Originally written December 2012, revised April 2016.
Magical Mystery Tour was John Lennon’s favorite Beatles album, “because it was so weird.” Produced during the heady days of liberation following Sgt. Pepper, when The Beatles were on top of the world (creatively, financially and psychedelically), they continued to expand and experiment with unusual instruments, sound effects and lyrical possibilities.
This is a review of the initial American release, not the British EP. The American release features songs from the television film on Side 1 and their 1967 hit singles on Side 2 (although “I Am the Walrus” qualified as a hit single, it was in the movie, so it wound up on Side One). Essentially, the singles more than compensate for the miserable “Blue Jay Way,” the rather pedestrian “Flying,” and Paul’s “Your Mother Should Know,” or “The Son of When I’m Sixty Four.”
Side One is anything but a total loss, however. The title track is a dazzling piece of showmanship, delivered with spark, enthusiasm and The Beatles’ full vocal palette. The brief drop in tempo preceding the last verse was a brilliant move and the transition to the regular rhythm reaffirms Ringo’s status as the one who held it all together with a dead-eye focus on keeping that beat intact.
“The Fool on the Hill” is a lovely melody that takes flight in the register to support the lofty imagery in the lyrics. The shift to minor key for the chorus was a brilliant twist, as it emphasizes the loneliness of the spiritual quest. The lyrics are weak in spots, but Paul makes up for it with a lead vocal that is both energetic and empathetic.
Any band could have produced “Flying,” a lazy three-and-a-half chord (if you count the seventh) instrumental augmented by weird sounds. “Crashing bore” pretty much sums it up. It’s followed by the weirdest song on the album, “Blue Jay Way,” a funereal disaster about a trivial everyday occurrence: the guests are late. Why that topic deserves such an ornate musical background is a mystery indeed. George’s vocal is seriously off-key, Ringo’s drums approach a level of irritation beyond tolerance and the background vocals are simply horrid. I think “Only a Northern Song” might have worked better here . . . shit, anything would have worked better here, with the possible exception of a guest appearance by Donovan.
McCartney’s been-there-done-that-so-I’ll-do-it-again contribution is “Your Mother Should Know.” You can only do nostalgia once, if at all. “When I’m Sixty-Four” was well-orchestrated. This one’s “okay.” “Honey Pie” on the White Album is a wince-inducing embarrassment. Fortunately, it’s the last weak contribution on the record as we now move into three great singles the Beatles released in the year of The Summer of Love. Each of these songs deserves full commentary.
“I Am the Walrus” is a song that never, ever bores me, for I always hear new things whenever I listen to it. What really makes this song go is a combination of John’s perfect what-the-hell vocal and the surrealistic lyrics that are somehow comprehensible on an intuitive level, despite the fact that John intended them to be deliberately confusing. What I hear is a mind dump, the self-talk we spontaneously generate through the course of a crappy day as we mutter scarcely audible profanities and commentary about the idiots who surround us:
Sitting on a cornflake
Waiting for the van to come
Corporation T-shirt, stupid bloody Tuesday
Man you’ve been a naughty boy
You let your face grow long
Fundamentally, the song is a great rock-and-roll piece once you strip it of its sound effects, as done on the Anthology and in the live versions performed by Oasis. Without that fundamental foundation, the sound effects would ring hollow; with that foundation, the effects add depth and meaning and excite the curiosity.
I never appreciated “Hello Goodbye” until I saw McCartney open with it on the “Back in the U. S. A.” tour. Simple lyrics, simple structure, simple melody, but the damn song just works! It makes you feel good in the same way “Good Day Sunshine” makes you feel good, but with a little more oomph. The Beatles’ harmonies sound playful and spontaneous here, although we know they were anything but. When you can make the difficult sound incredibly easy, you know you’re a professional.
I have to pause a bit before I write about “Strawberry Fields Forever,” because it is my favorite song of all-time, a universe of music in just a little over four minutes. Everyone knows about George Martin’s famous edit that combined two disparate halves, a tremendous achievement indeed. But there’s so much more: Ringo’s drumming is superbly haunting; the opening phrase on the mellotron expresses infinite sadness; the strange harmony on the final “let me take you down” emphasizing the feeling of descent; the exquisite orchestration throughout. John’s vocal is an absolute triumph; the shift between detachment, false confidence and vulnerability in his voice is, to borrow a phrase from the time, mind-blowing. And the words! The final verse is a sublime expression of human insecurity and shaky identity in a cold and confusing world:
Always—no, sometimes—think it’s me
But, you know, I know when it’s a dream
I think I know—I mean, ah, yes, but it’s all wrong
That is, I think I disagree.
And to think that the flip side of “Strawberry Fields Forever” was “Penny Lane” is another mind-blower. What a fucking single! And two great music videos to boot! If you want to know how far The Beatles advanced in just a few short years, just go to one of those look-up-the-chord sites and compare the chord structure of “Penny Lane” to that of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” This is another McCartney gem that flows so naturally as it takes you through the typical day in the neighborhood, expressing the silliness and the sadness that colors everyday life.
“Baby You’re a Rich Man” was likely buried in the emotional love-your-brother tide initiated by its A-side partner but it’s a fun song full of weird but appropriate sounds and Ringo pounding the drums with the joy of a child. It’s what this babe likes to call a “hoot.”
At this point, “All You Need Is Love” should be anti-climactic, but even with all those tough acts to follow, it delivers the goods. The verses do cross the line into nonsense lyrics from time to time, but perhaps the verses are full of nonsense that doesn’t matter because what really matters is love . . . and that’s all you need. While as an anthem for world peace and universal brother-sister-trans-hood the message is completely naïve, I hear the line “all you need as love” more as a balancing factor in a world full of bad news.
“All You Need Is Love” is the perfect ending to this weird and wonderful album, the creative peak of a band who touched the hearts and minds of millions all over the world. Much to the sorrow of nonpartisan admirers of the band, it’s pretty much downhill from Magical Mystery Tour, as the Beatles make a spiritual journey to India, divide into warring factions and enter a lengthy period of willful self-destruction.