Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour (1967)



The first major Beatles project initiated entirely without the involvement of their late manager Brian Epstein, and the first seen at the time as a complete misstep by critics and the few fans that witnessed it (though time has been relatively kind to it, less because of its actual quality than because it is Beatles product) was the TV special-cum-midnight movie Magical Mystery Tour, an aimless sixty-minute avant garde road film of sorts "written" and "directed" by the Beatles themselves. It's unimaginably odd, and in a more labored fashion than something more professionally constructed and similarly anarchic like the Monkees' feature Head, or for that matter the Beatles' own manic comedy Help!, because Richard Lester and Bob Rafelson were actual filmmakers and the Beatles were not. Handicapped further by its initial broadcast in black and white when its psychedelic textures are intensely reliant on color, the film was immediately decried by the British press and only saw the light of day in America in the following decade when it enjoyed an El Topo-like second life as a stoner cult fixture. Like most films that earn such a distinction, it's bemusing for a time and is certainly something hardcore Beatles fans should see, but in the end it really isn't very good at all, and the band probably deserved some blowback for it.

The music that accompanied MMT was another matter; while far from their most inspired material, the six new songs were generally an enjoyable sort of Sgt. Pepper burlesque or companion. Apart from one modestly brilliant contribution each from John and Paul, it's coasting Beatles, but still solidly good and entertaining Beatles, and the songs found their ideal release in the UK as an exclusive double EP, their second proper EP of original material after the exquisite Long Tall Sally three years earlier. In 1967 and today, the EP release is the ideal way to hear this material, but over in America, where Capitol and United Artists had made a habit of filling out Beatles soundtracks with instrumental scoring of little interest to teenage fans, consumer advocacy abruptly became the order of the day. Capitol ended up piling all of the new soundtrack songs on Side One of a "new" LP and neatly rounding out the rest with everything else the Beatles had released in the calendar year of 1967, meaning the three singles that were neither on Sgt. Pepper nor part of the Magical Mystery Tour TV project. (This amounted to five songs because the b-side of "Hello Goodbye" was MMT's "I Am the Walrus.") In the years that followed, the resulting package became popular enough as an import in the UK that it eventually became the definitive, "canonical" release of these songs in the standardized Beatles catalog... but it's revisionist history to regard it as an actual studio album, situated between Pepper and the White Album.

Yet according to Apple Records, revisionist history wins the day; the Beatles' own label now views this release as part of the "core catalog," which is unfortunate because as an album it's a woefully inadequate experience that does no favors to the better material it contains, and comes off as a grab bag; much like the rest of the U.S.-only Beatles albums like Beatles VI and Hey Jude, its primary function now is nostalgia for listeners who are either old enough to have grown up with these configurations or grew up cheap enough (a la yours truly) to be stuck with yard sale LPs rather than compact discs. In order to conform with the Beatles' own specifically ordained status quo and for the ease of cataloging their main releases, I'm listing this as a studio album, but it should be noted that -- in 1967, in Great Britain -- it was originally no such thing by either planning or happenstance. And the crudeness is obvious when you compare the album's sequencing, construction and logic to any of the LPs the Beatles and George Martin actually crafted (solely excluding Yellow Submarine).

All that said, as I write this and for the past thirty-odd years, the Magical Mystery Tour album is the way most listeners come to know this music, so it's the most logical place to tackle the songs therein. Four of the six cuts from the film would be middle-tier Beatles filler in any other context, but collectively they do function well as a kind of sardonic rebuke to the psychedelic period, and George Martin as usual uses them as a springboard for some engagingly neat tricks and genuine experimentation. Written by the entire band, the elevator music instrumental "Flying" is the most significant, and successful, of the record's disorienting mood pieces, designed for a discolored travelogue montage in the film and cresting along with choral melodies and unusual organ sounds before closing with a mellotron drone likely too oppressive for the easy-listening set.

Moodier yet, and also scarier, is George's repetitive, hypnotic "Blue Jay Way," a pure-atmosphere song that's actually about something as mundane as friends getting misdirected while trying to find the house, but treated with actively terrifying effects on the backing vocals, disruptive phasing on the drums and the "Flying" organ converted to a funeral setting. Harrison also sings it exceptionally well, gradually locating a pleading and despair in his voice that would seldom find vent until much later in his solo career. The song has none of the philosophical heft of "Within You, Without You" or even "Taxman" and it doesn't give much evidence that Harrison took the Magical Mystery Tour project all that seriously, but it's a damn sight better than "Only a Northern Song," and few Beatles recordings are creepier... though one of its strongest competitors is trailing just two cuts behind. Buried under its spectacular procession of effects and chaotic embellishments, Lennon's "I Am the Walrus" is something like a passage from In His Own Write set to a hard rock backing, a brilliantly playful succession of surrealist images that serves as a semi-sequel to "Strawberry Fields Forever" in its wildly ambitious production as well as its harking back to its composer's childhood (via his fixation on the works of Lewis Carroll) while also providing some of the first evidence of John's gradual emergence out of his two-year funk, and a return to writing meaningful material for the Beatles. It's the best of the film songs, nearly by default, and one of the Beatles' most challenging and multifaceted recordings. And it too, whispers and buried vocals and deathly chanting and all, is magnificently eerie.

Eerie, too, is Paul's remarkably dark character sketch "The Fool on the Hill," a song too smart and uncharacteristic to have gotten itself buried in such an obscure spot in the Beatles' discography. Away from the comfortable scholarship of "Eleanor Rigby" or the self-deprecation of Lennon's similar outcast in "Nowhere Man," McCartney casts a pall over this stark, mysterious portrait of an inexplicable menace with an unforgiving circular melody. The hero, or villain, of this song has no great power beyond his ability to unnerve by his mere solitary presence, and Paul skillfully weaves a narrative of a weakness that the Fool exposes like the silent Holy Man in Black Narcissus: "they can tell what he wants to do." The lyric does stumble toward the end by making its imagery unnecessarily concrete: "they don't like him," or worse yet, "he knows that they're the fools." Nevertheless, its unresolved darkness, and Paul's obvious belief in the song's depth and beauty, give it a spiritual essence and enigma that make it stand out far beyond anything else here save the very different but equally provocative "Walrus."

Apart from "The Fool on the Hill," Paul's contributions aren't quite up to his efforts on the last two albums, even though he almost single-handedly initiated the TV project, but his strange newfound vindictiveness can chill you a bit, especially as he seems to be openly rejecting the personage he'd just embraced on Pepper with songs like "Lovely Rita" and "When I'm Sixty-Four." Such pleasantness is temporarily behind us; "Fool," of course, is not a friendly song despite its oblique, almost stubborn loveliness. And while a very superficial glance at "Your Mother Should Know" or "Magical Mystery Tour" may remind someone of Paul's typical pro-granny BBC gregariousness, both are in fact among his most steely-eyed, nasty little compositions, carrying forward perhaps from the more pointed humor of "Paperback Writer"; had he spent a bit more time fleshing them out they could conjure up the upended kiddie sarcasm of Roald Dahl or Shel Silverstein. "Your Mother Should Know" is, in the end, a bit lazy and bored-sounding (though the corresponding sequence in the film, with the Beatles doing a very stilted MGM-style cabaret dance number, is amusing) though it's arranged with aplomb and is ruthlessly catchy. You need only read the lyric as prose to get the idea of how completely over itself and hipper-than-thou it means to be, and somehow despite the context the title continues to sound like an insult: "Let's all get up and dance to a song that was a hit before your mother was born, though she was born a long long time ago. Your mother should know." We're a long way from the pleasing, even moving textures of "When I'm Sixty-Four," which despite being a verbose joke really got at something about the passage of time; a song like "Your Mother Should Know" isn't reaching for that, or for perhaps anything beyond the audience's recognition that the Beatles are in on the "joke." There's no sense of discovery or fun because discovery and fun are, in essence, being mocked.

The title cut seems instantly disposable by design, molded by Paul's bombastic lampooning and a suggestion of menace -- "coming to take you away" -- that locates the dark side of the "we'd like to take you home with us" declaration on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Indeed, this song is thematically a rewrite of that one, albeit considerably less cuddly; one thing that runs through the entire Magical Mystery Tour project is a pointed absence of the Beatles' usual warmth, as if they're bent on becoming ruthless satirists of their own boredom. The work doesn't seem drug-addled at all, like Revolver sometimes did, and the frequently snotty tone would end up serving them well on their next major project. In music and film both, it's frequently hard to understand what tone the Beatles are actually driving at, which is unsettling; a full-on glimpse in their collective psyches seems to suggest that they are not really figures for us to trust with our hearts and minds at this point. This emotional aloofness has its place but it certainly undercuts the content of the second half of the record, which despite all dating from slightly earlier in the same year comes off as virtually incompatible.

Capitol opens Side Two with what was then the newest Beatles hit and all but inarguably the worst single they ever released, "Hello Goodbye." You wonder how it existed on the other side of a 45 with "I Am the Walrus" without causing some sort of a combustion. This is a song even less carefully thought-out than "Your Mother Should Know," although the band and Martin play and produce the living shit out of it, enough for it to practically strong-arm its way to the top of the charts. McCartney seems to have composed the song explicitly just to get the Beatles back on the radio (Sgt. Pepper had no singles and "All You Need Is Love" was already getting long in the tooth) and it is indeed the most nakedly dull kind of empty flexing of pop hook-muscles, matched by an egregiously stupid lyric worse than anything on the band's early puppy-love singles like "She Loves You." But even if it wasn't, producing "She Loves You" as if it were a track from Sgt. Pepper wouldn't have worked, would in fact have removed every ounce of energy from the record; and at least the relationship in "She Loves You" was more complex than an aimless argument over a greeting. As it stands, this is kid's stuff, and awful kid's stuff at that, hollow and soulless (a shameless promo film had the Beatles, with no apparent irony, performing the song in their Sgt. Pepper outfits while hula dancers paraded around behind them). It's essentially a prediction of some of McCartney's worst post-Beatles singles, the kind of material he pushed when he just wanted to demonstrate he could get something catchy and insipid on the radio with a wave of his hand. (The similarly infuriating "All Together Now" was consigned to throwaway status, but they probably could've made that one a hit too.)

In its fashion, "Hello Goodbye" is calculated enough to call the sneering tone of much of Magical Mystery Tour into question, but it has nothing on what Capitol programs next. "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" absolutely don't belong here. They are both sides of quite possibly the greatest 7" rock single ever pressed. It feels like a strange indignity to review them as a part of this album, where they are surrounded on one side by a frivolous embarrassment and on the other by an innocuous b-side. But this is the official "home" now for these songs, which rightfully should be heard as a stopgap between Revolver and Pepper while also being a cut above nearly everything on either album. The single marks the specific moment in the Beatles' catalog when their restless experimentation, George Martin's bottomless skills, and their genius as composers of rock & roll came together to create something of a distinct and undeniable piece. John Lennon's "Strawberry Fields Forever" is confusing, ponderous, rambling, surreal, and insanely beautiful. Paul McCartney's "Penny Lane" is simply a work of irresistible, sophisticated pop genius which captures childhood in glorious full color and is in its own way as personal as the flipside. The abilities of the two men are laid out perfectly here -- neither ever sang with such freedom and passion again -- with the band dynamic and their relationship with Martin firmly in place. These breathtaking songs and recordings are the essence of who the Beatles were, what they were capable of, and arguably the absolute apex of the heights they climbed. Having them share a record with songs recorded much later, when so much had happened and changed, causes two things to happen: it trivializes them, robs them of their singular entity in the same way that putting the EP songs on the first half of an album violates their essence; and it makes everything else on either side of the record, including even "I Am the Walrus," sound thin and dumb.

Capitol's Frankenstein creation under the Magical Mystery Tour title concludes with the Beatles' big Summer of Love single, the last record they released before Epstein's death, before their India adventure began, before the wheels began to come off their once infallible enterprise. We start with its amusing if inconsequential b-side "Baby You're a Rich Man," a novelty number with lyrics about a man who keeps money in "a big brown bag inside a zoo" that is both the only song on Side Two of this album that fits tonally with the songs from the MMT film and is a clear carryover from John's bewildering run of half-assed lyrics from the Revolver-Pepper era. (His moments of real focus in these years came either when he was focused on something besides being a Beatle, as with "Strawberry Fields," or when he had considerable help and enthusiasm from Paul, as with "A Day in the Life.") In mono, at least, the song is another magical dreamlike George Martin creation, for which it deserves some notice, and John's opening line at the very least is profoundly evocative (just ask Vincent Bugliosi and David Fincher): "how does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?"

Martin also deserves the lion's share of credit for making the A-side happen; "All You Need Is Love" was written by Lennon specifically for the Beatles' entry in Our World, the first global live television broadcast, in which they and their producer were tapped to represent the UK and chose to mark the occasion by recording their new single live in front of the entire world. The logistics of pulling this off were nightmarish in expanse, and the Beatles and Martin deserve credit for going all-in with it. Heard outside the context of the Our World telecast, the song seems terribly insubstantial and its awful, wacky title speaks for itself (where are all the people who complain endlessly about "imagine no possessions" for this one?), but one saving grace it has that "Hello Goodbye" doesn't is that it was intentionally written to have the simplest possible language and message for the sake of its worldwide audience... which doesn't make it any more appealing as a song or a record rather than just a bravura achievement. Hell, "Yellow Submarine" was a better novelty song; but what's worse is that a slightly younger or older Lennon could have written a song that would have been worth the whole world tuning in for. What we get in the end is one of Lennon's weakest songs, within or without the Beatles; without the ironic subtext or pot-stoked enthusiasm of "The Word," it's John in preaching philosopher mode with an empty-headed slogan at his side, and the fact that "Baby You're a Rich Man" seems to make fun of the same thing doesn't really help him make his point.

That same sort of directionless contradiction mars this package as a whole. Looking just at the hodgepodge of three A's and one b-side on the second half, the Beatles sound like too many different bands, and not in a great way, cynically coasting then later stumbling over their sincerity but also sending themselves up and then, when the curtains part for "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields," finally revealing a truth and grace that are alien even to the relatively strong EP/film songs on the other side, all of which are -- it must be said -- intentionally serving a narrative and tone that has nothing to do with any of these singles, and shouldn't be considered alongside them. But this problem of identity does seem to be something that temporarily throttled the Beatles just after Pepper; Mark Lewisohn's books document how their recording sessions in the summer of 1967 seemed to completely lose purpose and focus. The garish cover design on both EP and LP says something about how confusing it all must have felt. Are they just being weird? Are they making fun of themselves? Are they being themselves? It seems miles away from the sweet weirdness and ambitious depth of Pepper, which had given them a social status that should even now have still been fresh to them. Were they just that restless? It's as if they are out to sabotage themselves, a condition that Capitol's plundering around and tinker-toying their masters obviously irritates.

Like the film, then, Magical Mystery Tour as an EP and this grab bag of songs from the last half of 1967 -- the pre-Pepper single excluded -- come off as rather cold and forced, if still often engaging. Sonically, at least, you can still count on them; George Martin's production is a delight from start to finish, consistently surprising and entertaining. But that's the kind of thing you expect from a TV series, not a rock album, and in terms of their direct emotional connection to the listener, this is a moment when the Beatles are, to quote another icon from 1967, drifting.


[Contains some extracts from a review posted in 2003.]

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