Review Summary: In the shadow of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", there lives a Beatles album that is, shockingly, quite underrated. "Magical Mystery Tour" rightfully deserves a rediscovery if you have it in your collection.
What makes a classic, well, a classic? What makes something original? As far as history has shown us, it is never necessarily being the first to do something that will solidify your place in the tomes of history, but being the first to do it “right”. Automobiles existed much longer before Henry Ford was tinkering with a mechanical horse of his own; however, the vast majority of the public still believe him to be the inventor of the automobile. Though it’s hilarious to think this little quagmire in history is so subconsciously accepted, the argument can be made that he might as well have invented it, seeing as its usefulness was severely held back by the impractical and unaffordable measures involved in its production. So therefore, it’s never usually the first to do something who gets remembered, but the first who do something correctly, and I suppose that’s where The Beatles come into play. Okay, I’ll admit, reviewing a Beatles album is rather pointless at this point in time; everything that could possibly be written about The Beatles has already been done. Every song analyzed, every facet of their existence picked apart and documented. However, I always find it interesting debating the significance of The Beatles with the small majority who really think they’re not that important; who think that all of the experiments the band did had already been done before. This may be true; however, no other band ever pulled it off with results as good as The Beatles.
In relation to that whole Henry Ford analogy I used before, here is the odd situation where The Beatles, for the first and only time, are overshadowed by a previous body of work. You know the story; band makes a critically and commercially acclaimed album and fails to follow it up in any significant way. If there was ever such an album so hard to follow in its wake, it would have to be “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”; an album that has had every pigment of its classic cover analyzed and imprinted into the minds of millions, every note the needle grooves along remembered, and it’s significance in popular music rolls off the tongue like some sort of age old historical fact. However, The Beatles did so, and with an album that is just, oddly enough, actually underrated. Not only did they follow up “Sgt. Pepper’s” with their most underrated record, they also followed it up with a movie of the same name, a hap hazardous experiment which may have been a sign that the psychedelics were getting a bit too out of control with the band.
“Magical Mystery Tour” is never spoken of in such high regards as “Sgt. Pepper’s”, save for the minority who have unraveled, or at least, documented its brilliance personally. Maybe part of the reason this album is largely underrated is because about half already contained previously released material (in the form of singles and B-sides), while the other half is the soundtrack to the aforementioned half-baked Beatles film. However, I think the case is more of the album being overshadowed by its bigger, badder, psychedelic brother. While I won’t debunk the genius that was “Sgt. Pepper’s”, I will say this; it’s no “Magical Mystery Tour”.
“Magical Mystery Tour”, an afterthought of an album, was released months after “Sgt. Pepper’s”, and it’s truly amazing to see that the band has somehow become more efficient in the studio than ever before. Where there were once portions of “Sgt. Pepper’s” that seemed to lack substance (you can’t really blame The Beatles for that, it was, after all, recorded on 4-tracks, a feat that truly blows my mind to this day), “Magical Mystery Tour” seems to have no problem filling its bloated belly to the brim with constant orchestrations, marching bands, keyboards, overdubbed drums, vocal melodies, backwards tapes, well, you name it, this albums got it, I’m sure. Even if The Beatles are still utilizing only four tracks, they were at least able to still squeeze even more instrumentation on this album. Simply put, the sound quality here is astounding. Very few albums can sound both simultaneously vintage and modern at the same time, and with that, one could also make the claim that very few albums feature such lush arrangements as you kind find here. Not only is there an excessive amount of instruments here, they all manage to stick out and not blend together in one coagulated, slow, mass, or, a wall of sound.
So what we got here is one half movie soundtrack and one half Beatles singles and their b-sides all released during the summer of love. The first half is most commonly unfairly criticized, and I really don’t see why. The material from tracks one through six is completely up to snuff with Beatles standards (with the only possible “weak” track being the silly “Your Mother Should Know”, but even that song is has that McCartney, cheesy fun installed within). “Magical Mystery Tour” is basically “Day Tripper” reworked for all the hippies; the same driving feeling and anthemic loftiness played with piano and trumpets instead of guitars is all. “Fool on the Hill” is McCartney’s best Brian Wilson tribute; one part tender ballad, and one part psychedelic jig (did I mention it’s as catchy as the HIV? Goddamn, McCartney is one hell of a pop genius). “Flying” and “Blue Jay Way” are definitely the two most unfairly criticized songs on this album; not only are they rather good, but they’re probably the best psychedelic experiments the band has ever pulled off. “Flying” so rightfully holds the title for “song that most accurately simulates a physical feeling” (guess which feeling?), with its thick, stoned, bass groove and mellowed out keyboards, it’s one of the simplest yet happiest Beatles song ever recorded. And I love how it segues into “Blue Jay Way”, which is often regarded as another pile of Harrison gibberish; however, I find it to be one of the most creative songs on the entire album.
Speaking about creativity, I’m sure you’ve all heard “I Am the Walrus”? Hands down, the most perfectly executed Beatles experiment ever, and one of the most fascinatingly complex “pop” songs I have ever heard. The mish mash of John Lennon’s beatnik rambling, sampling, liquid orchestra instruments, and Ringo’s distinctive drum work (by the way, I might as well mention that Ringo’s best drum work is included on this album, really, take a listen! He really lets loose!) All sort of piece together in one potent hit of LSD.
The rest of the album consists of all of that previously released material I’ve mentioned. I believe all I’ve failed to mention is that the second half of this album consists entirely of The Beatles best singles. Who can resist the double header (double A-Side that is) release of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”? Both songs capture the distinctive stylings of both Lennon and McCartney so perfectly. “Strawberry Fields Forever” was the band’s first “true” psychedelic single, and Lennon’s finest moment as a “hippie guru” (despite whether or not he wanted that title, it’s hard to think otherwise while listening to this song). Not only is it “Good Vibrations” taken to the next level, it’s honestly one of the greatest songs The Beatles ever put to tape. And listen here, Lennon finally manages to best the king of psycho imagery (as George Starostin puts it) Bob Dylan, with classic lines such as “Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see. It’s getting hard to be someone but it all works out. It doesn’t matter much to me”.
On the McCartney side of things, we get “Penny Lane”, the finest example of McCartney’s goofy nostalgia and wholesome suburban lyricisms. It’s sunny upbeat march, and fine placement of several marching band instruments (French horn, piccolo flute, etc.) make It one of the best pop “ for the sake of being perfectly poppy” songs ever recorded (I hope that made sense). The final A-Side piece of music included here, just for the sake of solidifying The Beatle’s stance as the greatest pop band ever, is the previously unreleased “All You Need Is Love” (the very same performance recorded at the historic worldwide broadcast of “Our World”), a fine piece displaying, what Lennon believed to be, artistic propaganda. There’s not much that can be said about the song, it’s wonderfully simple message and unified chanting speaks for itself. I do wish to point out though, that near the end of the song, where Lennon breaks out into “She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah!” has got to be one of my favorite moment on any Beatles song (if only it lasted longer!).
The album rounds itself off with two more amazing pieces of Beatles pop (why the hell not?). “Hello Goodbye” is stupidly simple, yet utterly effective (especially when the coda kicks in at the end). “Baby you’re a Rich Man”, a hippie anthem of sorts (then again, which Beatles song wasn’t a hippie anthem at the time?), remains just as simple as “Hello Goodbye”, and just as effective. Again, The Beatles prove once again that their B-side material is better than probably 75% of what other bands can even try to muster up.
I hope it’s obviously apparent now that it’s stupid to toss this album off as “just another “Sgt. Pepper’s”. To quote Starostin’s philosophical insight once more; “If you have already eaten pizza, why reject a second one?” Honestly though, there’s no reason to hold this album up to the same degree of reverence of “Sgt. Pepper’s”; both are fantastic albums, and in many ways, this album is a lot stronger. While as a body of work “Sgt. Pepper’s” may still hold the higher ground, I think that song for song, “Magical Mystery Tour” has “Sgt. Pepper’s”, and just about any Beatles album for that matter, beat.
My second favorite Beatles album; closely trailing behind Abbey Road (I don’t think any piece of music I’ve ever heard really beats the Abbey Road suite, but then again, that’s a whole other topic to rant about)