The Long and Winding Road Part 9: Magical Mystery Tour

Magical Mystery Tour (released 27 November 1967 in the US)

Dear Magical Mystery Tour,

Coming between the landmark Sgt. Pepper and the critics’ absolute favourite White Album, everybody tends to ignore you as a little fad that was hastily grouped together simply because Paul, in his infinite wisdom, had gotten it into his head to shoot a strange TV special that didn’t really make sense nor money. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who had heard of the TITLES of the first five songs (okay, fine, I’ve just mentioned one of them in the title). And yet it is here that I must protest with all my heart and soul, because quite simply, you are what I think is the best album in the entire canon.

Okay, so the distinction is helped by a few factors. You actually aren’t a real album at all: with only 11 tracks on you (as opposed to most albums’ 13-14), you have much less a margin for error. When the Beatles decided that they’d release a soundtrack for their very weird TV special, their distributor in America, Capitol Records, decided to group all the 1967 singles with the EP and release it as an album to make a little more money. The Beatles are on record as having been pissed by this to some degree, and I’ve often wondered what their reactions were upon knowing that this compilation is now part of the official canon. But why all the hostility? The way I see it, this compilation is one of the best things ever to happen to the Beatles, because although you didn’t set out to be like this, the way I see it, you’re a perfect statement on what a child’s conception of the world would be, full of mystery and wonder.

Why do I feel that it’s how a child would view the world? Well, let’s start with a bad reason: you sound AWFULLY tacky at times. As most of us should know by now (I hope that my readers actually pay attention to what I write), Paul McCartney does tend to be occasionally inhibited by sentimentality (visualize a drunk person confessing how much s/he loves you at times and you’ll get the idea) and he sometimes forgets just how much emotion is enough in a song. Although he doesn’t go overboard in most of your tracks, there are times when it does threaten to spill over.

For example, “Your Mother Should Know” is often cited as one of your weakest tracks. Coming off from the lyrical masterpieces between Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper (I’m thinking of “Here, There and Everywhere” and “She’s Leaving Home”, because when am I not thinking about these songs) this song is a parody of music hall songs which were very popular when Paulie was young. Paul’s enthusiasm for nostalgia has something of a knock-on effect on his songster skills: this song seems a bit too simple, the structure a bit too straightforward, and the lyrics a bit too gushy. It’s too cheesy and immature for it to be a real “Beatle song”, and it doesn’t seem like something a mature 25-year-old with dozens of hits (and even more experience) to his name. Same for “Magical Mystery Tour”: it screams out that it’s “waiting to take you away” without elaborating any more, and the production just seems full of itself — full of sweetness and colours, but offering nothing mysterious. It’s just messy — and how can something this infantile be claimed worthy of the Beatles name?

But that’s all I have to say in criticising you. Because yes, even though those tunes sound so chintzy and weird, I think it’s much fairer to say that Paul is merely trying to bring out a childlike experience in you, so a little tackiness — which we’ve come to reject as part of those “childish” ideals that don’t live up to our idea of maturity — is only natural. And on reflection, tunes that seem to be childish can also be amazing: yes, “Your Mother Should Know” may be a parody of a music hall song, but since when have music hall songs sounded this wonderful? The taste of nostalgia might sound corny at first, but a few repeated listens and the bittersweet aftertaste of the song will win a listener over sooner or later. At other times, what we think of as a childlike experience is more like a sense of wonder: as the only instrumental we ever got from the Beatles, “Flying” is a nice surprise in how it accurately describes the sense of exhilaration one might experience from soaring up and above the scenery — feelings of discovery which we might not experience after we’ve grown, and lost our sense of childlike curiosity.

But more to the point, I feel that you recall our childhoods because with you, we don’t know what to expect from each of your tracks. You say it very well with your title: it’s a “Magical Mystery Tour”, is it not? Everything that comes up SHOULD be new, SHOULD be outlandish, SHOULD astonish us with how alien they seem to the world of rock. If nonsensical lyrics John Lennon wrote while high can be seen as marks of sophistication, so too should well-executed childishness — one that really takes us back to our younger years — be applauded for how it lets us see the world through a child’s eyes again. I’m talking about songs like “The Fool on the Hill”, which I think is another of your more underappreciated tracks. With the penny whistle and its weird lyrics, it doesn’t sound sophisticated. We might be tempted to laugh, both at the fool on the hill and at “The Fool on the Hill”. But I think that’s the whole point: we never expected that we would be coming across this type of song, one that pays tribute to a mystic who can only see the world through a child’s eyes. It’s a song where the childlike trills of the penny whistle (which I thought was a recorder at first listen — another of those childhood connotations) add a touch of innocent elegance, rather than silliness, to this song. It does surprise us to find something that so beautifully suggests this unique way of seeing the world — and this is why we become children, on a voyage of discovery, when we listen to you.

Most importantly, you also convey how we as children might find the world scary the world is when we’re young, because yours is the sound of pure anarchy and psychedelia. There is positively an orgy of evidence on Side Two for this, but before that there is Side One’s “Blue Jay Way”: a song that is so haunting, you can actually feel the events that George is describing with his unnaturally creepy voice, with the fog he describes creeping into your mind. Slowly but surely, you lose your bearings and don’t know where you’re going with the song… not knowing what might suddenly pop out, what might surprise you in the impenetrable fog. It’s much scarier than you’d think — listen to this one in the dark, and you are guaranteed nightmares.

So far, so good. But after the brief respite of “Your Mother Should Know”, the next six tracks shoot the whole thing out of superb territory and into — well, the language I’m looking for hasn’t even been invented yet, I think. The run from “I Am the Walrus” through to the end is a wonderful run of songs that represents the Beatles (or rather, Lennon-McCartney) at their most transcendent. Even later songs don’t seem to make that much leeway in terms of form, style — and most importantly, message.

We start with the runt of the litter. People say “Hello, Goodbye” is superficial crap, but that song doesn’t seem like that to me. It’s a light-hearted three-minute romp through sugary carnival music (if anybody does not start dancing or humming along by the one-minute mark, they must be the most joyless people on Earth and I FROWN ON THESE PEOPLE) sort of like Paul’s answer to all the complications of the world. I know that I’ve never been a great thinker, and yet I suppose the Beatles don’t have to be deep-sounding philosophical every single time even if this song really doesn’t have much to say. You know how we, as children, like to see the world in black and white? And how when our parents say something, we like to say the complete opposite? This song is a bit like that. When we’re young, we see the world in complete oppositions: if one person says “yes”, then the only way to respond is to shout “NO” with all our might, and we believe there to be no other way. This might seem overly simplistic, but again, this inability to see things complexly is the (deliberate) point of this album, and this single slots in very nicely. And as it’s also the most energetic of the five, I think it’s only fair to say that it also carries some of the energy that children, bless them, seem to have in endless reserves. (My mother should know…)

And even if one stubbornly insists that that song is just too brainless for their tastes, on either side of it are two songs which I think are the most accomplished in the Beatles’ repertoire. Screw “A Day in the Life” and all its so-called musical complexities: all that song has going for it is a single chord played by three people and a section with orchestra that sounds dreamy. In “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Am a Walrus”, we have a sound where ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING sounds completely wrong. Whatever we had in mind when we thought of rock or pop music, it usually isn’t THIS unconventional.

“Strawberry Fields Forever” is the single in which John (with Paul) really found his stride and crossed over completely, and the strange this just how much of a mess it sounds like on first listen. Warping of sounds, classical instruments, backward vocals are all present in this song (which, by the way, is actually two takes in TWO DIFFERENT KEYS spliced together) and the whole thing seems to start and stop at completely random intervals. In the event, though, you’ll never find a more beautiful image of chaos. John wrote this song as a direct homage to his younger years (Strawberry Field being an orphanage close to his home) and you can imagine the confusion that he must have felt as a young boy… you come out none the wiser about what’s been going on. This chaos, this anarchy is exactly how we’d see the world as youngsters, all these sounds and colours blurring together and not even seeming to make sense no matter how damn hard you try to piece everything together, each sentence of lyric (or conclusion) you reach contradicting the previous one and throwing everything into doubt and uncertainty. Don’t even try to make sense of what’s going on — there’s no answer, and frankly, there doesn’t need to be.

But if you think “Strawberry Fields Forever” was messy, wait till you hear “I Am the Walrus”. The best I can do in describing this song is that John continues his obsession with Alice in Wonderland here — any attempt at saying more has to be futile. I’ve read that at its heart it’s basically just another basic song with layers and layers of experimentation added on to it, but those layers seem to throw so much at you, I still haven’t recovered from listening to it — and it’s been four months since. The lyrics here are basically just a bunch of phrases stringed together — like a psychedelic Tarzan, swinging (that seems about right) from tree to tree.

Like “Strawberry Fields” immediately before it, “Penny Lane” started as part of the Sgt. Pepper sessions, and is Paul’s version of the childhood remembrance song: but whereas John can’t help fretting about how much of his younger days remains so fuzzy and uncertain, Paul elects to just sit back and enjoy his memories of Liverpool on a summer afternoon. (I know that the north of England gets a lot of flak for raining all the time, but I was there on a sunny afternoon a couple of years ago, and let me tell you, it was every bit as spectacular as Paul described it.)

And so, Paul paints us a picture of Liverpudlian life at the interchange where he used to change buses on his way to John’s. It’s a lively scene, full of eccentric characters who could have jumped straight out of a storybook, with light, chirpy instruments keeping the whole song as frothy as can be. Of course, behind all the blissful scenes we still have a bunch of indecipherable images (why is there “pouring rain” when there are “blue suburban skies”?) but this is still part of the charm of a fuzzy Liverpool in summer: all we have to do is sit back and watch the scenes unfold, maybe even marvel how weird they seem to us — after all, the joy of finding something unexpected is what childhood is all about, is it not?

In a similar vein we have “Baby, You’re a Rich Man”, in which John asks us (with typical ambiguity) if we consider ourselves to be beautiful, and Paul tells us to think ourselves “rich” — in immaterial things, of course. Basically, I think that these two songs are grouped together to prove yet another point in this album’s thesis: childhood, in its uncomplicated form, is really just accepting what you have, and sitting down to enjoy the sunshine while complicated life rushes by. (Also, yes, I’m cutting it short cause I need to wrap up — this letter is over 2300 words long and I have stuff to do…) So just one song left to talk about — a last song which I’ve always considered somewhat mushy. But over time — and over the course of writing this letter — I’ve come to like it. For what better statement can there be of the Beatles — of humanity, even! — than saying “All You Need Is Love”?

Let me be clear here: this song is more inept than people have usually held it up to be. It scrubs the titular idea into your mind until you’re sick of it. And even the naïve optimist in me realizes that you need more than love to make the world go round. The lyrics aren’t really that deep when you come to think about them (this is one occasion where John’s inanities and penchant for simplistic writing just doesn’t sound deep) and neither the melody nor the instrumentation is exactly refined. But rising above all of this is the conviction with which the idea is uttered: the anger of 1968 was just eight months away, but at this time John really did believe that all you needed was love, and so he sings it out with passion and joy. It’s a wonderful sentiment to behold, and it harkens back to a time when love — simple, unadulterated love — was what he, just like all of us, believed would make everything right in the end, and for a fleeting moment, you feel like believing him. Above all, it’s when I listen to this track that I feel like humanity, despite all its flaws, is still worth saving.

What more is there to say? This is the Beatles at their finest, and it’s strange to think that it comes from a compilation that shows the listener a world untainted, a world that only children might see. Perhaps your abstract approach doesn’t prove exciting to everyone — and yes, childlike viewpoints are not enough for us as we grow up and travel through our cluttered, troubled lives. But as Paul himself puts it back in “The Fool on the Hill”, maybe we’re the fools instead of the Beatles — after all, they created some of their most beautiful tunes while working under an abstract aesthetic, and only they can see “the world spinning round”. In any case, if anyone were to ask me: which Beatles album is your favourite? I can stand up straight, look them in the eye, and tell them, with undying conviction, “Magical Mystery Tour”.

Yours sincerely,

Favourite track: Look, I really like “Strawberry Fields Forever”, and as I’ve said before it deserves to be the Beatles’ greatest and most complex musical achievement. But unlike its close friend, it doesn’t suggest anarchy on the world as well as “I Am the Walrus”. And although I may scream out my preference for order, sometimes the rebel in me prefers a little chaos. Its influence is certainly evident in this piece. 🙂

(Featured image from cover of Magical Mystery Tour, copyright Capitol Records.)

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