Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Beatles - Magical Mystery Tour (1967)

Magical Mystery Tour, the Beatles' television movie that aired in the United Kingdom on the BBC on December 26, 1967, was judged to be such a colossal failure by a British public expecting a masterpiece, that a broadcast deal in the United States was immediately canceled.  By the time it was finally shown on American national television - in 2012 - it had been already been screened in art-house movie theaters, shown on late-night local television, and been issued on home video in the U.S., and in all that time, Americans expecting a disaster found themselves watching an offbeat psychedelic home movie that, while not very good, was nowhere nearly as bad as the Brits thought it was back in the sixties.  So Magical Mystery Tour holds up better on this side of the Atlantic.  
The same is true of Magical Mystery Tour, the record.  In Britain, Parlophone Records issued the six songs featured in the movie as a double-extended-play set in December 1967, with a picture book containing a storyboard and stills from the film.  In the States, where EPs of any sort were not popular (even Beatles EPs had tanked on the American charts), Capitol Records chose to place all of the songs on side one of an LP and fill side two with the group's five other 1967 song releases outside of Sgt. Pepper; the resulting album was issued in late November 1967, a couple of weeks before the British double EP.  Capitol's repackaging, which in the past had shortchanged American Beatlemaniacs, turned out to be a good idea this time; not only did it conveniently put eleven songs scattered across five seven-inch records in the U.K. (with one duplication) on one long-play record, and not only was the picture book mind-blowingly enlarged, it resulted in a collection that was much stronger than the double EP British fans found under their Christmas trees.
To be blunt, only two of the Magical Mystery Tour songs are masterpieces: Paul McCartney's "The Fool On the Hill," a wistful, lightly orchestrated ballad about a man scorned as a fool but is actually wiser than those who scorn him, and John Lennon's "I Am the Walrus," a Hieronymus Bosch-like soundscape of droning chamber music, haunting rock, and morbid wordplay that ends with Oswald's death scene from Shakespeare's King Lear - all set to the melody of a police siren. (Organized chaos, as producer George Martin explained it.)  But the rest is filler.  The title track, which has some hackneyed brass flourishes and fades out with a meandering piano, is an effective introduction for the movie, but it doesn't really qualify as a song.  "Flying" is a charming instrumental but too insubstantial to justify the composer credit for all four Beatles (they played together better than they wrote together).  Some good ideas appear through the dross like weeds through concrete.  George Harrison's "Blue Jay Way" interestingly incorporates Western strings with South Asian melodies, even as its lyrics are a step back from the deep philosophical bent of "Within You Without You;" Paul's "Your Mother Should Know" is redeemed only by the inventive blending of piano and organ lines, which can be satisfying as long as you don't contemplate lyrics that portend his laziest solo work. 
It's the supporting single tracks, for the most part, that make Magical Mystery Tour essential; John's dazzling, dreamlike "Strawberry Fields Forever" and his tremendous, affirmative "All You Need Is Love" are two of the most humanistic songs he ever wrote, while Paul offers his stately, nostalgic "Penny Lane" and the playful pop of "Hello Goodbye," its juxtaposition of antonyms a sampling of his obsession with the struggle of opposites (a theme he would explore on his Tug of War album, already reviewed here).  Even the seemingly throwaway "Baby You're a Rich Man," a laugh at Swinging London hipness, has more wit and imagination than the weaker songs from the Magical Mystery Tour movie.  The Magical Mystery Tour LP also puts these disparate songs into proper context; as they were all recorded in the Beatles' psychedelic phase, they all sound like they belong together, while previous Beatles repackages issued in the States, using material Capitol left off its editions of British albums, were far more diffuse.     
That said, it was still obvious that the Beatles' creativity had mostly stalled.  The singles collected on the American LP had mostly been issued in both countries earlier in 1967; the new Magical Mystery Tour songs that came out at the end of the year mostly suggested a decline in quality by comparison.  American Beatlemaniacs had already gotten most of the singles before acquiring the Magical Mystery Tour LP ("Hello Goodbye" and the album were released together) and, thus, didn't even consider it to be a real album (which it wasn't, of course).  Also, the stereo edition only had duophonic masters for three of the five single cuts.  But for subsequent generations who don't have to buy the singles first, the organized chaos and even the disorganized chaos of the eleven-song LP (which was first issued in Britain in 1976) holds up well.  It captures a heady, random period of the Beatles' career in which anything went, whether it worked or not, producing music that can be interesting and sometimes great.  Fittingly, Magical Mystery Tour is the only American title in the globally standardized British studio-album catalog (and the CD version is in full stereo all the way); after all the bad U.S. Beatles repackages that preceded this release, let's commend Capitol for getting it right with this one.  
(Notes: The top photo is the cover of the American Magical Mystery Tour LP; the bottom photo is the cover of the British Magical Mystery Tour EP.  The Magical Mystery Tour movie was aired on American national television - PBS - two years ago as of this posting, December 14, 2012.  My Sunday album reviews return in 2015.

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