Album Spotlight: The Beatles—Magical Mystery Tour

 

Many Beatles albums exist outside of the context of the events that were happening in real life at the time of the work’s recording. Magical Mystery Tour, the group’s ninth album, is not one of those records. In order to truly appreciate why this album is such a mixture of great and mediocre songs, background is needed.

The Beatles—specifically, Paul—got the idea for a TV special based on the magical adventures of a British coach tour (a “mystery” trip because no one who bought a ticket knew where they were going; usually Blackpool, to see the lights, sing, drink beer and come home) in April of 1967. The title track was the first song recorded, right on the heels of Sgt. Pepper. Nothing further was done until August, when Your Mother Should Know began recording; then their manager Brian Epstein died less than a week later of a drug overdose. In shock, the band agreed to go ahead and film the show. They hastily recorded preliminary mixes of the remainder of the film songs during the first week of September, then spent a week filming in the British countryside. All contributed to the script, which was more like a series of notes with no actual dialogue. Most of the directing was done by Paul. The cast consisted of the Beatles, some genuine actors and many friends and employees. Chaos predictably ensued.

The remainder of the year was mostly spent finishing the recordings, filming for another week, and then editing and re-editing the hours of footage. A lot was left on the cutting room floor, but eventually an hour-long cut was finished, which aired in the UK on Boxing Day, 1967. It was severely panned, with a few reviewers praising the music, but most noting that instead of a polished production, the result was a home movie with a couple of good song videos.

On December 8th, the Beatles released a double EP in the UK (a 45 rpm record the size of a single, but with up to four songs) of the six numbers from Magical Mystery Tour: Magical Mystery Tour/Your Mother Should Know b/w I Am The Walrus and The Fool On The Hill/Flying b/w Blue Jay Way. It sold quite well. In the US, however, Capitol wanted a complete album since the executives didn’t think a double EP would sell well. So they put the songs from the film on the first side of an album, and five more—the group’s latest single, Hello Goodbye, and the two other singles from 1967 still uncollected on an album—on the other. The resulting Magical Mystery Tour album, released November 27th, 1967, was so well received that imports began selling in the UK soon afterward. Finally, on November 19th, 1976, EMI officially released the album in the UK, bowing to public demand.

The takeaway from all this is that most of the songs on Side One, bar two, are not very good. Conversely, most of the songs on Side Two are excellent, as they were recorded during or shortly after the Sgt. Pepper sessions, when their inspiration was still fresh. It makes for a strange, lopsided record.

All recording dates are in 1967 unless otherwise indicated.

Magical Mystery Tour: Recorded April 25th-May 3rd, with an overdub of a vocal and sound effects on November 7th. All four Beatles, along with Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans, played percussion. Four outside musicians played trumpets. The result is mainly a riff, repeated ad nauseum. It’s uplifting, but ultimately dull.

The Fool On The Hill: Demo recorded by Paul September 6th; album version recorded September 25th-27th with three musicians overdubbing flute passages October 20th.1 A beautiful ballad with meaningful lyrics, easily one of the highlights of the film. Paul played the recorder solo, and John and George the harmonicas.

Flying: Recorded September 8th and September 28th; originally titled Aerial Tour Instrumental. Music for the film, with some chanted vocals. Before it was edited down, it lasted 9:36, with a jazz saxophone ending possibly sampled from a modern jazz record.2 The first tune credited to Harrison/Lennon/McCartney/Starkey, it’s a pleasant instrumental, with some weird backwards Mellotron, but nothing special. (Two other instrumentals were recorded—Shirley’s Wild Accordion at EMI, and Jessie’s Dream at the Beatles’ homes—both of which can be found on the Magical Mystery Tour BluRay/DVD current release.3)

Blue Jay Way: George’s number, recorded September 6th and 7th with cello and tambourine overdubbed October 6th. George plays Hammond organ. ADT was used to create a rather “foggy” atmosphere in keeping with the lyrics, inspired when George was waiting in L.A. for Derek Taylor to arrive at his rented house. Mixing was rather problematic, which may explain why the stereo version includes many backing vocals which the mono lacks. Unfortunately, the song drones, although it was a noble attempt by George to get back to Western music. Repeating the phrase “Don’t be long” and its variations 24 times was just a bit too much.

Your Mother Should Know: Recording began at Chappell Recording Studios August 22nd-23rd.4 A remake was attempted at EMI on September 16th, but John and Paul went back to the original recording and did overdubs on September 29th to complete it. This is basically an inferior rewrite of When I’m Sixty-Four. It’s catchy, but hardly a classic.

I Am The Walrus: Perhaps the weirdest song John released during the Beatles’ career. 5 Recorded September 5th-6th, with overdubs of the Mike Sammes Singers and violins, cellos, and clarinets on September 27th. In the process of mixing for mono on September 29th, John used a live radio feed switched from station to station. He eventually settled on the BBC’s Third Programme and its production of The Tragedy of King Lear, with Mark Dignam as Gloucester, Philip Guard as Edgar, and John Bryning as Oswald.6 Because it was a live mono mix, it could not be replicated when the stereo mix was done. The solution was to mix the song for stereo up through the feedback just after the second chorus; then, all the low frequencies were slashed from the right channel, and all the high ones from the left, to create “duophonic” stereo, aka fake stereo. At the end, as the chanting fades out, the mix returns to mono and is panned back and forth between channels.

I Am The Walrus is one of the finest moments, if not THE finest, on the album and in the film. The lyrics are surreal and bizarre. According to John’s close friend Pete Shotton, they came about as a result of a letter John had read from a schoolboy fan who told him about his teachers analyzing Beatles lyrics. “Let the fuckers work THAT out, Pete,” he said while scribbling down the words. The Walrus, of course, came from Lewis Carroll’s classic poem The Walrus and the Carpenter. In later years, Lennon said that he should’ve picked the Carpenter since the Walrus was the bad guy, but they were both bad, and the Walrus works perfectly.

Like many people, I hated the song for years (the “Yellow matter custard” lyric in particular), but over time grew to love and appreciate the very qualities which had repelled me before. An absolute stunner, and at least it ends the first side on a high point. One last point of interest: This track has seven or eight alternative mixes, with differences such as the intro being four bars vs six, the drum track missing, the stereo reversed, etc. Most noticeable of these was the Capitol mono single, where a few bars in the middle play which were later cut out of all other mixes.

Hello, Goodbye: Originally Hello, Hello. Recording from October 2nd, 19th-20th, 25th and November 2nd. Intended as a separate single, although the ending “Maori” finale did turn up at the end of the film. Ringo’s drumming is exquisite. It’s quite a catchy Paul ditty, but not very substantial. Two violas were overdubbed, but one mono mix, intended for the video to try to circumvent the BBC’s ban on miming, was made without them. Alas, it was in vain since Paul deliberately showed that he was miming.

Strawberry Fields Forever: Like A Day In The Life, there is so much to say about this song. Named after Strawberry Field, a Liverpudlian Salvation Army orphanage, where John used to attend summer fetes as a child. Recording began November 24th, 1966, in what would become the Sgt. Pepper sessions; this song was meant for the album but ended up as a single. Take one, recorded the first night, was beautiful and gorgeous and stayed in the vaults until 1996 as John wasn’t happy with it. November 28th and 29th yielded a version which was marked “best”, but John still wasn’t satisfied. A few days later, he asked George Martin if they could try again; and on December 8th, a new recording was begun in Martin’s absence (the “producer” was technical engineer Dave Harries, but in actuality the group was producing themselves at this point). More overdubbing, including George on a swordmandel (akin to a table harp), was done the next day. On December 15th, four trumpets and three cellos, scored by Martin, were overdubbed. John overdubbed a vocal, and another piano track was added December 21st. Still John wasn’t satisfied.

Then John got an idea. He asked Martin why they couldn’t use the first part of take 7 (the early “best”) and the second part of take 26 (the remake). Martin pointed out that the versions were in different keys and tempos. “Well, you can fix it!” John said, and walked off.

Fortunately for the world, Martin could. He and Geoff Emerick, with some experimentation, realized that by speeding up take 7 slightly and slowing down take 26, the two fell into the same key and tempo.7 Thus a classic was born. Lyrically and musically, it’s brilliant, and one of John’s favorites. It’s a deeply personal rumination on both his childhood and the disconnect he was feeling at the time.

Penny Lane: Recording began December 29th, 1966, with Paul insisting on a very “clean” sound, like the Beach Boys records he’d been listening to of late. Penny Lane is a suburban road in Liverpool, complete with a roundabout and barber’s shop. Lines like “every head he’s had the pleasure to know” and “four of fish and finger pies” are sexual in nature. The nurse “selling poppies from a tray” is doing so for Armistice Day; this is still a big deal in the UK. Overdubs were done in the new year from January 4th-12th, complete with four flutes, two trumpets, two piccolos and a flugelhorn on the 9th and two more trumpets, two oboes, two cor anglais and a double-bass on the 12th. But it was on January 17th that the final touch was added, with David Mason of the New Philharmonia contributing a B-flat piccolo trumpet for the solo and flourishes. So eager was the US for the latest Beatles single that remix 11, done that night, was rushed off for American DJs; however, the song was remixed on January 25th for the official single release, leaving a rare mix with an additional trumpet flourish for collectors. Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever is probably the greatest single the band ever released, so naturally it never hit Number One in the UK, being held back by Englebert Humperdinck’s Release Me.

Baby, You’re A Rich Man: Intended for the Yellow Submarine film, and while it was used there, it wasn’t released on the soundtrack since it was yanked for the B-side of the following single. Recording took place May 11th on this John Lennon tune at Olympic Sound Studios; John played the clavoline, that weird piping noise, as well as piano. Other musicians of note on the recording include Eddie Kramer, better known as Jimi Hendrix’s producer (he contributed vibraphone), and possibly Mick Jagger singing background vocals. He was definitely at the session.

All You Need Is Love: Written for the Our World live TV broadcast, as Great Britain’s contribution.8 While the impression given by the broadcast is that the entire thing was recorded live on that day, in reality the rhythm track was recorded on June 14th at Olympic Sound Studios. Additional recording was done on the 19th, the 23rd (the orchestra) and the 24th. The decision to issue the song as their next single was only made June 24th. The event itself, on June 25th, featured the Beatles playing along to the previously recorded tape and singing live. Mick Jagger, Keith Richard, Keith Moon, Eric Clapton, Pattie Harrison, Jane Asher, Mike McCartney and Graham Nash, as well as others, were also present singing background vocals. (In fact, if you look carefully, you can see that Moon is beside Ringo and playing a drum with brushes! They just couldn’t get a kit away from him!) The orchestra was also present, with thirteen members playing bits from La Marseillaise (the beginning), Greensleeves, Bach’s Brandenburg concerto and Glenn Miller’s arrangement of In The Mood. This last was scored by Martin in the belief that it was out of copyright, but Miller’s arrangement was not, and EMI threatened to take the cost of the resulting lawsuit out of Martin’s salary. Fortunately for Martin, they had second thoughts. John ended by breaking into She Loves You during the song’s fading chorus. The result was mixed the next day with a couple of additional overdubs and released as a single (with Baby You’re A Rich Man) on July 7th. The resulting anthem may have resulted in the Summer of Love gaining its title; certainly, it was all over the place that summer. It’s a stirring song, with intriguing lyrics which can be read as positive or negative. At any rate, the overall impression is upbeat and catchy, and it’s outlived the hippy vibe it had back then.

The CD was released in 1987, and remastered and rereleased on September 9, 2009. The mono mix is available on vinyl or in The Beatles in Mono box, and it has some noticeable differences from the stereo; however, in this case, I prefer the stereo. Fun fact: Penny Lane, Baby You’re A Rich Man and All You Need Is Love were originally in duophonic “fake” stereo on the original album release. They weren’t mixed for stereo until September 30, 1971, October 22, 1971, and October 29, 1968, respectively.

Magical Mystery Tour, in sum, is a mixed bag; but there are plenty of gems to be found amidst the dross. Certainly, like Sgt. Pepper, it caught the spirit of the psychedelic era far better than many of its contemporaries did.