On My Record Player Part 18

The Beatles – Magical Mystery Tour (1967)

Nathan got a box of records from his godfather Marshall in 2005, maybe after I had been expressing so much enthusiasm for vinyl in early 2005, it spread amongst a few of my friends and Nathan acquired a few treasures including this masterpiece and although he is in Germany, we have this record of his to enjoy and every song on this is a classic. Dave wanted to listen to Hello Goodbye and I thought it was on Sgt Peppers so thats why I put that on previosuly and wrote about it, but I quickly found out that Hello Goodbye is on Magical Mystery and not Sgt. Peppers as I thought and I went to Nathan’s box and found this record which deserves to be played much more than it has been. I love playing records like this, rather than greatest hits. You get to feel for the intended arrangement that was put together at this point in history. Not as epic as Sgt. Peppers, but it sure does have some classics that everybody loves. All You Need is Love.

Pitchfork – 10.0 out of 10

After the death of manager Brian Epstein, the Beatles took a series of rather poor turns, the first of which was the Magical Mystery Tour film. Conceived as a low-key art project, the Beatles were oddly nonchalant about the challenges of putting together a movie. They’d assembled records, they’d worked on A Hard Day’s Nightand Help!— how hard could it be? Without Epstein to advise, however, things like budgeting and time management became a challenge, and this understated experimental film turned into a sapping distraction.

Musically, however, the accompanying EP was an overwhelming success. The EP format apparently freed the band to experiment a bit, not having to fill sides of a 45 with pop songs or make the grand statements of an album. The title track is a rousing set piece, meant to introduce the travelogue concept of the film. The remaining four songs released exclusive to the EP are low-key marvels– Paul McCartney’s graceful “The Fool on the Hill” and music-hall throwback “Your Mother Should Know”, George Harrison’s droning “Blue Jay Way”, and the percolating instrumental “Flying”. Few of them are anyone’s all-time favorite Beatles songs, only one had a prayer of being played on the radio, and yet this run seems to achieve a majesty in part because of that: It’s a rare stretch of amazing Beatles music that can seem like a private obsession rather than a permanent part of our shared culture.

As a more laid-back release, the EP suggested the direction the band might have taken on the White Album had it remained a full band, happy to shed the outsized conceptualism and big statements and craft atmospheric, evocative pieces. In the U.S., the EP was paired with three recent double-sided singles, ballooning Magical Mystery Tour into an album– the only instance in which a U.S. release, often mangled by Capitol, became Beatles canon. With only the EP’s title track married specifically to the film’s themes, the overall effect of a title track/album sleeve as shell game was in line with Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Of the three singles, the undisputed highlight is “Strawberry Fields Forever”/ “Penny Lane”, John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s tributes to their hometown, Liverpool. Slyly surreal, assisted by studio experimentation but not in debt to it, full of brass, harmonium, and strings, unmistakably English– when critics call eccentric or baroque UK pop bands “Beatlesesque,” this is the closest there is to a root for that adjective. There is no definitive Beatles sound, of course, but with a band that now functions as much as a common, multi-generational language as a group of musicians, it’s no surprise that songs rooted in childhood– the one experience most likely to seem shared and have common touchpoints– are among their most universally beloved.

The rest of the singles collected here are no less familiar: Lennon’s “All You Need Is Love” was initially completed up for an international TV special on BBC1– its basic message was meant to translate to any language. Harrison’s guitar solo, producer George Martin’s strings, and the parade of intertextual musical references that start and close the piece elevate it above hippie hymn. Its flipside, “Baby You’re a Rich Man”, is less successful, a second-rate take on John Lennon’s money-isn’t-everything theme from the considerably stronger “And Your Bird Can Sing”. It’s the one lesser moment on an otherwise massively rewarding compilation.

Much better from Lennon is “I Am the Walrus”, crafted for the Magical Mystery Tourfilm and EP but also released as a double-sided single with McCartney’s “Hello Goodbye”. One of Lennon’s signature songs, “Walrus” channels the singer’s longtime fascinations with Lewis Carroll, puns and turns of phrase, and non sequiturs. “Hello Goodbye” echoes the same contradictory logic found in the verses of “All You Need Is Love”, a vague sense of disorientation that still does little to balance its relentlessly upbeat tone. McCartney excelled at selling simplistic lyrics that risk seeming cloying, though, and he again does here– plus, the kaleidoscopic, carnival-ride melody and interplay between lead and backing vocals ensure it’s a much better record than it is a song.

In almost every instance on those singles, the Beatles are either whimsical or borderline simplistic, releasing songs that don’t seem sophisticated or heavy or monumental (even though most of them are). In that sense, they’re all like “All You Need Is Love” or childhood memories or Lewis Carroll– easy to love, fit for all ages, rich in multi-textual details, deceptively trippy (see Paul’s “Penny Lane” in particular, with images of it raining despite blue skies, or the songs here that revel in contradictions– “Hello Goodbye”‘s title, the verses in “All You Need Is Love”). More than any other place in the band’s catalogue, this is where the group seems to crack open a unique world, and for many young kids then and since this was their introduction to music as imagination, or adventure. The rest of the Magical Mystery Tour LP is the opposite of the middle four tracks on the EP– songs so universal that, like “Yellow Submarine”, they are practically implanted in your brain from birth. Seemingly innocent, completely soaked through with humor and fantasy, Magical Mystery Tour slots in my mind almost closer to the original Willy Wonka or The Wizard of Oz as it does other Beatles records or even other music– timeless entertainment crafted with a childlike curiosity and appeal but filled with wit and wonder.

On the whole, Magical Mystery Tour is quietly one of the most rewarding listens in the Beatles’ career. True, it doesn’t represent some sort of forward momentum or clear new idea– largely in part because it wasn’t conceived as an album. The accompanying pieces on the EP are anomalies in the Beatles oeuvre but they aren’t statements per se, or indications that the group is in any sort of transition. But if there was ever a moment in the Beatles’ lifetime that listeners would have been happy to have the group just settle in and release songs as soon as possible, it was just before and after the then-interminable 10-month gap between the Revolverand Sgt. Pepper’s. Without that context, the results could seem slight– a sort-of canonized version of Past Masters perhaps– but whether it’s an album, a collection of separate pieces, or whatnot matters little when the music itself is so incredible.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: