As I have mentioned before, one thing that makes The Beatles such a integral part of the story of pop and rock music, aside from the music, is the both the self conscious propagation and archival of the band’s story and legacy. I think that might be part of the reason why Magical Mystery Tour was for a long time lost in the mix, even when the individual singles that come from it were so highly acclaimed. There was not much build up or conscious thought to this album as an artefact, to the point that in some quarters this is called a double EP before it is called an album. This does not mean that there is not conceptual thought brought to the album, that concept of the “Magical Mystery Tour” a less concrete one than the idea of a fictional band (which perhaps gives it more leeway in its digressions). But you can definitely argue that this album was a victim of disorganisation by the time of its release.
Many factors can be taken to account for this, including The Beatles (by which I mean Paul McCartney) taking the reigns on the creation of the Magical Mystery Tour movie, but without a doubt the biggest reason for this lack of structure was the death of Brian Epstein. Beatles fans have pointed to many reasons as to the bands breakup, some worth more consideration than others, but the death of their reliable and always working manager, in many accounts a victim of the workload he took by being the manager of The Beatles, is a huge catalyst for troubles to come. The big effects of that would mainly be felt on The Beatles, but it also made the material of 2 week filming of Magical Mystery Tour a more disorganised and surprisingly dark fair. Both of those things we will get to over the next two entries, but the disorganisation can also be felt in the production of this album.
The fact that Magical Mystery Tour is only a hair’s length different conceptually from Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – psychedelia, nostalgia, friendship, spirituality, obvious drug references – is no accident considering they were basically recorded at the same time. The first half is full of songs either written or finalised after those sessions, and makes up the soundtrack to the film, and the second half is full of singles released during or before that time. So as an album its a precursor to similarly great constructions from excess materials, like Amnesiac and Zooropa, and its structure reminds me in some ways of a reverse Hounds of Love (and the Beatles would do this similar structure again for their final release). Beatles For Sale and Help are often talked about as the transitional album between pop Beatles and the psychedelic Beatles. But for me, although this is clearly a psychedelic release, it contains hints at the not so often talked about third section of the band’s career, from a more obvious psychedelic band to a free-flowing entropic group in which the albums are both of four solo careers and a clear whole (certain enough to put the band name and place where they perform in the titles). Magical Mystery Tour also contains some of the finest songs of the bands career – If we call this two EP’s the second half is the best EP ever released – and my own favourite Beatles song of all time:
Track by Track
“Magical Mystery Tour”: Similar to the previous album, this begins with a title song inviting the listener to join them on their adventures with plenty of pomp and circumstance to boot. The difference is, much like the planes and vehicles that can be heard in this album’s runtime, this song is loose, constantly moving, changing locations and going to its own tempo. The trumpet fanfares are like the wave of the hands in the opening of the film (which I’m saving all my thoughts for in my review), and Ringo’s incredible drum work takes us from varying degrees of rocks and swings in an instant.
“The Fool on the Hill”: I know there is a group of people, including some Beatles scholars, who don’t like this song in particular. Whilst I would be lying if I said that the inclusion of the penny whistle doesn’t get on my wick a bit, there is an exuberance of woodwind and brass instrumentation in this song (even some jew harp!) that makes this song a delight to just mellow out to (like the titular fool alone on the hill. It’s also amusing that this positive song is meant to be inspired by (people like) Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and within one year later they would have written “Sexy Sadie” not so subtlety about him.
“Flying”: The Beatles actually did many instrumentals before they would go into songs that experimented with new musical styles. The vast majority of them just didn’t make it onto official releases, so the existence and release of this song in a canonical album makes it something of a rarity (also one of the rare songs that was said to be written by all four members of the band). The introduction to this song has a smooth, creamy soul edge that I’m honestly surprised hasn’t been sampled by any prominent hip hop artists. The next turns into this part choir, part psychedelic and part jazz piece that I honestly think is one rewrite and a vocal track away from being a Beatle’s classic.
“Blue Jay Way”: Of all the songs that George Harrison wrote that was based on his love of Indian Classical Music, this is the only one that I think is far more in tune with psychedelic rock than its original culture. I also think that is to the this songs strengths, creating a combination of Eastern drones (still between two oscillating chords), a Hammond Organ which George managed to wrestle from John, and the backwards cymbals and strings that turns this into one of the most psychedelic numbers the band ever wrote. It’s a head trip, one where you can be the friend that loses their way.
“Your Mother Should Know”: Like the sequence in the movie would suggest, the piano, bass and drum swing of this song brings to mind old musical showtunes, but the odd tempo and chord change makes it feel as the song is a dancer and someone just turned all the gravity off in the room. It’s odd that this song was inspired by A Taste of Honey, a very kitchen sink, social realest drama, and the end result has lyrics which feel akin to a nursery rhyme. But that’s the Beatles for you.
“I Am The Walrus”: Side One ends with one of the best songs John ever wrote, and one whose reason for conception leads me a little wanting for how to approach writing. John has always insisted he wrote this song as a response to schools analysing Beatles lyrics in classes, and so set to write a song that specifically had no meaning (that also demonstrates his love for Alice in Wonderland). This is the self conscious legacy taking over again, and with him referencing past Beatles songs on this, and referencing this song on The White Album for clues. It looks set to irritate that looking for interpretations in its suggestive, vaudeville-like (“oompa loompa stick it up your jumper!”), polysyllabic, moody, funny, loving, biting and ultimately imaginative lyrics for years to come. So instead lets focus on what John would have wanted us to, which is to get lost in the textures of the music. The rumbling guitars and sound effects get us lost in this Wonderland style journey, and George Martin’s experimentations with orchestras in the studio (and the panning) all band together to create sounds that people just hadn’t heard before. And when you are hearing them today, it’s still hard not to get a little lost in it all.
“Hello, Goodbye”: The beginning of Side Two, and bursting into life and cool quicker than the music videos that accompanied it, Paul’s song combines all the best traits of what made The Beatles an amazing pop band, whilst taking that structure and adding in much more unusual instrumentation. For one thing, its lyrics (which I’ll name a “call and response to the self”) and structure makes this one of the most incessant earworms in the whole Beatles catalogue, but where older songs would have been supported by acoustics guitars, here it is an organ in one side, cellos on the other, and strings that occasionally pan side to side. Also the bass work on this is just incredible, with the patterns, like the lyrics, calling and responding to themselves.
“Strawberry Fields Forever”: I’ve put off a long time saying to you all what I would pick as my personal favourite Beatles song of all time. So let’s not put it off any further, here it is. But beyond it just being one of the greatest pieces of popular music ever written, and with “Penny Lane” best singular A-Side/B-Side release of their career, what is it about this song in particular that elevates to the top? Well, first let’s start with its songwriter. I have no more favourite mode of John Lennon than the moody, melancholic nostalgic one, and in this song he is also able to include that in with his psychedelic lyrics and instrumentation that, like the titular fields, you can just relax and look at the clouds in. The fields in question are said to be based on a very specific place, but combined with dissonant lyrics that shows an ever reeling psychology, presented in John’s voice with a forever fluctuating diction and vocal pattern, and of course the incorporation of dream logic, it makes the whole place feel not of this planet (like it was taken from this Earth to be used as an alien preserve). But then that comes from the band’s performance. Ringo gives another amazing, complex drum line, one that continues to build on top of itself until it becomes a container for chaos, much like the mind itself. George’s slide guitar work here resembles that which he would later get to weep on future records, and so he brings that same level of emotion and intensity. Paul came up with this song’s countermelody and iconic mellotron introduction, which in a matter of a few notes builds more melancholy than many acts their entire careers. And it mirrors beautiful the final cacophony of the orchestra, from trumpets to strings to flutes, all sounding like the honking cars of a motorcade pileup, a child’s music box and a brass band concert all in one. This might not have been on Sgt. Pepper Lonely Heart’s Club Band, but this is precisely what I think the world of a band with that name would sound like.
“Penny Lane”: Just as “Strawberry Fields Forever” exemplifies all the best traits of John’s writing style and philosophy, so to does “Penny Lane” for Paul. John’s world is integrally a part of psychedelic rock, free flowing, moody. This is born to the traditions of classical, structured and full of absolute joy. John’s sentences, although conjuring worlds, can sometimes be indecipherable and hard to picture clearly. Here you can imagine every single street corner, shop and customer that Paul joyfully cries out about. Even the abrupt changes in weather, and descriptions like “blue suburban skies”, sound more literate than surreal. It’s actually incredible that Paul can make an orchestra this large feel just as light and breezy as the song. Which might be its mundanity is raised to epic status.
“Baby Your A Rich Man”: Composition wise this is actually one of the simpler songs of The Beatles later career, and yet the instrumentation certainly doesn’t make it feel that way. The pulsating piano lines, the echoing drum fills and the use of the clavioline here, an early synthesiser, gives the whole thing not just a busy erratic nature, but an increasing feel of modernity. That would give further explanation as to why it was used perfectly in the finale to The Social Network, as well as the lyrics showing the inherent emotional contradictions about being unhappy about wealth (as well as describing the type of people that are searching for it).
“All You Need Is Love”: Magical Mystery Tour ended as it began, with fanfare, as the rolling drums and La Marseilles fan us into its unifying cries of love. This song was played and recorded for the first ever live, global television broadcast and the lyrics, although denied by the band, seem to be written with that world wide audience in mind, as it contains the most overtly hippie statements that the band put into a song. There is definitely a saccharine quality that would be exacerbated in some of the band’s solo material (like, say, “Imagine”), but any worries of that are for overtaken by the fact that the music just makes you believe it. The complex 7/4 grooves that meet into an allegro peace harmony by the end of each verse, and the trumpets that cry out almost as much as George’s (in one version, flubbed) guitar solo. I’m often called a cynical person, but by the time this song ends, I’m growing flowers in my hair and wondering why the world stubbornly refuses to listen to this songs message…
The Beatles would take their own advice for the production and material for their next album. They would take a relaxing vacation together, come back chilled out and come together with a concise, singular statement for their next…*whispers*…OK, I’ve just been told that was completely wrong…
What did you think, though?
The Beatles Album Reviews
- Rubber Soul
- Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
- Magical Mystery Tour
- A Hard Day’s Night
- Beatles for Sale
- Please Please Me
- With the Beatles