Friday 9 October 2009

The Beatles "Magical Mystery Tour" (1967) (News, Views and Music 45)

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(Review first published on October 9th 2009; Revised edition published on August 16th 2014)

“Roll up roll up for the Magical Mystery Tour, step right this way!”

The Beatles “Magical Mystery Tour” (1967)

Magical Mystery Tour/The Fool On The Hill/Flying/Blue Jay Way/Your Mother Should Go (Sorry, Know – I’ve Seen The Rutles Too Many Times)/I Am The Walrus//Hello, Goodbye/Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane/Baby, You’re A Rich Man/All You Need Is Love

"It doesn't matter who you are or what you want to be - the story's in the journey and not what's out at sea"
Let me take you down ('cause 'we're going to) Penny Memory Lane to the Beatles’ Boxing Day Disaster/Ahead Of It’s Time Cult/Masterpiece (depending whose side you’re on) Magical Mystery Tour. A world full of walruses and eggmen. A land full of Fools on the Hill who might have all the answers to life or might be talking nonsense - we're not quite sure. A world where anything can happen. But also a world where if you're unlucky the bus of your life might take a wrong turning down Blue Jay Way. And even if you stay on the bus you might end up having nightmares about spaghetti or end up stuck behind a rowing nephew and his Aunt Jessie. 'Magical Mystery Tour' is a peculiarly English phenomenon that might take some explaining to our outside readers, with several influences that critics either miss or don't 'get' (today's culture sees public transport and package holidays as a sort of joke - like Butlins is in Ringo's film 'That'll Be The Day', but was still a key part of life for many in the 1960s). The idea, dating back to at least the 19th century, is this: you buy a ticket (probably cheaper than a normal holiday) from a holiday sales rep (who looks awfully like John Lennon in the film - must be a distant relative!) but don't know where you're going to end up. That frisson of excitement over where you might be going, with a crowd of strangers confined to a coach for an unknown length of time trying to work out the clues. The whole point isn't about the end destination (you're probably just going to Bognor again like you did last year) but in the frisson of not quite knowing what to expect - of putting your fate in the hands of the Gods and of being directed where to go having made no concrete plans whatsoever. 

On paper this is a great idea for a psychedelic TV special, which is open-ended enough to go anywhere and everywhere and include absolutely anything. The idea naturally appealed to creator McCartney's instincts to just 'go nowhere' as awakened by his new love interest Linda Eastman (their early courting days were spent driving round the English countryside in a car, having made no plans, just for the joy of experiencing something new with someone you loved by your side). A keen home movie maker himself, McCartney wanted to bring The Beatles' fans on a journey they would never forget in an intimate way, puzzling people by lurching from one thing to the next like a flower power pinball machine. The other main influence on the project is the more stationary pursuits of music hall ('Your Mother Should Know' could easily have been written in Victorian times) with the bus made up of recognisably youthful people of The Beatles' generation (mainly friends and business colleagues) but also Nat Jackley and Ivan Cutler (both big names to the generation before The Beatles' own but largely forgotten by 1967, at least until the latter's sudden revival status in the 1990s shortly before his death). Believe it or not music hall was big in the psychedelic era, thanks partly to Ray Davies' attempts to bring back the spirit (and bad suits) of comedian Max Wall and partly because of LSD's propensity to make composers look at their past and write about their childhood anew (music hall, a big feature of the immediate post-war years when John, Paul, George and Ringo were young, died out because of television and rock and roll bands like The Beatles taking over all the theatres and cinemas where they usually played - in retrospect 'Magical Mystery Tour' looks like some form of penance for this fact). That's exactly the look and lifestyle The Bonzo Dog Doodah Band are meant to be spoofing in their song 'DeathCab For Cutie' by the way - they didn't always play like that (they'd have been arrested for one thing! Oh and that's why 'I Am The Walrus', a bunch of childhood memories, stirred into a pot and looked at afresh from adulthood makes so much 'sense' here, given that it's Lennon's deeply unusual, tortured childhood that created it) One of the great themes of the music hall was that you didn't know what was coming next: laughter, jokes, tears, magic tricks, strip-tease artists (well, possibly, if you'd read your ticket wrong): acts were always later and/or arguing about the billing so itineraries  were always being changed and even the stage managers often didn't know what was going to happen. That frisson of excitement and build-up was lost when first radio and then television stuck to a religiously adhered timetable: the main reasoning behind 'Magical Mystery Tour' seems to have been to bring that back. Filmed with only the barest of work sheets and loosest of running order, up until the final editing day 'MM Tour' could have been about anything, restricted by nothing but The Beatles' big imaginations.

What's more, the whole 'moral' of 'Magical Mystery Tour' seems to have got lost in 'translation'. To me the ending ('Your Mother Should Know', where The Beatles dress up in sits and walk down steps) isn't right for the end of this film. This is a project where, hijacked by a bunch of magicians who want to show the MM Tour crew something 'new', they ultimately discover the world again themselves, seeing once more how beautiful and open-ended it is. The discovery, really, is that like most mystery tours the destination isn't the point: the end result is nearly always the same anyway with a choice of perhaps half a dozen destinations limited depending how far away in the country from it you were. The real 'magic' takes place through both the anticipation of not knowing where you're going, the thrill of being able to put your responsibility in the hands of someone else for a change and of the communal spirit with fellow passenger strangers (briefly acknowledged in the special by the mount of music hall songs being sung). The special should have ended with something being different when the passengers got off the coach, not just the Beatles in suits saluting their mothers: as 'I Am The Walrus' a few minutes before showed, coming to terms with the fact that your parents/authority figures are merely as human and flawed as you are is a major part of growing up. 

So that's the 'why', but it doesn't really explain the feeling of 'what the???' that most people felt while watching this special as a family on Boxing Day 1967. 'Magical Mystery Tour' is often seen as the band's first flop (the second and last being 'Let It Be' - not bad going for a career that included five films, 13 albums and countless singles). As the de-functo follow-up to the all-conquering but not-quite-all-that ‘Sgt Peppers’ it was inevitably going to get hit as being formless and silly (even some reviewers at the time didn’t take to Peppers until the revisionism of the 1970s), even without being formless and silly. As discussed many times elsewhere on this site all that was great about psychedelia in 1966 and early 1967 somehow dissolved as rapidly as an LSD-spiked sugarcube in a cup of tea by the time we reached the late summer. What had been an underground movement, celebrated by the hipsters and the people in the know had rapidly become a part of mass culture, parodied by comedians and passably tolerated by the elder generations once they got what the youth movement of the day were trying to do (always the kiss of death for any movement, that). Encouraged by the healthy respect and sales for works that were slightly weird and out-there way too many musicians of the day who should have known better fell into the trap of making their works even bigger, even looser and even sillier. As ever, the Beatles rose and fell far harder than any of their counterparts and the tie-in TV special shown at the tail end of 1967 shows a complete disregard for the viewing audience at home (even though that disregard helps make the odd scene, such as ‘Walrus’ the mini-success stories that they are because nobody, absolutely nobody, else could have gotten away with this on prime-time national television). 

However, poor as certain sections of the TV special is, it isn't: seen in the right company, in the right mood when there's been a long enough gap between showings 'Magical Mystery Tour' is a pot pourri of delights, some of weird, some of them hallucinogenic, some of them downright ordinary (and a little dull - there's only so much Ringo shouting one TV special can hold). Watched as a family, whose generation seemed to be being laughed at for much of the film (poor Jessie Robins nobly copes with many laughs at her dignity and her singing, although it's her relationship with Ivor Cutler as Buster Bloodvessel to an orchestral 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' that many world censors cut out for being 'insensitive') for whome most of these slapdash ideas were alien and with youngsters suddenly having to 'defend' something they only half understood themselves, 'Magical Mystery Tour' was always going to come a cropper. Especially in black and white as it was first shown (the 'feedback' ratings for the colour repeat were actually very successful). Shown late at night, perhaps the day after Boxing Day 'Magical Mystery Tour' would surely have been more of a success: it's a 'cult' to be watched by the few who 'get' what The Beatles were trying to do (and have the patience to sit through the moments when it doesn't quite work), not a mainstream project. 

The album, while not always tarred with the same brush, has always come off worst in the bunch of second-half-of-the-career albums made by The Beatles. For a start it's not really an album (not in Europe anyway - but a double EP: worn out by 'Sgt Peppers' in June there's no way The Beatles would have had a full 12-14 track album ready in time for Christmas and even the six songs on it are a very varied bunch of songs, ranging from the sublime ('Fool On The Hill' 'I Am The Walrus') to the ridiculous (everything else). Because of the surreal, bite-size nature of the project only the title track has anything relating to the 'plot' (in as much as there was one), although both 'Fool On The Hill' and 'Walrus' are strikingly visual, perfect for placing in a film where weird sights are the key over depth and subtlety.  However these songs work outside the confines of the special too: only the instrumental 'Flying' really loses anything by not being surrounded by those hazy, crazy images (actually outtakes 'borrowed' from Stanley Kubrick's film 'Dr Strangelove' and turned backwards and upside down and coloured green). 

If 'Sgt Peppers' showed the four Beatles starting to go their separate ways then 'MM Tour' pushes them further away from each other. Once again Paul is in charge and delivers three contrasting songs that either gee-up the band with urgency that never quite materialises and dissipates in a fog of good will and hope for the best (the title track and 'Your Mother Should Know') and 'Fool On The Hill', one of McCartney's greatest songs that says everything and nothing and does so very beautifully. Paul seems to spend the entire project with one foot in the earthbound reality and one in the sky, like he did on 'Peppers' but more so with the gaps between the two becoming wider. Lennon only gets one song, the barnstorming 'I Am The Walrus', itself a further fork in the road from 'Lucy In The Sky' and the carnival of 'Mr Kite' but in a much more 'real' sounding and dangerous psychedelic frenzy. George, meanwhile, sounds even more lost in a lost world than on 'Within You Without You', literally and metaphorically waiting for something to happened as he waits for Mal Evans to make his way through the fog to his rented apartment in Los Angeles and cheer him up. The sitars and Eastern element may have gone (George wrote this on an organ left in his rented room without even a guitar to hand) but this is basically the same song: Western society has got it all wrong. The fact that this song crops up on a project about a coach where people actually buy tickets for money just shows how out-of-touch he's been growing with The Beatles' sound. Ringo, for the second time on a Beatles project (the first was 'A Hard Day's Night') gets nothing to do except drum. Oh and take part in the first ever 'properly' released Beatle instrumental 'Flying', credited to the whole group which somehow manages to balance the ideas of all four (the melody and cheeriness is all Paul's, the strangeness all John's, the sense of isolation George's and the childlikeness Ringo's). 

That's the first six tracks taken care of then - but where did all the others come from? Well, before anybody writes in pointing this out we’re deliberately sticking to the American not the British version of this LP like we usually do, it’s about the only thing the Capitol division of the Beatles franchise ever got right in its first four years and we’re not about to take its glory away from it now! Furthermore, it's the way that anyone whose owned a copy of this album since the 1980s knows it best, replicated on every CD of the album ever made anywhere in the world. With the second side consisting of every Beatles single A and B side of 1967 (the reason there aren't six tracks is that 'Walrus' doubled as the B-side of 'Hello Goodbye'), this gives quite a different flavour to the album as a whole. To take the songs in the order they were released they trace quite an arc: 'Strawberry Fields Forever' and 'Penny Lane' were recorded in late 1966 for 'Sgt Peppers' but chosen for single release by George Martin when EMI needed a single in a hurry. Long heralded as the pinnacle of The Beatles' career, in truth they're a step down from 'Revolver' and have dated far more, with an even more out-of-it sound on two songs about John and Paul's childhoods respectively. Next comes mid-Summer with the celebratory 'All You Need Is Love' (the perfect single for the summer of love), backed by 'Baby You're A Rich Man', a rare Lennon-McCartney hybrid that both condemns and celebrates, with the 'beautiful people' of McCartney's verse dispelled by the shouter holler of Lennon's latest in a series of misers (who keep his money in a zoo - what a thing to do!) We then reach later 1967 and the single released mere days before 'Magical Mystery Tour': 'Hello, Goodbye'. Another very visual music hall style number that would have fitted in well with the film and was in fact number one the week 'MMTour' aired (why isn't it there? That would have been good publicity the week after Christmas when the shops were open again, surely?), it takes the remit of 'All You Need Is Love' that it's so simple everyone can understand it without offering as strong a message. Considering that these songs were never intended to go together by anyone except a record company executive at Capitol they actually hold up rather well: all are happy-go-lucky songs with a sting in the tail there somewhere and celebrate the sunny skies of high hippie-dom without ducking the clouds already appearing on the horizon. 

Weirdly enough there is a theme that runs through both halves and it's one we've already touched on: childhood. Most people only tend to know about coaches from the days when they were taken to school for starters (I don't know why - busses beat cars any day), while the brightly drawn colours on the bus throughout the film and of the Beatles in their animal costumes for 'Walrus' (John is actually the Walrus by the way, whatever fun Lennon has in the booklet that came with the album, with Paul a pig, George a rabbit and Ringo a parrot) looks like a cartoon (The Banana Splits, for instance, which ran from September 1968 and was probably in production when this special was on and is cross between 'MM Tour' and The Monkees' even more surreal film 'Head'). 'Flying' even sounds like the theme tune to a late 1960s kids romp (with the opening titles to match if it was something educational about travelling and/or colours). The fact that the coach passengers are effectively 'releasing' themselves from their adult roles (except for Buster Bloodvessel, who does the opposite and is released from his 'madness' to briefly believe he is in charge and is the courier - not the first time this had happened apparently as 'last year he thought he was the driver') is key to this project - certainly no one except Derek Ryle's courier acts as if he's in charge and even he's in charge in a 'mad uncle' sort of a way: really everyone else is children (which might also be why such prominence is given to 'Little Nicola', the one genuine child on the whole bus and treated to poems from John and George; you'd expect there to be more really). 'Your Mother Should Know' is that song all children's shows seem to have somewhere if they run long enough, trying to instil responsibility and respect into an authority figure while making them loving at the same time (if the music gig ever failed Paul would have a great career writing mother's day greetings cards!) 'I Am The Walrus' is childhood in all it's gritty, monochrome glory. Inspired by Lennon getting in contact with an old school friend and talking about childhood rhymes and his re-discovering an old childhood drawing of 'The Walrus and Carpenter' as written by Lennon favourite Lewis Carroll (one of the few things Aunt Mimi kept) and the knowledge that the teachers who once declared he was 'hopeless' and would 'amount to nothing' were now fighting each other to speak to the world's media inspired this tirade from Lennon. Coming so soon after 'Your Mother Should Know' it really shows how far John and Paul had grown apart: this is Lennon thumbing his nose at every authority figure who ever put him down, declaring (effectively) that he now knew the answer to the question that had haunted him since childhood (If my ideas are so different to everyone else's, does that make me an idiot as everyone thinks or am I really a genius?) This is neatly followed on side two by the childlike 'Hello Goodbye' (a simple song of contrasts - the sort of thing The Tweenies so every week), Lennon's surreal childhood haunt  of 'Strawberry Fields' (a Salvation Army home for orphaned children he passed on his way from his aunt's house to see his mum) and Paul's equally surreal jaunt through his old local Liverpool street 'Penny Lane' (where in a typically hazy memory of childhood it rains and shines all at the same time!) Even 'All You Need Is Love' sounds like a childhood rhyme (it's often sung today in class assemblies, along with 'Nowhere Man' which is rather nice) and B-side 'Baby You're A Rich Man', while more 'adult', features a brief soiree to a zoo. As you do. People often misunderstand 'Magical Mystery Tour' not because  its overtly psychedelic or of its time (not compared to 'Peppers' anyway) or because of the TV special (which doesn't help) but because they approach this project like an adult. LSD did many things to many writers but one thing that crops up time and time again is composers returning back to their childhood anew with the fresh insights of being an adult, from Syd Barrett to Brian Wilson to John and Paul (it may be that as LSD makes everything 'fresh' again it returns authors to thinking about the 'first time' they experienced things). While 'The White Album' continues this theme in all its sprawling uncensored massiveness where everything is something to be experienced, however banal, its 'Magical Mystery Tour' that is the true childlike Beatles album. 

Either way, the chaotic madcap journey that is ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ sits in a very funny place in the Beatles’ chronology. ‘Mystery Tour’ has got the reputation of being a bit of a slim work in the Beatles’ canon – not least because originally it lasted only six tracks and was the shortest in the band's catalogue (even less than the soundtrack side of 'Yellow Submarine'). And unlike most reputations on this site that’s probably true – a gorgeous McCartney ballad and an exhilarating Lennon epic can’t make up for the other four pieces of filler about coaches, flying, Blue Jay Ways and being a good boy and writing home to your mother. The second side – comprised of three A sides and two B sides that span the whole of the Beatles’ single output in 1967 – is generally regarded as far superior but one neglected B-side ('Baby You're A Rich Man') aside that’s not entirely true either. Without touring or Brian Epstein to hold the group together and give them 'focus' McCartney has tried to take charge but in a way that everyone can join in. The problem is, no one else wants to join in but neither can they think of anything better to do so they go along with the idea, giving more space to Paul to drop the ball and overstretch himself and reducing John and George to mere cameos (and Ringo to his drums). Not until the 'successful' first half of the White Album do The Beatles truly recover the thrill of recording for the sake of recording (and then it's generally the songs that are played live that work best). By anybody's standards 'MM Tour' would be a patchy project. Add that in with a TV special that doesn't quite work and was made for the wrong audience and you can see why this EP/album gets as many funny looks from casual fans as it does. While I can't revive the reputation of this record and say it's a classic I can tell you that when The Beatles got things right they got them more right than virtually anyone else. Both 'The Fool On The Hill' and 'I Am The Walrus' are key Beatle songs which deserve a high place in anyone's estimation and in truth, in the right mood and separated from their parent project, the rest aren't that far behind. If nothing else 'Magical Mystery Tour' is a real 'journey, one that changes your perception of the band and - if you want to hear it on that level - yourself, a 'trip' in all the senses of that word. 

Unfortunately there’s rather more filler material here than usual for a Beatles album. Take 'Magical Mystery Tour' itself, the epitome of filler material – written by Paul for a vague TV special he had in his head and recorded late in the Sgt Pepper’s sessions, the other Beatles tried their best to make their colleague forget about the song or at best re-do it as a B-side. Instead what we get in all its splendour is a second attempt at Peppers without the originality that went into coming up with the idea in the first place. The track starts with some pizzazz with some blaring horns, McCartney’s best carnival barking vocals and some treated Beatles harmonies that sound suitably otherworldly and strange. But that’s all we get – the song runs out of ideas so badly that it just repeats the whole cycle again albeit with added sound effects and repeating anything – a common practice amongst most musicians – is usually anathema to the Beatles who had inspiration coming out of their ears. The idea of the typical coach holiday taking on mysterious properties and genuinely going somewhere new and strange is actually a pretty good idea (and the closest analogy to ‘having a trip’ the Beatles could get away with on national television) and is a typically Beatlesy mix of the mundane and the mysterious. In actual fact I prefer this idea to that of Peppers – instead of some mysterious band that may or may not be the Beatles playing for us we too can join in with the ride and follow the Beatles wherever they go. But the journey really isn’t that interesting and even the Beatles sound bored (they really, really should have re-recorded this song instead of leaving it as it is – Lennon’s vocal sounds as if he’s truly fed up during this session and waiting for the lunch break, as he probably was after several months straight in the studio). The best part of the song is the ending where the magical mystery tour first ‘coming to take you away’ and then even more alarmingly ‘dying to take you away’, complete with a slow-motion repeat of the song’s refrain adds a touch of spooky magic and intrigue as to what this journey might be about (it’s almost as threatening as the thought of going on a real mystery coach journey – a perfect analogy, by the way, not just because of the ‘trip’ element but because of the danger element and lack of control – you have no responsibility for your ‘good time’ and can sit back and enjoy the fun, but equally you have no control over your destination and your vehicle breaking down. As this strangely eerie ending tells us, you just might not ever get back again once you coach by magical mystery tours). 

Standing out amongst the pack is Paul’s wistful ‘Fool On The Hill’, a song that I rate higher than any of McCartney’s contributions to the whole Beatles canon. The lyrics of Eleanor Rigby meet the tune of Hey Jude head on here, with this masterful composition topped off by one of the best arrangements on any Beatles record (Lennon may have made George Martin work harder and more inventively but it’s almost invariably McCartney who brings out the best in his sense of style and purpose – just compare this finished product with the monstrosity of the ‘World Tour’ performances of this song from the 1980s). Lyrically this is McCartney as we’ve hardly ever heard him before, sticking up for the eccentrics of the world a la Lennon but with far more sympathy and understanding than his colleague ever managed (if only this song, not ‘Hello Goodbye’ had been the Beatles’ last single of 1967 – B side ‘I Am The Walrus’ would have been the perfect match as this is basically a more focussed and more literary take on the same theme of presenting messages the world isn’t yet ready to hear). Inevitably with the Beatles of 1966-67, the lyrics are almost certainly about drugs and the sense of wonderment each of the Beatles felt to some extent as their horizons got wider. The world is presented to us afresh, as seen in the eyes of the ‘fool’, a person ignored by society but who has all the answers their ‘thousand questions’ will never see. The use of flutes is unusual – perhaps even unique – in Paul’s catalogue but they really suit this song, offering a fragile un-wordlyness to the song and the mystical pan-pipe playing angels and pixies who were the middle-ages’ equivalent of drug-taking pop messiahs. For the most part this song is serene, even blissful, with the fool standing unbowed and unchanged ‘day after day’, but the subtle and uncomfortable change to a minor key when we reach the word ‘but’ is a masterstroke, adding tension and worry to this happy song. The last verse – where even the familiar opening to the verse becomes transposed and played in the minor key, while off-key flutes pull their hardest to try to get the song to regain its balance and return to the major key – is one of the most uncomfortable in any Beatles song, with a grand tug of war between mainstream society and the fool on the margins of life each trying to get the other to see their point of view. I adore this song – it’s one of my top three Beatle songs of all time in fact – which as shallow or as deep as you want it to be and comes complete with one of the most rounded and majestic melody lines of all time. McCartney should be highly proud of this magical, mystical song.     

‘Blue Jay Way’ is not even vaguely in the same league but it’s a good enough song to add to our list of pros. A tired, sleepy lethargic song (like almost everything George Harrison was writing in 1967 but more so) it is perhaps the greatest Chronic Fatigue Syndrome theme song of them all (we made a case for Lennon’s songs of tiredness and howls of pain but George isn’t far behind either). You wouldn’t believe the amount of times I’ve cajoled my laptop/cd player/colleague ‘please don’t be long – or I will be asleep’. Take it from me, when you’re this tired this permanently and your head’s forever going in hazy crazy backward tape loops hearing this song throw the experience right back at you can be a very strange experience. Even without CFS it’s a strange landscape this one – pounding Ringo drumming that tries to give the song energy but fails, a long-held single organ note, a moody down-beat cello phrase and a circling collection of tape loops and sound effects.  The song was written by George during his brief visit to America incidentally (the famous trip where he met with the hippies of Haight Ashbury and vowed to give up drugs almost on the spot after seeing the true state of would-be drop-outs) while George was staying in press agent and friend Derek Taylor’s house in – you guessed it – a real district called Blue Jay Way (long heralded as a masterpiece in gobbledegook along the lines of ‘walrus’, it’s settling for most Beatle fans when they find out that this area is real). The song offers a real breakthrough for George – not in any thematic or melodic sense (it’s the slow, stately tones of ‘Within You Without You’ minus the sitar and the slightly grumpy, rather self-interested tone heard in ‘Taxman, ‘Think For Yourself’, et al) but in the fact that it’s composed on keyboard, not guitar. Derek, you see, owned a keyboard but not a guitar and so George – struck by inspiration while filling in time for his friend to arrive – wrote this song while a complete novice, hence the fact that its more or less based on one note. George will write many songs on piano in his late Beatle and solo days – many of his best, in fact – and they all owe a little something to this song. As an album track, this song does little more than mark time before the big songs arrive, but in the context of George’s own evolution it’s a minor breakthrough and it’s sprawling, chaotic sound is well suited to this sprawling chaotic EP.  

So far so good, but ‘Flying’ is even more basic, a chugging 12-bar blues as made by many musicians over the space of many years. I certainly prefer ‘Flying’ to some other AAA oddities I could mention (The Byrds’ ‘Captain Soul’ and The Hollies’ ‘Perfect Lady Housewife’ for two), thanks to some inventive guitar playing and a use of moog synthesiser that at last sounds like a halfway between being a sound effect and a musical instrument (too many people treat it as one or the other, robbing it of either its musicality or its relevance, but here it sounds great). The only ‘properly’ released (ie not Xmas Flexi-disc, outtake or Let It Be-era traditional knees up not originally intended for release) song credited to all four Beatles is a truly dull exercise, however, with these exciting sounds and arrangement handed over to one of the dullest plods imaginable. Like ‘Aerial Tour Instrumental’ from the film, this song is best heard as ‘soundtrack’ music – it’s better than silence during the TV special, sure, and we’re grateful the Beatles put something into its recording, but you really don’t want to hear it again in a hurry. 

‘Your Mother Should Know’ is a valiant attempt by McCartney to offer an olive branch to the elder generation who might not ‘get’ what the whole magical mystery tour trip is all about. Unfortunately, placed at the end of the film and near the end of the record, all that happens is that the elder generation are ‘turned off’ to the point of no return by the time it appears and even the fab four’s greatest counter-cultural supporters are beginning to wonder if all this is fake when both projects end with yet another generation-gap lecture. ‘Your Mother’ sounds much more like a ‘Beatles’ song than Macca’s other attempts to pull off this trick (‘When I’m 64’ and ‘Honey Pie’ both sound slightly smug and condescending – although the worst of the batch is Paul’s downright evil solo medley ‘Treat Her Gently – Lonely Old People’ off Venus and Mars) and at least has that ‘olive branch’ idea at its heart which is a better idea than laughing at the elder generation as in these other songs, however kindly intended. ‘Mother’ is also the most faithful to the old style sound (‘fruity’ sound was Lennon’s spot-on description of it) and the lyrics about ‘dancing to a song that was a hit before your mother was born’ even has a bit of an in-joke chuckle about this song sounding exactly like it would have done performed in the 19-teens (when most parents of the Beatles’ generation were born) rather than 1967 (all of the psychedelics have gone for this track). There’s a sense of urgency lacking from the other songs on this hazy laidback period too (‘let’s all get up!’), even if nothing ultimately comes of it. Alas, admirable as all this is, the lyrics are still fairly mawkish and the tune non-existent – nothing that couldn’t be rescued by a great band performance or 1960s production techniques but, given what this song is all about, Macca chooses not to give the song either.  What we get is an anomaly right at the point where Mystery Tour desperately needs another high – a pretty and often clever anomaly, perhaps, but this song was never going to be a loved standard in the way of so many Beatles tracks with so much going against it.   

Moving on swiftly now, we meet ‘I Am The Walrus’, the magnum opus to end all others which we’ve already discussed briefly in the context of Oasis’ cover version on their B-side compilation ‘Masterplan’ (see review no 99). It’s well worth discussing again, however, because despite the surface gobbledegook this is John Lennon at his literary and exploratory best. Everybody knows that Lennon stole his title and many of the song’s ideas from Lewis Carroll but what they perhaps don’t realise is the significance of the images Lennon chose. You see, The Walrus and the Carpenter is not just a nice bit of gibberish – like the song it inspired it’s actually quite a harsh and nasty discussion of the negative side of human nature, with the walrus the capitalist extraordinaire, feeding off the efforts of his underlings. Lennon admitted later that ‘I should have re-read the book because I chose the wrong part’ – but if you assume that he’s not being himself here this song makes perfect sense. (In this context his admission that ‘The Walrus Was Paul’ on ‘Glass Onion’ – often seen as a harmless inside joke – is actually quite a harsh reprisal against McCartney and his attempts to steer the group after Brian Epstein’s death). The other, less remembered Lewis Carroll reference here is ‘goo-goo-ga-joob’ which is – in Alice’s tortured journey – the last thing Humpty Dumpty says before falling off his wall. As Humpty aka The Eggman is almost always the first nursery rhyme people think of, is Lennon shrugging off growing up here, chanting his own interpretation of the eggman’s gibberish in a last desperate attempt not to get pushed into the adult world of deceit and chaos he sees all around him? Channelling everything wrong about grown-up society and voicing his angst and terror via the voice of an aware five-year-old, offering us snapshots of everything he half-remembered and half-invented about his own childhood. The sheer anger of Lennon’s vocal makes it clear that this song was personal to him in some way – such a snarl does Lennon give his voice that the microphone pops something awful throughout the song – but in saying that he’s the ‘walrus’ he’s actually taking on the part of the material West and the language of the grown-ups who want money over everything except power. The main riff on the song was inspired by and heavily mirrors a police car siren – a sound that’s both one of oppression and being spied upon and a warning sound heard from an ambulance just after disaster strikes. The lyrical allusions to policeman and pigs who ‘fly like Lucy in the sky’ might well be Lennon harping on about double standards, with the drug police of the day more than likely to be on narcotics themselves and seen as something to be feared rather than the 60s childhood view of policemen as quaint English gentlemen keeping rogues out of trouble.  Half-afraid that a more literal translation of his feelings might get him into trouble again (Lennon was more cowed by the unfortunate ‘Beatles Are Bigger Than Jesus’ debacle than you’d suppose from the outside looking in) and half inspired by memories of childhood chants and a determination to give supposed literary experts something even they couldn’t unravel, ‘I Am The Walrus’ is a tremendous outpouring of passion and hurt, some of which makes perfect sense and some of which doesn’t make sense at all. Again the arrangement here makes a great song a masterpiece, with the usually rather staid and proper Mike Sammes reduced to singing nonsense lines like ‘Oompah ompah, stick it up yer jumper’ and a radio broadcast of Hamlet – added in live from a radio feed at random – that technically shouldn’t add anything to the song and yet somehow does (the random choice of the line ‘O Untimely death!’ gives this song even more of a chill factor, with the Lennon-child of the song’s hazy first recognition of the adult world aware even this early on that he’s going to be stuck there for the rest of his life once he grows up). Best of all is the string arrangement. I take back what I said above about Paul inspiring George Martin’s best arrangements – this is probably his best arrangement, sitting outside the song and joining in at random moments, scaring us at all the right times just as in all the best horror films. The other Beatles are on form too (especially Ringo – more proof of how ‘real’ they felt this song to be given that he’s always at his best on Lennon’s ‘autobiographical’ songs) but it’s Lennon’s vocal, full of 27 years’ worth of scathing hatred, bitter betrayal and a chilling anger, that hits you hardest. This is an incredible song, with a central and rather simple melody completely undermined by the sheer daring of everything that’s going on around it. Another Beatles masterpiece, much copied but never bettered.  

Onto the second side and that song’s A-side is up next (fans often assume that ‘Walrus’ was a double A-side with ‘Hello, Goodbye’ but that’s not technically true; the single was released on November 24th 1967 for those keeping score - just three days before the 'MM Tour' EPs!) ‘Hello, Goodbye’ is one of those songs that grows on you – in fact, had you told me 10 years ago I’d have been adding this to my list of cons I’d’ve died of laughing (come to think of it, had you told me 10 years ago that I’d be making my own website I’d’ve died of laughing). You see, ‘Goodbye’ is everything the Beatles usually aren’t (or not past 1963 anyway) – it’s simple to the point of baseness and it relies on an energetic and lively performance to work far more than most other Beatle tracks of the period which are usually about depth and hidden meanings. The fact that the Beatles released this and the similarly basic ‘All You Need Is Love’ as the follow-ups to the slightly too adventurous ‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘Penny Lane’ ought to seem like a huge let down. But ‘Goodbye’ has aged better than any of these songs, full of lots of daring twists and turns and a central image that – though stupidly simple – can be taken as being quite profound too. It’s hard not to see this song as McCartney’s riposte about Lennon’s grumblings about his supposedly business-minded ways in the post-Epstein days of 1967 and as something of an urgent wake-up call to his lethargic partner (pre-Yoko Ono, Lennon was definitely down-in-the-dumps come 1967 and bored to the point of creativity extinction). ‘I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello’ Paul sings almost angrily, ostensibly about a love relationship that deserves another chance but almost certainly about the state of the Beatles in late 1967 too. Even the music he chooses for the song sounds grumpy almost as much as it does happy ('Hello! Hello!' he barks, as if trying to be heard). Interestingly the bouncy coda – the part of the song that really catches the ear  - was a) there from the beginning (despite sounding like a typically Beatlesy improvised-on-the-spot chant) and b) an almost naughty parody of Lennon’s supposed gibberish on the B-side (albeit sung in an upbeat, happy way as typical of McCartney’s style as Lennon’s was to his). We all know that this is a song of opposites – but it could be that it’s a song about two opposite Beatles?  Some say yes, some say no and I tell you – I don’t know.  Actually, I'll throw on a third Beatle: often struck by the duality of his life ('I'm a Pisces Fish and the river runs through my soul') George could easily have written the words to 'Hello Goodbye' - it's unusual to hear McCartney so isolated and out on his own without trying to find the middle ground (as he does most notably on 'We Can Work It Out'). 

Caring on the album's 'American' second side now, which at the time was thought to contain some of the Beatles’ best known and best-loved works. But is it just me or are many of them now showing their age and frailties whilst many of the Beatles’ other best known pieces still sound inspired and timeless? ‘Strawberry Fields Forever (first released as a single with 'Penny Lane' on February 13th 1967) is a case in point: long regarded as being one of the greatest of all Lennon songs, it’s once-innovative hesitancy and forgetfulness has since been done to death and its pioneering use of an edit between recordings sounds fairly ordinary. Lennon himself hated the final recording of this one, expressing a wish to re-record it during his 1980 comeback (if he’d have done it in the style of ‘Milk and Honey’ rather than ‘Double Snoring Fantasy’ it could have been great!) But even as a composition ‘Fields’ is pretty hopeless – an attempt to find an ‘everyman’ childhood hideaway we can all relate to is lost amongst a sea of references relevant only to Lennon’s life and the narrator’s lethargic stupor whilst trying to work out what’s really going on in the life outside the Salvation Army gates should be a lot more exciting than it is. The track was written whilst Lennon was busy filming the Dick Lester film ‘How I Won The War’ and was the first real break Lennon had had from the other Beatles in 7 or so years. Therefore it’s only natural he should look back at his memories of a time before the Beatles cataclysm came along (similarly freed of his responsibilities temporarily, Macca does the same with ‘Penny Lane’). But the subject’s too overwhelming still for Lennon, with his childhood far from the happy and carefree home that Paul’s was (even with the death of his mother from cancer when Macca was 14) and this call to arms for the narrator to bring us ‘down’ with him is all too depressing. Perhaps if Lennon had continued his other train of thought in the song – that childhood play and imagination equals the loss of inhibitions and the new ways of seeing the world felt on acid trips – the song might have fared better, but what we end up with is a noisy, troubled soul writing a noisy, troubled song with no clear resolution and far too much doubt about what’s going on for the listener to get a look in, without the groundbreaking heart-breaking honesty of the Lennon/Plastic Ono Band record. Only George Martin’s horns truly catch the ear and even they suppress the song with far too much weight – arguably the narrator is already drowning in a sea of self-pity and the claustrophobic effects of the song only make things worse.

‘Penny Lane’ offers that Lennon-McCartney contrast we were talking about above, but whilst ‘Strawberry Fields’ rambles where it should pounce, McCartney’s childhood memory is vacuous and lacking heart. Now, I like a lot of Paul’s ‘story-songs’ – much more so than the average Beatlenut having read so many comments down the years – but whereas Lennon was too personal, Paul’s song is too vague and artificial. Despite being a real place (and one I’ve walked down to boot!) this song could be describing any town on any day – but unlike, say, The Hollies’ ‘Look Through Any Window’ we’re not being encouraged to look at an old place with a new pair of eyes, we’re just encouraged to nod knowingly when the Beatles come up with a scene we half-recognise. Just as Lennon is self-pitying and too ‘heavy’ for credulity, so McCartney is too light. Even the risqué Liverpudlianism ‘fish and finger pies’ (wait till you’re 18 and I’ll tell you what it means!) sounds conservative in the context of this song – it should be bold and daring in panoramic sound; instead it’s just twee. No wonder this is the only single in the ‘main body’ of Beatles work that never made #1 (discounting debut ‘Love Me Do’ and after-the-event singles ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Come Together/Something’) – one side is way too ambitious for the average music fan in 1967, the other plays it way too safe. Full marks for the trumpet solo, though, which – in typical Beatles style – should have been impossible to play when notated as part of the score yet came off sounding great!

Our last classic or semi-classic song from the album/EPs is ‘Baby, You’re A Rich Man’, B-side to ‘All You Need Is Love’ and it’s superior in almost every way. The differences between Lennon and McCartney all but dissolve on this song which is meant to be the last occasion – apart from the very last-gasp ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ – on which the pair of composers worked on a song 50/50. Like the vast majority of the post-1964 songs, this composition is one unfinished Lennon song stuck to an unfinished one of McCartneys, but unlike most of the Abbey Road Medley and ‘A Day In The Life’, which largely play up the differences between the two writers, the join is seamless (I think the ‘Beautiful People’ verses are McCartneys and the shouted chorus Lennon’s – certainly they sound that way given the former’s penchant for rounded melodies and the latter’s penchant for developing melodies around his words). A forgotten gem in the Beatles’ back catalogue, this song turns the whole Lennon-McCartney persona on its head (that’s Lennon’s delightful falsetto on the most part of the song and McCartney’s wild, barely-controlled throbbing guitar part) and delights in giving us the unexpected. For once the song confronts the listener head on (‘How does it feel to be...?’) in a way we haven’t heard since ‘From Me To You’, the use of the mellotron and psychedelic effects are used in a much more typical straightforward early 60s manner (take them away and this song would be pure Merseybeat) and we get a full Beatles chorus for the first time in quite a while. The lyrics to this one are truly strange   - one minute we’re discussing the ‘beautiful people’ (the slang term for the American hippies who turned on, dropped out and all but disappeared come 1968), the next we’re picking on a hate figure for being a ‘rich man...too’ (Is this Lennon’s guilt at his Apple escapades?) We then get the most basic and mundane of any Beatles rhyme (‘you keep all your money in a big brown bag...inside a zoo!’) but somehow that doesn’t matter, it only adds to the not-trying-too-hard coolness of the song. A simple track at its heart that seems to just love upsetting the ‘apple cart’ and catching the listener out along the way, this is a last gasp of genius from a partnership that had all but run its course by this point in time.      

We finish with ‘All You Need Is Love’ (first released as a single on Ringo's 27th birthday, July 7th 1967) which by contrast is much better – it does, after all, sum up the ethos of 1967 without straying a note away from its message and features a quite exhilarating band performance to boot. It’s also a neat update of ‘(Money) Can’t Buy Me Love’ with the Beatles placing eastern spiritual values way over the western ways they and their audience have always been taught. But there’s such a thing as being too simple and with every year that goes by this song sounds just too simplistic, slightly too ridiculous and way too tied in with it’s era to resonate quite so clearly in the 21st century. Witness the fact that RockBand have demoted it to a ‘download-only slot’ – just 10 years ago there’d have been a pandemic had it not been included in the main game because it was one of only a handful of songs that ever non-fan could sing. ‘Love’ is the perfect setting for the ‘One World’ satellite broadcast (the first time ever that people watching television could see programmes from around the world in the same night – even now this only happens if you watch a really good new channel and there aren’t many of those around), offering a message of hope and optimism that could be easily translated around the world. Heard as a single – and here as an album track – it’s less special, falling into the 1967 Beatle trap of being too repetitive and unfinished. Again, the part of the track that catches your ear most is the ending, with George Martin’s orchestrations finally cutting through the Beatle backing and offering snatches of several popular songs (McCartney snortingly retaliates by adding an out-of-tune version of ‘She Loves You’ to the track, as if to stake the Beatles’ claim for posterity or perhaps to show how far the band have moved on in the past 4 years while the rest of the world have been largely standing still). In its place ‘All You Need Is Love’ is an important and necessary song in the Beatles’ canon but I doubt that too many people born after 1967 would quote it as a favourite.         

A mixed bag, then, Magical Mystery Tour is like all those other coach trips – they promise you much, deliver you to a couple of places you really want to go but all too soon you end up in Bognor for an hour with no way of getting home until the whims of the protagonists whisk you off again. Like the TV special it accompanies, ‘Tour’ is a failed experiment albeit one with many high points and is a curious mix of being safe and ordinary and exciting and overwhelming. The end of the Beatles’ career could have gone either way up to the time of the Maharishi and later The White Album and already, even before 1967 is through, the Beatles aren’t sure whether ploughing further down the road of psychedelia or playing things safe in a back-to-basics way is the way to go. But even travelling at half-speed, even with going down every cul-de-sac they can find in the road, the journey is well worth making just for those occasional great stops you make on the way.

Back to those re-masters again (note - originally the whole of this review was sandwiched inside a review of the band's mono/stereo box sets - you can read more under the set reviews later in this book). It’s a measure of the Beatles’ worth and stability that even a supposedly ‘minor’ project as this one still contains so many well known and well loved songs (we’ve said it before and we’ll say it again; The Beatles aren’t quite the world’s greatest band that ever lived– that’s CSNY in case you didn’t know – but they are, surely, the world’s most consistently great band). There are oodles more half-forgotten-but-not-really moments like these lurking on the lesser known Beatles albums and they really do sound better than they ever have before. And we need something like this in our troubled times, at least in Britain where things have been getting particularly grim the last few months. No, I don’t necessarily mean the Credit Crunch (© BBC News/Daily Mail who, I swear, seem to think that there’s never ever been such a thing before in the existence of the human race) but the implications of it; Gordon Brown has messed things up so royally even he doesn’t know which way is up any more and the Queen’s second cousin David Cameron (no joking – it’s true!) is lurking in the wings like an anti-Robin Hood, ready to steal from the poor to give to the rich and create social, geographical and even spiritual divisions within the country not seen since the days of Thatcher (Pink Floyd’s ‘Us And Them’ is surely about the late 70s, even if it came out in 1973 – if any band had access to a time machine it’s the Floyd). (other note - boy, we got that bit of fortune telling right didn't we?!) In short, we need escapism and a band that don’t take themselves at all seriously – yet we also need one who understand how deeply we suffer, how many problems we fight against and one that helps us keep our grip on sanity throughout all the chaos. Just like 1963 all over again in fact – we need the Beatles desperately. And even 40 years after their last ‘true’ album, there’s no other group that can fulfil that role better.     

A now complete list of Beatles links available at this website:
'Rubber Soul' (1965)

'Revolver' (1966)
'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band' (1967)

'Magical Mystery Tour' (1967)

'The Beatles' aka 'The White Album' (1968)
'Yellow Submarine' (1969)
The Best Unreleased Beatles Recordings

A Complete AAA Guide To The Beatles Cartoons
The Beatles: Surviving TV Appearances
A 'Bite' Of Beatles Label 'Apple'
The Beatles: Non-Album Songs Part One: 1958-63
 The Beatles: Non-Album Songs Part Two: 1964-67
The Beatles: Non-Album Songs Part Three: 1968-96
The Beatles: Compilations/Live Albums/Rarities Sets Part One: 1962-74
The Beatles: Compilations/Live Albums/Rarities Sets Part Two: 1976-2013
Beatles Bonuses: The Songs John and Paul Gave Away To The World/To Ringo!

Essay: The Ways In Which The Beatles Changed The World For The Better
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

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