Sunday, August 5, 2012

Quite a Magical Time

One of the most interesting sections of Beatles history for me is the mid-to-late 1967 period, following the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The band's manager, Brian Epstein, had died on August 27th. The glue that held the Fab Four together wasn't there anymore. What could the band give listeners after the release of Pepper? The Beatles were slowly straying from the two-album-a-year routine, which began in 1966 with Revolver. Since EMI needed an album for the Christmas market, their best bet was a greatest hits compilation. So what could the four give listeners for the holidays of 1967?

It was none other than Magical Mystery Tour...

The film is certainly an oddity on its own, if the soundtrack itself isn't. The Beatles basically went on a mystery tour (cheap weekend getaways in the UK, where you would be taken to a mystery location) and filmed one big home video. Perhaps this was a way of taking off the pressure following the recording of Sgt. Pepper, the singles and Epstein's death. Of course, the next year would prove to be a tough year for the four, so this was a bright spot of fun before the storm.

Magical Mystery Tour can be summed up in many words. When it was shown on BBC-TV on Boxing Day in 1967, it received terrible reviews from the press. The reception was so bad that ABC refused to show it in the states nor did any other network. It must've been that bad...

Actually it isn't... It's a silly home movie. It's not a typical made-for-television film, it's just a good fifty minutes of The Beatles goofing around. A Hard Day's Night and Help! have a lot of goofing around and silliness, but something about this film didn't cut it. Was it the deliberate unprofessionalism of it? Was it because it didn't have much of a plot or was just aimless? It could be that it was just too weird, whereas A Hard Day's Night and Help! were at least conventional. What's not to like, though? Magical Mystery Tour is just fun, because there's actually nothing more joyful than seeing the four lads having a good old time. Plus, the soundtrack is really good too!

I always wished that I had seen this film as a child, because this film seems perfect for children more so than their other films. The madcap antics and vacuous tone of the whole film would've been a real joyride for me, since the album itself was one I always loved as a young boy. The Beatles are acting like children here, and there's nothing really wrong with that, but it was certainly frowned upon after mature albums like Rubber Soul and Revolver. Perhaps if Magical Mystery Tour was something they did during the early years, would it get better reception?

It never fails to make me smile, because there are so many sequences in it that are just plain nonsensical. My favorite sequence would have to be the race, where everyone runs for the finish line but it ultimately results in everyone getting into a vehicle. Paul McCartney is accompanied by an army officer on one scene, bumbling a mile a minute. The banter between Ringo and her fussy Aunt Jessie? All the weird daydreaming sequences? They may not be comedic gold, but the randomness is enough to make me smile.

Now what about the song sequences? They're good, but not great. Two standouts are "The Fool on the Hill" and "Flying". "Flying" is set to colorful tinted imagery of landscapes, which look similar to the Star Gate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. "The Fool on the Hill" is Paul either standing still or running around in the countryside, with delightful results. The rest are passable, though they are memorable. "I Am The Walrus" shows all the Beatles in their animal costumes, while "Blue Jay Way" is effectively blurry and hazy like the song itself. The best sequence however, is "Your Mother Should Know", where The Beatles dance their way down a spiral staircase. We also get a sequence at a strip show where the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah band performs "Death Cab for Cutie".

Yes, the film is essentially an hour of nonsense. There's a scene where Aunt Jessie dreams of having mounds of spaghetti shoveled onto the table in front of her. The whole race scene makes no sense at all, yet it isn't supposed to. The Beatles dressed up as animals? Enough said. I can only imagine what it was like being a critic in 1967, seeing this for the first time. This obviously must've really turned a lot of people off.

Magical Mystery Tour gained a cult following the mid 1970s, as it became a midnight movie of sorts much like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In 1978, it was released on videocassette, making it widely available to Americans for the first time. It definitely has its fans, and deservedly so. To call it a film or a work of art may be a bit of a stretch, but as a silly fun home movie, Magical Mystery Tour is quite enjoyable. Sometimes you might need a little unbridled joy...

What went on to be the bigger success was the music. Of course, in 1967, no one could resist the latest Beatles product, even if it was for a universally panned film. In the UK, the six songs recorded for the film were released by Parlophone as a double-EP set, something Capitol Records probably wouldn't have been able to pull off in the States. Instead, they put the film's songs on the first side of the album and then put all the 1967 singles and their B-sides on the second side. It made for an excellent palette of The Beatles' creative years, all defined on a single disc.

There's so much that has been written about The Beatles' music and this album is no exception. Magical Mystery Tour was actually one of the first Beatles albums I've ever listened to when I was young, as my mother had the CD along with several other albums. There are some rather dark undertones to some of the music, like the muted eerie psychedelia of "Flying" or the even more ominous "Blue Jay Way". For some reason, however, these two songs never creeped me out. In fact, the album was always comforting to me as a child. I have no idea why, but to this day, I love it on a sentimental level.

"The Fool on the Hill"'s soft and peaceful flutes and the unabashed old-fashioned dance fun of "Your Mother Should Know" are certainly winners. "Magical Mystery Tour" and "I Am The Walrus" are more bombastic. The former is brass-driven and rip-roaring, while the latter is a mural of surreal visions. What more can you say about these songs?

The second side is of course composed of the great singles The Beatles released throughout 1967. "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" may very well be the best single ever, showcasing the unsurpassed songwriting of Lennon and McCartney while also showcasing how the band used great production on each, which is miles above the horde of psychedelic artists who followed, experimenting but not always being successful at it. "Hello Goodbye"? A fine pop song that's like every other Beatles pop song, it'll never leave. "Baby You're a Rich Man" may be regarded as a throwaway piece, but how can one not like the thumping beat and the strange clavioline sound? I felt that sound was weird back when I was young. "All You Need Is Love" is another fantastic Beatles single that has gone down in history...

I could write a book about why these songs are so special, but so many reviews and books about The Beatles have already picked every song in their catalogue apart so it would seem to be a bit redundant here. They're special to me because, as a child, I was already inspired by what I was hearing out of their music. My mother also tended to play the CD quite a bit, along with the CDs of Abbey Road and 1967-1970, which had several tracks from Magical Mystery Tour. My uncle is a huge Beatles fanatic, and of course I'd hear a lot and find out a lot about the band through him. Like the numerous Disney films I watched as a child, their music inspired me to look into the past. I was somewhat out of touch in the world of the late 1990s and early 2000s as a young boy, even though I did like a lot of what other people liked in the decade, I was constantly fascinated with the past. Later on, the music of The Beatles would have an impact on the way I wrote and how I drew. To this day, the music on the album plus every other Beatles album has had some form of inspiration for my writing and goals. It may sound sentimental and sappy, and there's probably several others out there in the world that may have had the same experiences, but this album was the reason why I became to love The Beatles, and why I seek out other music from the past.

My love for the album today doesn't stem from nostalgia... Not at all... When I discovered every Beatles studio album at the age of fourteen, I loved them all. I admire Magical Mystery Tour for the songwriting, the production techniques and some of the fun qualities of certain tracks. The film and the songs are basically The Beatles' last try at something innocent and lighthearted, before the earthquake of tension that surrounded the recording of The Beatles. The movie is decidedly silly, while the music is a continuation of what we heard of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was the door closing, the era had come to an end.


For all you Beatles fans out there, which Beatles album had an impact on your life when you were young? Why did that particular album (or albums) inspire you? What album (or songs) got you into The Beatles?

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