and wondrously so. John and company didn’t need to match the Rolling Stones’ ‘bad boy’ image or resort to the morbid. Why? Because they were so much more creative. The film shows a glorious connection to the insane, to parody and satire, and the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band are in the film (the house band at the striptease joint George and John visit) to emphasize it. Fellini would have been proud to have conceived the dream sequence where John as a waiter is lifting shovelfuls of spaghetti and meatballs into Ringo’s obese aunt’s crying face. And so on. It’s only fitting that the Beatles’ most successful journey into the dream world would be a semi-conscious, hazy moment between Sgt. Peppers and the White Album. The public wasn’t ready for it then, but we are so lucky today that John, George, Paul and Ringo (and yes, Big George Martin as the jacket proclaims) had the guts to put it out then.
Still not convinced? On the greatest hits collection, The Beatles/1967-1970, Magical Mystery Tour accounts for fully a fourth of the 28 songs selected, more than any other Beatles album. Think the folks at Apple know what I’m talking about?
Okay, let’s give Side Two a listen. Well, Side Two alone had more singles (four) reach the American Top Twenty than any other Beatles album, and three of them—Penny Lane, All You Need Is Love, and Hello Goodbye—made it to Number One.
And that fourth one, Strawberry Fields Forever (only made it to number eight), is another contender for their best song ever. Let’s get on with our lives and forget the “I buried Paul” reference buried in the mix (yawn) already; as music, it’s an incredible coda with backwards tape loops and the one-note iconic George Harrison tailing phrase that eighteen other bands have ripped off. The song is one of the few dreamy psychedelic relics from the Sixties that will never sound dated. And the inspired ‘video’ that accompanied its release, with the Fab Four going dark on us again, playing an old piano draped with cobwebs outside under a sprawling old oak-tops 99.9% of the drek MTV was to start broadcasting fifteen years later.
Hello Goodbye integrates Paul’s sweet tendencies one of the last times with a collective effort known as the Beatles. It’s no doubt Paul’s songwriting, but the sound really belongs to the group. George, John, and Ringo (hey, no Ringo songs on this album) are all there, and the mix is GREAT, superior to any pop manufactured today.
Parting shot. I can never resist, and never quite master, the time signature changes in All You Need Is Love, but it goes in and out of seven, and has a nice music hall/tavern singalong feel. It’s a precursor to Hey Jude, but goes a little more wacky on us as it fades, with sax solo, She Loves You reprise…the works.
So to prove a point, and taking apart the film ‘soundtrack’, dropping a couple of tunes, and reordering the best, Magical Mystery Tour can be reassembled in a way that makes it more obviously the best album the Beatles ever recorded…benefitting from everything they had learned to date, a penultimate collaboration with George Martin, a loaded gun cocked and set to explode on the subsequent White Album. Try this sequence:
Flying > Hello Goodbye > All You Need Is Love > Fool on the Hill > Strawberry Fields Forever > Baby You’re a Rich Man > Penny Lane > Magical Mystery Tour > I Am the Walrus.
With one side an experimental soundtrack, and the other the mere assemblage of the current singles, Magical Mystery Tour is The Beatles accidental masterpiece. While the band struggled with a coherent sense of what they were trying to do with the film, and were plagued with production problems, they admirably did exactly what we expect, hope for, and appreciate most about our greatest artists . . . they took chances. This time, the chances that their muse led them to didn’t coincide with the expectations of the fans and the critics. Mozart had the same problem.