Although Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band may have had fans and critics describing it as “their greatest album”, Magical Mystery Tour isn’t far behind, in this critic’s estimation. Released in the U.K. as a rather irksome double EP, the Americans had the good sense to issue it as a single album, with extra tracks. And while the movie of the same name was something of a dud – having been almost universally panned – the soundtrack itself is an absolute triumph, and contains many of the Beatles finest moments.
The psychedelic vaudeville of the title track makes for the perfect opener – poppy, catchy, and utterly addictive in every way. Paul McCartney’s elegant “The Fool on the Hill” and the trippy music-hall-inspired “Your Mother Should Know” may not be some of the Beatles best or most widely known tunes, but important all the same.
George Harrison contributes two songs, the fascinating instrumental “Flying”, and the obviously L.S.D. soaked “Blue Jay Way”. Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus” is a technicoloured slice of pure surrealism, full of Lewis Carroll gibberish and childhood recollections, like a looking glass into Lennon’s twisted sense of reality, and a heavily distorted one at that (“pornographic priestess”).
The Beatles were fast becoming far more adventurous and ambitious when it came to composition and studio techniques, thanks predominately to engineer wizard George Martin, whose contribution to the band’s sound and evolution was as innovative as it was essential.
“Hello Goodbye” is a deceptively upbeat song only McCartney could have written, and while Paul’s “Penny Lane” is a nostalgic ode to the joys of innocent boyhood, “Strawberry Fields Forever” is Lennon’s own trip (literally) down memory lane. Hearing it is like wandering through the subconscious of someone else’s mind and arguably one of the hardest songs in the Beatles canon to describe. Perhaps the first example of rock and roll as psychotherapy ever recorded, or little more than a piece of whimsical nonsense? The listener’s guess is as good as mine.
Far less successful is “Baby You’re a Rich Man”, which drones along in semi-oriental fashion, like a poor man’s “And Your Bird Can Sing”. The anthemic “All You Need Is Love” was Lennon’s not so cynical soundtrack to that year’s ‘Summer of Love’, and was even broadcast around the world as part of a BBC1 TV special, one of the first of its kind. Out of all the multitudes of hippies living in Haight Ashbury, it took a young man from Liverpool, England to write what could be described as the greatest theme to world peace ever written (even if there were a few more to come). The actual genius is in its simplicity, like a nursery rhyme on rotation.
Magical Mystery Tour certainly deserves reappraisal, and now that the album has been painstakingly remastered, one can hear things that the listener wasn’t able to before, especially through headphones. That the tapes have survived in such pristine condition is remarkable to be sure.
Whether it be Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, Edward Lear, or even Enid Blyton, one cannot deny that the English have a penchant for interpreting reality through the lens of seemingly absurd storytelling. And I for one am grateful that they do.