Saturday, August 29, 2009



When John, Paul, George and Ringo fastened their Santa beards and crept down the chimney pots of their British listeners in December of 1967, they deposited a large hunk of coal called "Magical Mystery Tour" into carefully hung stockings. This six song, seven inch EP, which featured a 24 page booklet, was ill-starred (except for the cover, where you'll find a shit load of them) half-baked (unlike the band members at this juncture) and quite a let down following Pepper.

Disclaimer: If you're a super fan and believe that every note that these guys recorded was brilliant, you may want to stop reading now.

Splendid! For the rest of you, our story begins on page 7 or 8.

Out of the featured soundtrack songs designed for the Mystery Tour, only two come up to the usual high standard set by the group. Worthy of only passing mention, the others fall well below the mark. Let's rip off that band-aid quickly, so that we may continue on a more positive note.


“Magical Mystery Tour” : Works well as an introduction to the movie, but is fairly pointless out of context. The outro bit in the fade should have been developed into something more substantial as it is light years more inspired than the "forced" fanfare that precedes it. Recorded at the tail end of the Sgt. Pepper sessions.

“Flying” : The unedited version, which runs for nearly ten minutes is worth at least one run through. It evolved out of Lennon's extended mellotron experiments. He would get stoned and come up with pleasing sounds. Inoffensive, it performs it’s function as accompaniment to that spectacular aerial footage in the film, though it has little value otherwise.

“Blue Jay Way" : Pleeeeeeeze don’t beeeeeee long.

Too late.

“Your Mother Should Know” – Why stop with mom? Everyone should be warned, just to be safe.

Before we get to the obvious stand out tracks, it must be stated that there are underlying reasons for the paucity of solid material found here. One contributing factor to this uncharacteristic sloppiness was the fact that they were not getting together and playing as a group. Over indulgence in psychedelic drugs played a large role in the loss of critical decision making when it came to what was deemed fit for public consumption. Pot and acid slow the mind down and from this perspective, much of what is actually quite ordinary can seem fascinating. Lennon was dosing himself regularly, headed down a very dangerous path toward mental dissolution. He was very fortunate to be possessed of a strong mind and self-righting mechanism. Most people would have permanently blasted off to another dimension, giggling all the way.

Some did.

Acid casualties were par for the course at this point, many becoming totally unhinged by the drug. Syd Barrett would flame out after completing one spectacular LP with Pink Floyd,. Skip Spence, the driving force behind Moby Grape, got behind some bad LSD and tried to kill one of his band mates with an axe. Following incarceration in a psychiatric ward, he never returned to any semblance of normalcy.

Suffice to say that the merry, communal feeling experienced by the group while under a lysergic spell led to haphazard decisions. Brian Epstein, the guiding hand that they had depended upon to make the trains run on time was in sorry shape. His personal decline and pharmaceutical habits culminated in his accidental death at the tender age of 32. His passing shook the group to the core and their return to business shortly after was bound to be clouded by grief and shock.

Consequently, the rush to occupy themselves by making an offbeat, do it yourself type film with a few musical interludes
would yield mixed results. Oddly enough, I actually like the movie quite a bit. When viewed in the right state of mind, parts of it are quite funny (sometimes unintentionally) and certain scenes prefigure the silliness that would fuel Monty Python's Flying Circus. The music works a bit better when married to the corresponding colorful segments, though it's still paper thin when compared to the rest of their sparkling output.


Two truly excellent songs were along for the ride on the "Mystery Tour". Paul wrote "Fool on the Hill" back in the spring of '67, and demoed it that September, prior to the proper recording, with some noticeable gaps in the lyrics. Transitioning between D 6th and D minor, the melody is engaging, augmented by flutes and a recorder. Instantly accessible, the delicate arrangement is as subtle as sunrise, breaking out only during the instrumental sections. Employing a literary device that has been the cornerstone of many classics, McCartney's "fool" is perpetually misunderstood and much wiser than the people who pass judgement upon him. Typical of his style, the universal theme is open ended enough to take on any number of interpretations.

What does it mean?

Intrepid souls began to more frequently ask this question with respect to rock music in the late sixties. Dylan's transition toward more oblique and surreal wordplay in 1965 sent many scrambling to rummage through his garbage, intent on cracking the "code" that he'd carefully constructed within his lyrics. Lennon and the others appreciated such jokes and soon began to write in a similar pseudo cryptic fashion.

Upon reading a letter from a boy at his old grammar school (Quarry Bank) who said that they were dissecting Beatle songs in English class, he felt a pang of hostility that arose from having the same head masters write him off as a talentless disrupter while he was a student there.

Inspired by hearing a police siren (the two note UK version) while poking around on piano, he began to form what would become of his most bizarre (but brilliant) compositions. "I Am the Walrus" was lyrically constructed by placing a sheet of paper in a typewriter and adding random lines whenever the mood struck. Childhood friend Pete Shotton was tripping with him one evening and they hit upon an old rhyme that they would recite as school boys. "Yellow matter custard, green slop pie/all mixed together witha dead dog's eye"

"Let the fuckers work that one out, Pete," snapped Lennon as he modified the line and quickly added it.

Be warned, though. If you have listened to these lyrics in the past and merely dismissed them as nonsense, you are in for a surprise. The range of inside jokes and references piled into the scattershot wordplay is pretty impressive. All apologies to those who don tin foil helmets, as there are no messages about dead band mates (Paul), the meaning of life or any memos directed to you personally.

I’m watching you, though.

Now that we’ve scared that crowd off, let’s find out what Mr. Lennon was really going on about.

The Walrus begins with a gentle restatement of the philosophy that all in nature is somehow interconnected.(I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together). Genuinely interested in Harrison ’s increasing immersion in East Indian music and culture, Lennon shared an affinity with his attempt to find alternative spiritual avenues. Similar empathic expression runs through the work of Roger Waters, the best example being found in the opening passages of “Echoes” (Strangers passing in the street /By chance two separate glances meet/And I am you and what I see is me). Psychedelics bring the sensation of interaction with every molecule to the enlightened mind, which is why most people are profoundly changed by their experiences with the drug.

Disclaimer: This is entirely dependent on what intellectual level the prospective user is on before introducing another chemical to their brain. Even then, there are no guarantees of a revelatory, thought provoking trip.

I digress.

Despite the warm introduction, the author takes the opportunity to use this remarkable piece as a vehicle for an extremely vitriolic rant against all of the institutions that he had grown up within and had come to resent. Great Britain’s emphasis on class and social bearing has long been established and how you spoke, your occupation and family history either helped you or kept you in your place. Societal hierarchy is blasted, with shots fired at poet Allen Ginsberg, the Hare Krishna movement, Dylan, intellectual pretension, the educational system, art, culture, the law, religion...Shit, the list is endless.

"Fuck you, England" would have actually been a more apt title.

In addition to very liquid sounding strings, the Mike Sammes Singers add whooping, laughing and chanting throughout. ("Everybody's got one", "Stick it up your jumper"-these lines are teased to sound like "Everybody smoke pot" though these words are not actually sung) The final word comes from a live broadcast of King Lear on BBC's Third Programme. The death scene from the play can be heard crackling in the mix toward the end as it was patched straight into the board during an overdubbing session. If a kitchen sink could have been dropped onto the final master, I'm quite sure that they would have made room.

Lennon in 1980: "The first line was written on one acid trip one weekend. The second line was written on the next acid trip the next weekend... I'd seen Allen Ginsberg and some other people who liked Dylan and Jesus going on about Hare Krishna. It was Ginsberg, in particular, I was referring to. The words "Element'ry penguin" meant that it's näive to just go around chanting Hare Krishna or putting all your faith in one idol.

"It never dawned on me that Lewis Carroll was commenting on the capitalist system. I never went into that bit about what he really meant, like people are doing with the Beatles' work. Later, I went back and looked at it and realized that the walrus was the bad guy in the story and the carpenter was the good guy. I thought, Oh, shit, I picked the wrong guy. I should have said, 'I am the carpenter.' But that wouldn't have been the same, would it?"

I would rank this in the top five out of anything that he'd ever written.

Prior to launching the Mystery Tour on disc in the States, Capitol Records president, Alan Livingston, must have woken from a dream in which he was visited by three ghosts, because the US version actually added music. Featuring all of their 1967 singles, plus the six MMT tunes, it was marketed as a full length album.

So it’s Capitol Records to the rescue! Yay! Giving this time instead of taking, they still bombed the assignment by not using the stereo masters. Cheating, they employed a process termed as “electronically reprocessed stereo” in which certain frequencies are split across the channels (lows on one side, mids and highs on the other) to give the impression of full stereo. Bottom line? It doesn’t sound very good.

The German issue of MMT is in proper stereo.

Reminder: the US MMT album is more or less a compilation deal and was not specifically crafted by the group. The singles were quite good and really helped to prop up the project. "Baby You're a Rich Man" has a great groove, fantastic vocals, exceptional bass work and a positive feel. Recorded in just six hours at Olympic Studios, it hits the spot from a technical standpoint but falls apart as a cohesive song. The verse and chorus don't really work with one another.

An invitation to represent Britain and perform a new song, live, for a program called “Our World” momentarily snapped them to attention. This was to be broadcast worldwide in one of the first satellite transmissions of its kind. Having not played in front of an audience for almost a year, they knew that a great deal of preparation would be involved to avoid a monumental train wreck in front of millions of viewers. When a hard deadline for the “Our World” live satellite broadcast reared its head, they momentarily reverted to type, polishing and preparing a new Lennon tune called “All You Need Is Love”

On the surface, the smattering of music that the group produced in the summer/fall of ’67 seems to represent a bit of a holding operation in the Beatles camp. Having thrown every ounce of energy into the production of Sgt. Pepper, there wasn’t much left in the tank. Under some of the most pressure filled circumstances, the group produced top quality material in a very short period. Given a break from the grind, they were now frittering their time away with 22 minute drum tracks and writing throwaway garbage like “All Together Now”, “It’s All Too Much”, “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” and the weak cuts that made it to the Magical Mystery Tour EP. The team that had once carefully sweated over every line and bar in their songs were now turning out the worst kind of lazy, stoned nursery rhymes and getting away with it.

Fortunately, this situation didn't stand.

Stumbling momentarily, the Mystery Tour is a bit of a blight on their wonderful catalog of music. Going into the new year, the main writers would revive their creativity by taking a different kind of trip.

Who was actually in that Walrus costume on the cover? Was the Mystery Tour film screened in the US in 1967?


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Jeff said...

It would be nearly impossible for me to pick a favorite Beatles album but I think if someone told me I would be stranded on an island and I could only take one Beatles album, the Mystery Tour might be it. Like you, I could do without "Flying" and "Blue Jay Way" but the rest of the album resonates strongly with me, even the title track. With that said though, I'm looking at the US soundtrack opposed to the 6 song EP. I would agree that the 6 song EP doesn't hold up that well because of the two songs I mentioned earlier, but "You Mother Should Know" and "I Am the Walrus" always put a smile on my face.

Starrlight said...

I have a fondness for cheesey Beatles song. If you get a chance check out the Rolling Stone article on why the Beatles broke up. It's illuminating and quite refreshing in it's refusal to put any of them on a pedestal.

Sean Coleman said...

Jeff-The US version of MMT made the whole thing look /sound better than the original UK release, but it misses the mark as an EP.

Starrlight- Most explorations of the Beatles saga tend to put glossy paint over certain chapters, though the myth has certainly grown larger than any individual member.