Sunday, April 13, 2008

170. The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour (1967)

Now we continue our journey through the back catalog of a little-known '60s band I've recently discovered.

Just as quickly as The Beatles made their definitive album statement with Sgt.Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, they immediately took it back with the cobbled-together Magical Mystery Tour. Maybe that's why they never got famous.

Magical Mystery Tour was the brainchild of Paul McCartney, conceived primarily a film project. It was to be a surreal journey across England with a bus full of musicians and carnies, with the results edited into a one hour special for the BBC.
Why people kept giving such a commercially unproven (some might say failed) band chances to make films is beyond me. Of course, the lads created some new songs for the film.

Well, the movie turned out to be terrible. The songs were not, but the album still suffers in comparison to its predecessor. In fact, many of the songs have analogues to Sgt.Pepper or Revolver compositions, and are usually weaker, sullied-up versions.

The album's first side, consisting of songs from the film - is most guilty of this. Witness:

Magical Mystery Tour = Sgt.Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band
Both songs are title tracks, and serve as meta-introductions to the album. Both have a fun, spirited nature.

The Fool On The Hill = Nowhere Man

Blue Jay Way = Within You Without You
More swirley navel-gazing from guitarist George Harrison.

Your Mother Should Know = When I'm Sixty-Four
Both charming throwbacks by McCartney.

I Am The Walrus = Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
Both full of trippy surreal imagery.

The instrumental Flying is the only exception. It's minor, but notable in that it features the first full-band composing credit. It's also worth noting that I Am The Walrus is John's only writing contribution to the album's first side. The band, for now at least, had become McCartney's show.

The album's second side is a collection of singles and b-sides from 1967. McCartney's Hello Goodbye features a more straightforward sound for the band, though the chanted outro does get slightly freaky.

Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane were a double A-side single actually recorded before Sgt.Pepper. Like A Day In The Life before them, the two songs serve as a fascinating windows into the styles and temperaments of Lennon and McCartney. Both songs are on the same theme of childhood nostalgia, and each focuses on a place, but the results couldn't be more different. Lennon's Strawberry Fields Forever is a masterpiece of editing, evoking the feeling of being awoken just at the moment you enter R.E.M. sleep. McCartney's Penny Lane, on the other hand, is predictably chipper, cheery and catchy.

Side 2 is rounded out by Baby, You're A Rich Man and its A-Side, All You Need Is Love. The former is slight but fun, and the latter is a simple clomping, affecting singalong featuring a supporting cast far more famous than The Beatles themselves, including Graham Nash, Keith Moon, Marianne Faithfull and members of The Rolling Stones.

Magical Mystery Tour now exists as a contradiction worthy of Hello Goodbye itself. The first side is just shy of inessential. The Beatles never mailed anything in, but here they did send it by messenger. The second side, however, is invaluable for any Beatles cultist. If the band was well known enough to warrant their songs and albums being put on iTunes, I would tell you to cherry-pick only the best tracks. Instead, you'll have to make the decision, all or nothing, for yourself.

Grade Side 1: C
Grade Side 2: A
Fave Song: All You Need Is Love

No comments: