Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Art of the Album: The Beatles – Magical Mystery Tour

Magical-Mystery-Tour What You Need to Know: In 1967, The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein died of an accidental sleeping pill overdose, leaving the band to manage its own affairs. Magical Mystery Tour (the film) is the first thing the newly-rudderless group produced afterward, and it was their first major critical flop. This isn’t one of those things that gets bad reviews at the time and improves with age, either – Magical Mystery Tour is a bizarre film, watchable only if you’re jonesing for some “what in the hell is going on here” moments. Luckily, the album can be enjoyed independently of the film.

Magical Mystery Tour (the album) is another film soundtrack album, and it follows the same format as The Beatles’ other soundtracks – the first half features songs from the movie, and the second half is a group of songs included to stretch it to album length.

Fun fact: Up until Sgt. Pepper, Capitol Records typically configured the American Beatles albums to be vastly different from the British releases. In Britain, the Magical Mystery Tour album was released as an EP containing only the songs from the movie, while the U.S. tacked on the other five songs to make it a full LP. In the late 80s when The Beatles catalogue was being standardized and released on CD for the first time, Magical Mystery Tour is the only U.S. Beatles album chosen over the British version.

The Songs You’ve Heard: The second half of this album is packed with singles that most people are familiar with. “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” together made up the band’s first post-Revolver single, pointing the way forward to Sgt. Pepper and beyond. “Hello Goodbye,” with its bouncy beat and call-and-response lyrics, is another solid Beatles single, and of all the 1960s hippie anthems “All You Need Is Love” is probably the only one that has aged well.

The other song on this album you probably know is John’s indecipherable “I Am the Walrus,” which takes the purposefully nonsense lyric of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” to a new level. “Walrus” is another example of a Beatles song that just wouldn’t be without producer George Martin’s input – listen to the song without the distinctive string overdubs and tell me it would have attained the same level of notoriety without them.

The Songs You Haven’t: Many of the songs from the movie may be unfamiliar to you, since this is easily the Beatles movie with the least exposure. “Magical Mystery Tour” itself is a decent song with some nice harmonies and a time change near the end, similar to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in that it is the theme song of this particular concept.

I think the most intelligent thing I have to say about most of these songs is that I don’t have anything to say about them – Paul’s “The Fool On the Hill” and “Your Mother Should Know” are mildly entertaining ditties that sound like Pepper leftovers, and George’s “Blue Jay Way” can safely be ignored. “Flying” is interesting, if only because The Beatles so rarely did instrumentals, but it’s hardly what I would call required listening.

The sole gem among these relative obscurities is “Baby You’re a Rich Man,” originally the B-side of the “All You Need Is Love” single. It’s got an good bassline and there is some cool stuff going on aurally – the strange synth sound was apparently made with a clavioline, which neither I nor my spellchecker seem to know anything about.

Why I Like It: Magical Mystery Tour takes the loopy experimentalism of Sgt. Pepper and amps it up a bit, while shedding some of the aspirations and pretensions of that particular album.

All things considered, it’s sort of a throwaway Beatles album, the first non-essential thing in their catalogue since their early days. Even so, “I Am the Walrus” is a jewel in the band’s crown, and the singles gathered here represent some of the best tracks of their experimental period.

Desert Island Tracks:I Am the Walrus,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Baby You’re a Rich Man