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Monday, October 17, 2011

The Beatles -- Magical Mystery Tour


From the first of these Beatles reviews, I've mentioned that The Beatles' music reminds me of my grandmother's house for some reason. One very tangible reason is that when The Beatles Anthology documentary mini-series aired, right before my fourteenth birthday, I watched it at my grandmother's house. For some reason, the thing that stood out to me most about the documentary was the subject of The Magical Mystery Tour film, and how the band (and a lot of my older relatives also watching the documentary) considered it to be their most abject failure. I found that hard to believe considering how much I was enjoying the music on that part of the documentary, but today the music is considered to be the best thing to come out of that bungled film. I've still never seen it, but half of the Magical Mystery Tour album is extra songs compiled by the label, not used in the film, so context means nothing in this case. The Beatles never meant to make these songs fit all together, but that doesn't stop Magical Mystery Tour from being one of their best albums.
Magical Mystery Tour kicks off exactly like it's predecessor, Sgt. Pepper, with an intro song that sets up the concept (the concept simply being that here are a bunch of magical, adventurous songs). This self-titled track actually bests the one for Sgt. Pepper, though. The hook is more fun, so much that I heard it as a kid, once again when watching the documentary sixteen years ago, and still remember it. Also, the outro is an awesome, kaleidoscopic piano and drum drip down a funky hallway, pure 60's, but it leads to maybe the worst juxtaposition on the album. The next track should really begin far out, but "The Fool on the Hill" starts off so low-key and traditionally, it could be starting a whole new album. That's not to say it's a bad song--once the multitude of flutes burst in at the halfway point, things already feel back on track, and the rest is good, flutey fun. The next track is--GASP!--an instrumental, led by a keyboard, a driving drum beat, and a wordless melody. It's called "Flying," and it really couldn't be called anything else. The positive song ends on a bad drug trip and leads directly down George Harrison's "Blue Jay Way" rabbit hole. The song is about Harrison's attempt to stay awake as he awaits his friend's visit on a very foggy night. It sounds exactly like that, too, and it might just be the best "headphones in the bathtub with the lights out" song The Beatles ever recorded. It leads into maybe the only inconsequential track on Magical Mystery Tour, Paul McCartney's "Your Mother Should Know." The rest of his work on the album is fine, so he gets a pass here, plus, the song isn't bad at all, it just isn't as out there as the rest of the stuff on the album. Speaking of out there...
John Lennon's "I Am the Walrus" is the next song, and it closes out the first side, which is actually the soundtrack side. Side Two are the new tracks not used in the film. Also, I'm not sure what film "I Am the Walrus" could ever support because, good grief, it is weird. I remember visiting a book store with my father one time (and maybe only one time). The Star Wars section was across the isle from the music one, so while I sat on the floor and looked at the pictures from the making of The Empire Strikes Back, my old man read Beatles' lyrics out loud to me. When he got to this one, he stopped for a moment, then began:
"I am the eggman. They are the eggman. I am the walrus. Goo goo g'job. Mr. City Policeman sitting, pretty little policeman...what the hell is this? I wonder how many drugs he took on that one?" My guess is, a lot. The song begins with...oh yeah, right, like I am going to try to describe this song. It's fun, it's weird, and I will never do acid.
Side Two starts with Paul McCartney's "Hello, Goodbye," which is almost hilariously straight-laced after the previous song. It's still weird in it's own right, with the title of the song repeated as a mantra, some excellent shouting by Paul, some good drum-freakouts from Ringo, and another outro good enough to be its own song. It's a nice little trippy pop-song, but the next track is called "Strawberry Fields." John Lennon essentially traps "Hello Goodbye" in a psychedelic sandwich. Something that I think is strangely missing on the commentary for "Strawberry Fields" in the last 44-years--the fact that the recording of Lennon's voice is so slowed-down, it's almost unrecognizable. This makes Lennon's self-reflecting voice comforting, even though slowing down usually makes things scarier. The music sounded like nothing at the time, and really nothing now, and to highlight perhaps why, here is the song , and here is the personnel who played on it (thanks Wiki!):
Part one
John Lennon – double-tracked lead vocal, lead guitar, piano, maracas
Paul McCartney – Mellotron and bass
George Harrison – electric slide guitar
Ringo Starr – drums and backward cymbals
Part two
John Lennon – double-tracked lead vocal
Paul McCartney – timpani
George Harrison – swarmandal and bongos
Ringo Starr – drums, percussion and backward cymbals
George Martin – cello and trumpet arrangement
Mal Evans – tambourine
Neil Aspinall – guiro
Terry Doran – maracas
Tony Fisher – trumpet
Greg Bowen – trumpet
Derek Watkins – trumpet
Stanley Roderick – trumpet
John Hall – cello
Derek Simpson – cello
Norman Jones – cello
Both parts
George Martin – producer
Geoff Emerick – engineer
Dang. That is a lot of people. The fact that every Beatle member had a large hand in the song as well is a testament to how talented the four of them were by that point. Also, swarmandal.
The last three songs are interesting, as well. "Penny Lane," another poppy Paul song, is written well with some more idiosyncratic instrumentation. John's "Baby Your a Rich Man" follows in the same vein, albeit sounding a bit more topical, and more of the time.
Magical Mystery Tour ends with one of The Beatle's most well known tracks.
"All You Need Is Love" is one of those songs that sounds as simple as can be, but has some pretty weird timing going on, and generally the kind of cool weirdness we don't see done well too much these days. I really, really wish that more bands would realize how well The Beatles used horns--the horn really doesn't get enough attention these days. It seems like almost every track here has them, and they really make the sound. Horns.
"All You Need Is Love" bookends nicely with the title track, making the album a very well-rounded, cohesive listen, despite the piecemeal construction by the label. Magical Mystery Tour is a great sibling to Sgt Pepper, possibly more trippy, but actually less abrasive and more poppy at points. It shouldn't work, but it really, really does.
And now I've got only three to go. The monster White Album will probably take a while to review (it's thirty songs!), I'm skipping Yellow Submarine (only six tracks, some recycled, do not an album make!), then Abbey Road, then the original Let it Be. Almost there, and yet still so far!

(I think these are the three Beatles videos I remember best. Coincidentally, they are all from this album. When I said earlier (or maybe I didn't), "The Beatles I remember," this is definitely it.

1967 Apple Corps
1. Magical Mystery Tour 2:50
2. The Fool on the Hill 2:59
3. Flying 2:15
4. Blue Jay Way 3:55
5. Your Mother Should Know 2:28
6. I Am the Walrus 4:35
7. Hello Goodbye 3:28
8. Strawberry Fields Forever 4:07
9. Penny Lane 3:00
10. Baby You're a Rich Man 3:01
11. All You Need Is Love 3:52


Eric said...

Hey Nic,

Diggin' your Beatles reviews. If you're exploring the Beatlesphere, don't miss out on the "Past Masters" collection, even if you don't want to review it. An older CD edition had it split into 2 separate vols., while the newer 2009 version is a single 2 disc set. Anyway, it has all 33 singles and b-sides that weren't part of the 'proper' albums. A few of the tracks are alternative versions that are perhaps interesting, if not necessarily essential, but the rest I recommend highly. You may know all that already, but since you hadn't mentioned it yet...I thought I would.

Nicholas said...

Man, you just solved a big mystery for me. I noticed not hearing "I Want to Hold Your Hand" early on, and also noticed "Hey Jude" and "Don't Let Me Down" not among any other later there they are. I have to get that because those are three of my favorites (particularly the latter). Bummer, though. By the time I order it and it comes in, I will be halfway to Bjork.
And there's "Lady Madonna," too. Dangit!
Get some Galactic Mudd ramblings going!

Eric said...

Glad to be of service. "Paperback Writer" is a fav, among others and on "I'm Down", Paul seems to try to match John on "Twist & Shout"'s a great early rocker and vocal. Yes, Galactic Mudd is a very sad affair, indeed. Active since 2009 and no posts yet...Wow. The pressure is really on this potential first post! Stage fright, who knew?