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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour


THE BEATLES: MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR (1967)

1) Magical Mystery Tour; 2) The Fool On The Hill; 3) Flying; 4) Blue Jay Way; 5) Your Mother Should Know; 6) I Am The Walrus; 7) Hello Goodbye; 8) Strawberry Fields Forever; 9) Penny Lane; 10) Baby You're A Rich Man; 11) All You Need Is Love.

This is a «fake» LP, originally assembled for US release by combining the British EP, containing six songs from the movie Magical Mystery Tour, with a bunch of non-LP A- and B-sides from 1967, including even the famous ʽStrawberry Fieldsʼ / ʽPenny Laneʼ single that chronologically preceded Sgt. Pep­­per. In other words, a blatant mish-mash with a vaguely conceptual first side and a totally incoherent second side. A non-album as such — but still one of the best albums of 1967. In fact, quite a few people even happen to prefer it to Sgt. Pepper, for reasons that include «anti-hype», but are not confined to it. But let us not jump to conclusions.

The movie, as we all know, was just one more in a series of Paul's «let's try anything» ideas that his brain was spitting out from 1967 to 1969 in a frenzy that most of his bandmates generally found irrita­ting. Why they decided to go along with his suggestion to hire one bus, one filming crew, several sets of dorky costumes, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, and hop around the coun­try in search of filming inspiration, is anybody's guess. (Maybe some of them were too stoned to resist). The results could be predictable: some parts of the movie turned out interesting and chal­lenging, some did not, nobody could agree on which ones were and which ones weren't — by the Beatles' usual standards, this was startling enough to be branded as the band's first unequivocal failure. Imagine the critical relief — waiting four years for a chance to say the Beatles suck at something, with comparatively little risk of a rotten tomato in the back.

In retrospect, Magical Mystery Tour (the movie) absorbed a little more credit. Most people these days agree that the «music video» segments match the songs fairly well, despite the band's rather lacklustre dance moves on ʽYour Mother Should Knowʼ and rather cheesy-looking smoke over­cloaking George on ʽBlue Jay Wayʼ. John manages to remain cool for most of his onscreen time (which isn't all that much), Ringo is always Ringo, the Bonzo Dog Band «live» clip is mostly worth it for the stripper touch (great incentive to get your twelve-year old to watch the movie), and some of the «proto-Monty Python» gags/sketches, like the car race scene, are... provocative? Suggestive? Pre-post-modernistic? Whatever. Bottomline is, the movie does not make much sen­se, but few things in 1967 made much sense, and in that respect, it is a fairly diagnostic document of its time — and you get to see the Beatles in it. Back in 1967, it was just a Christmas special with the Beatles in it; nowadays, how much Beatles video footage from 1967 do we have?

As for the music, Magical Mystery Tour was as much of a straightforward sequel to Sgt. Pep­per as it was a departure from the formula. Sequel — because it is another trip to a fantasy world, even more crazy and surreal in some ways than Pepper's. Departure — because this time, there is frankly no concept whatsoever, other than the title track, whose purpose it is to announce, with bombast and fanfares this time, that what you are about to hear and feel is... different. As if any­body had any doubts about that. Just look at the album sleeve.

The thinly-conceptual framework once again belongs to Paul, who also dominates Magical Mys­tery Tour in sheer statistical terms (three out of six songs are his, and I have no idea who wrote the main theme for ʽFlyingʼ — intuitively, seems more Lennon-like to me, and it is John behind the dominating Mellotron, but no final word here). But the funny thing is, it is Paul's material that is the «sanest» on the soundtrack. The title track may announce a journey into the depths of the surreal, but it is just a statement — it could just as well announce a trip to the Taj Mahal. ʽThe Fool On The Hillʼ is existentialist-sentimental Brit-pop balladry. And ʽYour Mother Should Knowʼ is Paul's most retro-oriented music-hall send-up so far. Clouds? Wizards? LSD? Absurd­ism? Not for Paul, really, who provokes the whole band into conjuring mushroom imagery and then quietly backs out while there's still time.

Which does not imply these aren't great songs — on the contrary! All right, so the title track pro­bably does not qualify as «great», because its aim is modest; but within the scopes of that aim, it is as perfect a PR statement for the trip as there ever could be. The greatest bus commercial in the history of mankind for sure. As for the other two, both of which start out with solo Paul at the piano, and then evolve into something bigger, these may be even more poignant than anything «solo Paul» wrote for Sgt. Pepper.

It makes little sense to add my two cents on ʽFool On The Hillʼ, the finest Taoist anthem in Wes­tern pop music history, but I would like to specifically stand up for ʽYour Mother Should Knowʼ, which I frequently see condemned as «soft pap», «presaging the worst fluff of McCartney's solo career», etc. Anyone who perceives it that way should play it back to back with the Fred Astaire-dedicated ʽYou Gave Me The Answerʼ on Venus And Mars — and see what it is that separates major genius from minor. Because the latter is also melodic, memorable, and modestly charming, but in a «fluffy», «shallow» way, resulting in a sugary-sentimental mood (which is one of the major moods of The Songbook, though, so it's not as if the goal weren't reached).

Yet ʽMotherʼ is not just a «tribute» to any particular one of Paul's pre-war idols. Its A minor in­tro and thoroughly sad intonations throughout are really a lament — light tragic intonations here, just like on ʽFool On The Hillʼ, only even less noticeable because the minimalistic words do not re­flect any tragedy by themselves. But "though she was born a long long time ago..." — doesn't that sound sad? One of Sir Paul's greatest talents, as we know, is making us all feel for the lonely and the rejected, from ʽFor No Oneʼ and ʽEleanor Rigbyʼ through ʽJunkʼ and then all the way to ʽLo­nely Old Peopleʼ (also on Venus And Mars), and, although this one is much less obvious, it ac­tu­ally fits well in the same category. It's a «happy-sad» funeral march to days long gone by, and I do not care in the least if Paul's original intention was merely to toss off a trifle — trifles do not trigger tear-shedding mechanisms.

That said, ʽMotherʼ is not the least bit «psychedelic», either. The honours are delegated to the rougher Beatles — Mr. George «Please Don't Be Long» Harrison and Mr. John «GOO GOO GOO JOOB» Lennon. The former comes up with an unusually lightweight number: nothing to do with religion, philosophy, or the meaning of life in general, just an impressionistic account of get­ting lost in L. A. fog. Of course, nobody forces you to take the lines "There's a fog upon L.A. / And my friends have lost their way" literally — it is much more fun to take them figuratively, as an unveiled indictment of the hippie drug culture (which George genuinely disliked). But even if we pay no attention to the accounted details of the genesis of the song (presumably written while waiting for Derek Taylor to locate Blue Jay Way), it is still hardly possible to see the music as anything but a sonic impression of thick, dense fog that paralyzes normal activity. Drone, phasing, backward tapes, cold Hammond organ, uncredited cello — the whole song is one big, aggressive manipulation of the senses, the best example of this approach during George's very brief  «expe­rimental» period of late 1967 / early 1968 (others include ʽOnly A Northern Songʼ and a few bits of the Wonderwall Music soundtrack, all recorded during more or less the same period).

As for ʽI Am The Walrusʼ... well, the song probably deserves writing a whole novel about it some day (and not just because it was the song that originally introduced me to the band in all se­ri­ous­ness). For John, it was first and foremost a lyrical breakthrough: after "elementary penguin sin­ging Hare Krishna" and "crabalocker fishwife pornographic priestess", there were no more limits. But there is so much more. If ʽLucy In The Skyʼ was the man's tribute to «idealistic psychedelia», a kaleidoscopic paradise of surreal beauty, ʽI Am The Walrusʼ shifts to aggressive psychedelia, if not donwright militaristic. It is, to some degree, sarcastic and cynical, but mostly it just kicks ass, right from the gloomy intro and especially from the moment when Ringo butts in at 0:14. This is when you know that you are going to be ripped to pieces.

Meaning, really, that the true breakthrough may not be «textual», but «personal»: the words mean nothing in particular, but when taken all together, they form a string of brutal, ugly, gross ima­gery ("pigs in the sky", "let your knickers down", "yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog's eye", "semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower", etc.), all of it delivered in John's most sneering, sharpest tone, as if he'd just finally come out with an official, government-sealed permis­sion to spit as much venom as he is capable of. And the music? The string arrangements on the song alone inspired Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne to form Electric Light Orchestra — pop music, up to that point, had never seen cellos and violins swoop up and down like hungry vultures or hack away at the listener like razors and knives. And the climactic moments? Whoever said that the chorus of "GOO GOO GOO JOOB" was meaningless? It's all in the modulation — the way I've always felt it, in «walrus-speech» this means "FUCK YOU VERY MUCH", and I've always preferred the exquisite way it is expressed in walrus-speech over the way it is normally done in Standard Literary English.

In the movie, ʽI Am The Walrusʼ comes in the middle of things, whereas the forced ballroom dan­cing scene of ʽYour Mother Should Knowʼ rounds them up; and in the movie, this is logical, but the eventual sequencing of the American release, which shifted the running order, is more delicious these days — the soft sentimental sadness of the simple piano on ʽMotherʼ giving way to the ominous electric piano of ʽWalrusʼ is a fine transition, and the whole «magical mystery tour» now ends with a chaotic, unresolved fade-out that leaves no questions answered, rather than a strange suggestion that a trip to the world of the surreal should end on a «retro note». On the other hand, it also ensures that there really is no specific framework to this whole enterprise. Paul does Paul's thing, John does John's thing, and George's friends are lost in L.A. fog.

Then there is the second side, gathering most of the odds and ends from the rich harvest of 1967. ʽStrawberry Fields Foreverʼ and ʽPenny Laneʼ need no introduction: arguably the greatest «dou­ble A-side» in history, if only because there is no other example in the chronology of the Beatles' 45"s where one side would contain a «seminal» John classic and the other one an equally «semi­nal» Paul classic. (One could argue for ʽPaperback Writerʼ / ʽRainʼ or ʽHey Judeʼ / ʽRevolutionʼ, but in each of these cases it is Paul's song that wins over in terms of popularity — no matter if it's «right» or «wrong»). It's also a particularly great example in that the two songs are expectedly and admirably different in terms of personalities — John's psychedelic experimental introspection vs. Paul's illusionist ultra-melodic whimsy — but both songs are also somehow coherent themati­cally, taking their cues from both writers' childhood memories. It's as if they were both given a «homework task» for their late 1966 break, and each performed it in his own style. And who won? From the historical significance point of view, obviously, John, what with the bizarre multi-part structure and all. From the point of view of «catchiness» — Paul, hands down. But why should we really care? Both songs still blow our minds today the same way they did in early 1967.

ʽHello Goodbyeʼ works as a fine intro to Side B — Paul at his carnivalesque best, impossible to resist even for grouchy old people who never kids — and ʽBaby You're A Rich Manʼ is a bit of «filler» mostly worth it for the lyrics: when you stop to think about it, it works best as an earthy drop of antidote to the pathos of ʽAll You Need Is Loveʼ, and it might have been more fun if the silly American people actually put it where it belongs: after ʽAll You Need Is Loveʼ, not before, deflating the idealism in properly cynical fashion. Which is not to say that ʽAll You Need Is Loveʼ is not a great song, or that there is something wrong or harmful about its idealism. (The verses of the song actually run deeper than simplistic propaganda — "there's nothing you can do that can't be done" is slyly reminiscent of the much more straightforward "there's nothing that can't be done by you", but bears quite the opposite meaning; so Brian Epstein's comment that «the song cannot be misinterpreted; it is a clear message saying that love is everything» may really need a little bit of refinement).

In the end, if you give Magical Mystery Tour in its LP incarnation to an unsuspecting friend and ask him, «Is this a concept album or what?», he might well respond that it is — starting off with an invitation to explore the unknown, taking the listener to distant hills with fools, clouds spew­ing forth L. A. fog, eggmen and walruses, nostalgia mixed with fantasy, and finally culminating in the most bombastic anthem to L-O-V-E ever written. He might even remark that it is a concept album that is better grounded in reality than Sgt. Pepper, yet also more optimistic in its conclu­sions, with a happy grand finale as opposed to the mind-shattering explosion of ʽDay In The Lifeʼ. Then again, he may be more astute than that and guess the truth — that there is no concept here whatsoever — but I can only judge for myself, and I myself have always regarded the album as coherent, even if the Beatles themselves never intended such a coherence (and how could they, if the songs had been recorded all through the year?).

The album may be dominated by its colorful sleeve imagery — resplendent «yellow, orange and green», shooting stars, and the band in grotesque animal costumes (and we still have no true idea of who really was the walrus, no matter what John says) — and that, in turn, sometimes leads to the impression that they are now engaging in «psychedelia for kids», where Pepper was «psy­chedelia for adults». An impression that is not entirely untrue: from Paul's «fluffy» bits to John's ever increasingly demonstrated love for Lewis Carroll, there may be even more of those indivi­dual bits here that would make the album delightful for the little ones (and I never denied that it was the eye-and-ear-candy of MMT that led me to the Beatles as well). But, as it happens with every Beatles record, we have layers here — all sorts of. Musical, lyrical, ideological, personal, whatever. It's just another mini-world where leaping from tree to tree may be a goal in itself. And it is all the more admirable considering the hard, turbulent times when most of it was recorded — following up on Brian Epstein's death and all. With the father gone, you'd expect the kids to start growing up. Instead, they are making one of their kiddiest albums ever. Fascinating, right?

Check "Magical Mystery Tour" (CD) on Amazon

17 comments:

  1. Great review, as usual.

    There are a few things that are worth pointing out:

    1.One of the more remarcable feautures of this album is that it is probably amongst the earliest rock albums with almost no guitar in it, which makes 'Magical Mystery Tour' ahead of its time.. Of course most of the songs had some electric or acoustic guitar track in it, but these guitar parts are almost inaudible, buried under layers upon layers of organs, mellotrons, cellos, pianos, flutes and trumpets,etc.

    2.It's true that were John and George who provided the most psychedelid flavoured songs, but there's at least a tiny bit of psychedelia in one of Paul's songs: namely in the fade-out of the title track, which a find one of the most fascinating musical snipets, in the entire Beatles catalog.

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  2. The title track is truly wonderful, from beginning to end. I love the mad psychedelic fade out on the track..actually that is the most distinguishing feature for me on this album, the fade outs. The endings of "Magical Mystery Tour," "Flying," "I am the Walrus," the extended left field harmonic fade out of "Hello Goodbye," the drumming craziness of "Strawberry Fields," and the gorgeous "She Loves You" fade out of "All You Need is Love," are all fantastic and memorable, filled with surprises and good ideas.

    Random semi related point: I hate the debate where people try to rank "Revolver," or "Sgt. Pepper," as to which is the greatest album ever. The trend these days is putting "Revolver" as the best. Its a dumb debate because if you are willing to put "Revolver" as the greatest album of all time, you are obviously a Beatle fan. And if you are a true Beatle fan, you probably go through phases where you fall heavily for "Revolver" at one point, "Sgt. Pepper" at another, and a random album like "Magical Mystery Tour," at some other time. The point is, practically every fully realized Beatle album, starting with "A Hard Days Night," is equal in quality and joy, to all the others, and they become impossible to separate. "Magical Mystery Tour" is basically as good as "Revolver," better at times, worse at others. The point is, Beatle albums are like mood rings. Their color and value changes based on the listener, but in reality, they are all the same. All great, all wonderful, all the time.

    Again, great job George, thanks.

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  3. Probably the greatest patchwork product, cash-in, and afterthought in the history of Western music. Proving once again that Pepper scraps > 90% of everyone else's fully realized productions.

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  4. I find "Blue Jay Way" to be way creepier than it has any right to be.

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  5. Thanks for this, George. I just posted a piece on Hey Dullblog (a Beatles group blog) advising people to take a look.

    http://www.heydullblog.blogspot.com/2012/05/starostin-on-magical-mystery-tour.html

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    1. George, Mike Gerber from Dullblog here. This is a fantastic review. Too many great insights to count, and the writing is just top-notch. (That MMT is my favorite Beatles album is surely beside the point ;-)...Though commenter Willie Simpson is totally right about them being mood rings.)

      You have lots of fans over here! Thank you!

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  6. I wonder if John and George figured it was an attempted by Paul to get them touring again.

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    1. No, "Magical Mystery Tour" was basically a promotional move - send a film out instead of having to tour. Basically, a "long form music video" masquerading as a movie. Of course, the idea was leagues ahead of its time.

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  7. If the Beatles had spliced the promotional films of Strawberry Fields Forever, Penny Lane, and Hello Goodbye into the MMT movie (as well as create a promo for Baby You're A Rich Man), few would have complained about MMT.

    The footage of the band performing I Am The Walrus makes MMT worthwhile.

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    1. Interesting idea, JR--I expect you're right.

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  8. Sure All you need is Love is a bad song. People only listen to it because the Beatles wrote it and who is going to criticize the Beatles in their prime? Who is going to remark that for one time the Emperor doesn't wear clothes?
    AyniL is a perfect illustration of that quote on cheap sentimentalism from Milan Kundera or Vaclav Havel I can't refind. So I have to paraphrase: we shed the first tear as we see on television the toddler playing on the grassfield. Then we shed the second tear because we realize we share that first emotion with millions of other spectators.
    Anyone who ealizes the truth of this will recognize AyniL for what it is: cheesy crap, just like Yellow Submarine.
    Which doesn't contradict the genius of the band, but only shows that it consisted of humans.

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    1. Oh please take your nihilistic life view and shove it up your ass.

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    2. Well said...

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    3. To each his own, MNB, but of late the lyrics of All You Need have been striking me as quite liberating if you take them absolutely literally.

      Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time/it's easy.

      There's nowhere you can be but where you're meant to be/it's easy.

      These are simple thoughts with profound implications, manifestly pointing to a very different outlook than your usual millionaire celebrity. And if we assume sincerity on the part of the singer, rather than cynicism, the serenity of the "advice" can be felt. Don't worry, just learn how to be yourself. Don't worry about what you're supposed to be doing, or being, all is proceeding as it ought. It's easy. All you need is love.

      This isn't only Beatley romantic love; it's also satyagraha.

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  9. In my opinion, 'Blue Jay Way' wasn't really about the fog on Los Ángeles, or drug-addicted hippies. It's a metaphor about the wall of illusion' that surrounds us as fog, as George said on 'Within You, Without You'. It's a precursor of 'Beware of Darkness'.

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  10. George you said "I have no idea who wrote the main theme for ʽFlyingʼ — intuitively, seems more Lennon-like to me, and it is John behind the dominating Mellotron, but no final word here"
    The answer is Paul, he wrote the tune and led the band on the recording of this song. In http://www.beatlesebooks.com/flying you can find a detailed description of the recording and creation of Flying.
    PAUL states in his semi-autobiography “Many Years From Now”: “ Flying was an instrumental that we needed for ‘Magical Mystery Tour,’”. “So in the studio one night I suggested to the guys that we made something up. I said, ‘We can keep it very very simple, we can make it a twelve-bar-blues. We need a little bit of a theme and a little bit of a backing.’ “I wrote the melody. The only thing to warrant it as a song is basically the melody, otherwise it’s just a nice twelve-bar backing thing…It’s credited to all four, which is how you would credit a non-song.”
    So, 4 songs on Magical Mystery Tour’s first side are Paul’s, not 3.
    George, your blog is great, Keep up the good work.

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