Magical Mystery Tour
is something of an oddity in the back catalogue of The Beatles, being a contender for their most underrated album. Now, I know what a lot of you are thinking when you read that sentence. “How on earth can anything made by The Beatles ever be considered underrated? They’re the biggest selling band in history!" Normally, I’d consider agreeing with you. However, this album truly is underrated, and the reason for this is simple; the time in which it was released. Coming after the release of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
, but just before the release of The White Album
, this album often gets lost in the history of The Beatles, meaning that it’s forgotten how extraordinary it is. Like The White Album
, this is an album that sounds as if it simply has too many ideas on to all be by the same band, and in a way, that makes sense, because this album is effectively half film soundtrack, and half compilation some of the band’s biggest singles in the preceding year. The album itself is a typically diverse collection of songs, including psychedelica that would not have sounded out of place on the sprawling concept album that was Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
, as well as some great pop songs, such as Penny Lane
. Something that is also worth remembering when listening to this album is the concept in which it was released. 1967 was the year of the famous “summer of love", meaning that songs like All You Need Is Love
become revealed as genuine anthems of not only the time in which they were released, but of a whole musical era. Starting to see why this album can fairly be described as underrated yet?
Opening track Magical Mystery Tour
immediately gives the album a very fun filled mood, with brass instruments providing a constant backing, along with rushes of noise that were meant to represent the full extent of the fun of the tour. The lyrics reflect this, with McCartney’s continued refrain of “Roll up for the mystery tour". Although it would be typical to cast this as just another drugged up psychedelic song, it goes beyond that, and provides a solid opener for the album, as it doubtless did for the doomed TV show of the same name. The Fool On The Hill
is another McCartney composition that would later be referenced on The White Album, and is based around a very mellow piano part, featuring gorgeous, bittersweet recorder parts which lurk just under the other instruments on the song. The lyrical content seems to be a strike at the people against the prevalent hippy culture of the time, saying that the fool on the hill is wiser than people think, which reflects the then personal beliefs of the band. While the first two songs provide backing for people who say that this is the most underrated of Beatles albums, Flying undermines this somewhat, being one of the few lyricless songs they recorded. This song is being based around Lennon’s synthesised organ and mellotron parts, which create a much spaced out atmosphere, but which ultimately don’t leave a huge amount of substance to the song itself. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Beatles album without a Harrison composition on the album, and Blue Jay Way
is the example this time, with it being far darker than most of the music contained here, thanks to a fuzzy sounding verse, where the vocals sound completely drained, while Starr’s drumming is surprisingly high in the mix, and the heavily repeated phrase of “don’t be long", which gives the song a narcoleptic air rather than any other sort of feel. Listening to it now you can still smell what The Beatles were probably smoking as they recorded this song, and that stands out on this slightly paranoid oddity on the album, even though it’s definitely a very fine song.
Your Mother Should Know
is possibly the second weakest song here, with a strangely stately air that sounds as if the music was designed for an upbeat ballroom dance, although it does possess some of the little touches that made The Beatles stand out, such as a surprisingly catchy keyboard part, along with vocal layering that reflects how well the Lennon and McCartney duo complemented each other. While repetition of one phrase can work well though, here it merely grates slightly on the listener, giving the song a slightly stillborn air. However, one thing you could never accuse I Am The Walrus
of is being stillborn. Regularly cited as one of the lyrically strangest songs ever recorded, talking about “sitting on a cornflake", singing penguins, and indeed the refrain of the title, it’s musically complex, with all sorts of indescribable effects going on under Lennon’s delirious vocals, as well as a break in the middle of the song where a string section effectively takes control of the music. If you wanted to listen to a psychedelic Beatles song, this is probably the one that would get recommended more often than any other, and with good reason. Although it’s complete nonsense, it’s also undeniably fantastic to listen to.
At this point the original soundtrack for the Magical Mystery Tour TV programme ends, with the subsequent five songs all being previously released singles. Naturally, this means the mood of the album changes completely, but it also gives the album something of an air of a greatest hits compilation. Hello Goodbye
is the first song that fits into this category, encapsulating everything that made The Beatles such a great pop band. A hugely melodic piano line, along with Starr’s airy, syncopated drumming provides the backing for McCartney’s lyrics, which are sung in what could be described as a near-infuriatingly happy voice. However, in my opinion it’s the coda to the song that makes it, where, after the end of the music, the band comes back in with a breezy outro, while McCartney sings nonsense sounds, punctuated with the occasional whoop over the top. Strawberry Fields Forever
is a contender for half of the greatest double A-side single in history (along with Penny Lane
). It’s also structurally incredible, with two versions being recorded, before George Martin’s production wizardry in speeding one up and slowing the other down, therefore making one version, led to the hugely changing textures of the music, greatly assisted by what was becoming a trademark brass section and mellotron. The music is very hard to describe, although it contains many sections, very ambiguous lyrics, and a final moment where John Lennon allegedly says “I buried Paul" (actually “cranberry sauce"), fuelling the Beatles rumour mill about the status of Paul McCartney’s life.
and Baby You’re A Rich Man
are far less complex listens, although both are great pop songs, with Penny Lane
being a jaunty run through Liverpool, in what reads like a descriptive tribute to the city. Again, the instruments sound excellent, in particular the trumpet interlude during the song, and this is another definitive example of The Beatles’s mastery of pop music. Baby You’re A Rich Man
is comparatively conventional compared to the previous pop masterpieces, although its strangely shuffling drum rhythm, and the relatively intoned vocals during the chorus gives it a slightly jazzy feel, which again shows that although Magical Mystery Tour is thought of as a “psychedelic" album, there is far more to it than that inadequate description allows. The final track on the album, All You Need Is Love
simultaneously combines being undeniably corny, with the lyrics ranking among Lennon’s most optimistically hopeful, with also being strangely beautiful. The irony of the track, with the intro coming from the national anthem of France, and the horn parts that add a whole new air to the song makes this among The Beatles’s very best songs, and the universal nature of its message at least partially explains why its fame has endured, even by the standards of The Beatles, to this day. The final moments of the song, where the music breaks down before a reprise of the band’s classic She Loves You
comes in shows the true wonder of this band-in four years they had changed music so many times that those few lines sound as different compared to albums such as Revolver
as something by Vera Lynn would do to us.
Although underrated is obviously a relative concept when it comes to The Beatles, this album can indeed be fairly described as such. Although the first half is more experimental, it contains moments that live up to the bands very best work, and would be pushing for inclusion on a single disc greatest hits album, and the second half, to all intents and purposes, would have a decent chance of being included in its entirety of that album. The occasional weak track on here prevents this getting an entirely perfect score, but if you are looking to get into the most important band of all time, or are trying to expand your collection, it’s inevitable that eventually this will appear on your list of albums that you need to hear. If for no other reason than for the fact that this CD contains their greatest psychedelic experiment along with the ultimate double sided single, this should appear near the top of that list.