Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Beatles - Magical Mystery Tour (album and film)

This album has some of my absolute favorite Beatles songs on it, and most of the rest are still pretty strong.  To give you an idea, all but two of the tracks here I have stored on my phone to listen to whenever I'd like. Of  course this is also technically a soundtrack album, but I always felt more like the movie was made to suit the songs rather than the other way around.  You'll see what I mean when I talk about the film.

  1. "Magical Mystery Tour" - While certainly meant to be an intro into the film, I think the song still stands on its own.  I love the quality of the "roll up!" and how it sounds like the tape is warped and perhaps going to break at any moment.  It's also nice to hear a song where Paul, John and George all have individual singing parts on top of the harmonies (even though Paul obviously dominates the track).  It shows how they were developing their own distinct voices and I like moments like this where they all worked together.
  2. "Fool on the Hill" - And of course, after I've said that, we now get Paul working alone.  That's not entirely true, as the other Beatles do play on the track, but this is most definitely his.  I enjoy the simplicity of the penny whistle in there, but it is a rather sleepy song so it's not one of my favorites.
  3. "Flying" - A completely instrumental song, almost seemingly there to remind us that this is a soundtrack album.  It's not bad, but there's not much to it.  As you might have guessed, this is one I don't keep with me.
  4. "Blue Jay Way" - While this one certainly still has Indian influence to it, it's a lot different than George's recent offerings.  It's slow and sleepy but the quality fits the song perfectly, and the inclusion of the cello means this is a song I really, really like. 
  5. "Your Mother Should Know" - A fun, old timey sounding song.  The lyrics are pretty repetitive but it mostly suits the bouncy nature of the melody.  This kind of bouncy stuff is really what Paul is best at.
  6. "I Am the Walrus" - I love this song so much.  It's so wonderfully absurd.  It doesn't make a lick of sense and I wouldn't have it any other way.  I remember when I was young, getting Beatle books from the library, trying to find some clue to what was going on here.  Instead I found John explaining that he wrote most of these lines while on acid.  Of course he did.  It's the kind of lovely nonsense that Lewis Carroll and T.S. Elliot would appreciate.  It's also interesting from a technical perspective, with the distorted vocals and the way they literally turned on a radio and twisted the dial until they found something.  My only criticism would be that the "Everybody's got one"/"Oompah oopmah stick it up your jumper" sequence goes on a bit too long.  But it's a pretty minor complaint.  Obviously, one of my favorite Beatles songs.
  7. "Hello Goodbye" - And we move on to something completely different but just as wonderful.  It's a throwback to their early pop days while also displaying the musical maturity they've gained since then.  Paul's wonderful bass melody, a touch of George's slide guitar, and those wonderful contradicting backing vocals. I said it before in my anthology review, but the video for this one is just too cute.  I love the way they switch from the Pepper outfits to the collarless suits, the tiny and then oversized drums, and especially that ending dance sequence of them just being completely and utterly silly.  It's so very them and so very wonderful.
  8. "Strawberry Fields Forever" - And on to another song I love, but in a completely different way.  There was a time when I would dismiss this as John leaning on more nonsense, but the deeper I looked at it the more these vocals spoke to me.  When I have those days that I feel so utterly alone and that no one is ever going to understand me, I put this on and suddenly I'm not so alone.  It's a little bitter toward the human race,  but that's pretty much what that feeling of isolation is all about, isn't it?  Beyond the lyrics it's musically both unique and beautiful, with so many things going on that it's hard to list them all.  It gives the track a dreamlike quality that I love.
  9. "Penny Lane" - I don't think you can make it any clearer that Paul and John were starting to build a  bit of a rivalry here, where we've got two tracks in a row that mention areas they visited in their childhood.  It's a very different kind of song, naturally being a bit more light and playful than John's song.  I think what I found so surprising was when I found just how cheeky it is.  "He likes to keep his fire engine clean" and "Four of fish and finger pies."  It's an interesting thing to do for what sounds like such an innocent song otherwise.  Musically it's just all around very beautiful and a great song to listen to.
  10. "Baby You're a Rich Man" - This is the other song I leave off.  It's even more repetitive than "Your Mother Should Know" and there's just not a whole lot to it.  It's not awful, it's just not something I ever feel much of an urge to listen to.
  11. "All You Need is Love" - Admittedly, this one is also repetitive, but I think the message shines through strong enough to make it okay.  While it should be just as outdated as "The Word" was, I still like it, even if I think the idea is a bit naive.  Love won't fix all the world's problems, but a little kindness never hurt either.  I can understand how some people may find it a little too saccharine, but I enjoy it.  Especially the way Paul starts singing "Loved you, yeah, yeah yeah..." at the end.
While it's not my favorite era of the Beatles, it's definitely one of my favorite albums of theirs, just full of so much strong material.

After being in two well made studio based films, the Beatles decided to try their own thing with Magical Mystery Tour.  There were no scripts written, and only the basic of plots planned out.  As such, this film is entirely experimental art film and not much else.  There are still song performances that are like music videos, but the rest is primarily like strange dream sequences.  If you prefer structure and logic to your movies, you're going to be immensely disappointed.

I managed to tape this movie off VH1 in the 90s.  It was released on DVD in 1997 but is now out of print. 

Richard Starkey and his Aunt Jessie are joining a ragtag group of individuals on a bus tour.  That's Ringo using his real name and actress Jessie Robins, not actually related to him in anyway.  John, Paul and George are also on the bus, though they don't necessarily seem to all know each other. The four of them and Mal Evans also portray some wizards in the sky watching over the bus that are sort of responsible for all of the crazy things that happen to them.

Beyond the fantastic music sequences, there are some fun scenes.  The scene of John with the little girl is very cute, and Ringo's comfortableness in front of the camera just shows, even if the dialogue is sincerely lacking.  Victor Spinetti is very funny as the army sergeant, even if they let the scene go on a bit too long.  My favorite is probably the scene of John shoveling spaghetti onto Aunt Jessie's plate.  His deranged look just makes it hysterical.

Of the music sequences, I really love “I Am the Walrus,” which manages to be just as zany and insane as the song itself, but I also really enjoy “Blue Jay Way.” The projection is a simple effect, but they put it to good use.  Also, how can you not love that ginormous sunflower John is wearing? (I've linked both of these videos above with the songs if you'd like to see them.)

For a movie that was originally shown on television, it's a little surprising to see a strip tease included, but then I guess British standards are different from American.  That scene also begs the question, what were the women doing while the men watched that?  By the way, the song being played during this scene is “Death Cab for Cutie,” and yes, that's where they got their name from.

During “Your Mother Should Know,” Paul is wearing a black carnation while the other Beatles sport red.  This has been used as a “Paul is dead” clue, and Paul's official defense is that they ran out of red flowers so he took a black.  I'm sorry, but that just doesn't make any sense.  I can accept him walking out of step on the cover of Abbey Road since he's left handed, but are you really going to tell me they only had three flowers of a very common color?  Which is not to say that I think Paul is actually dead, I'm just saying there's got to be a better reason there.

I realize this review is pretty disjointed but given the nature of the film, I don't really have a choice.  It's a complete mess.  My love of the Beatles allows me to enjoy it, but even then it's the kind of thing I probably would only watch once every five years or so.


  1. +JMJ+

    This was another album I had as a child (a Christmas present!), so I automatically feel positive about it. =)

    Perhaps the most negative thing I could say about it is that it doesn't sound like a step up from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. A step to the side, maybe, while the band figured out the next direction to take? The first track provides a frame for the rest of the album in the same way that the Sgt. Pepper track does for the Sgt. Pepper album . . . but Fool on the Hill is a curious choice of second track. Or maybe just curious in comparison to With a Little Help from My Friends? I need to remember that these are two different albums, each with its own concept! Moreover, as you've pointed out, this one is a soundtrack. But while we're on that issue, doesn't Sgt. Pepper seem like the one with all the stories and visual sequences?

    1. Sgt Pepper is more focused on a song by song basis, though most of those songs don't really have anything to do with each other. Beyond the lead in to "With a Little Help from My Friends" and the reprise none of the other songs on that album feel to me like they're being played by Sgt Pepper's band rather than just the Beatles.

      Which is not to say that I feel like this album is any more cohesive, and the film is most definitely not. But you're right in that the two albums are fairly close to each other in style.


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