Disappointing Albums, Music 51 Disappointing Albums: ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ by The Beatles By Tony Thompson | April 16, 2020 | Each week TONY THOMPSON discusses a ‘disappointing album’: why it’s disappointing, what that means in the context of the band or musician’s career, and what that says about changing critical tastes. “One thing must be made clear,” he says, “this is not a series about terrible albums. They might be disappointing, but they are records that you need to hear.” * Magical Mystery Tour had only four stars in the Rolling Stone Record Guide that I studied like a Dead Sea Scroll when I was a teenager. All of the other Beatles studio albums had five. At this late date it’s hard to imagine how anyone ever found this album disappointing, even though the now largely forgotten TV special that begot it was a total flop. Perhaps the album seemed like an afterthought, something thrown together to cash in. Only the first six songs were originals after all, the others were from 45s and EPs. Let’s get Strawberry Fields out of the way immediately. It was a double sided single with Penny Lane that appeared long before Magical Mystery Tour was released. I think it is John Lennon’s finest moment and one of the Beatles’ best songs. It was inspired by a real orphanage in Liverpool and it is hard not imagine the young near-orphan Lennon looking wistfully at its gates. The song has the mystical quality that characterises the Beatles’ best music, and a melody that is timeless. George Martin provides a slightly bassy underwater sound that creates the dream like atmosphere evoked in the lyrics. The percussion is almost tribal. Anyone who thinks Ringo is somehow the weak link instrumentally in the band should listen to this one on good headphones. He’s in a parade, he’s sounding the war drums, he’s simulating an urgent heartbeat. Paul’s bass provides a melodic counterpoint to the drums and Lennon’s swinging rhythm guitar keeps it in the rock and roll frame. It’s psychedelic, sure, but it’s so English. But let’s take the album on its own merits, the first six songs that they recorded for the soundtrack of the film. This was, after all, the extended EP that was originally released in the UK. The title track, like the song Sgt Pepper invites you into the album in a humorously magisterial way. The opening without the vocals sounds like a Link Wray song with strummed chords and an insistent 4/4 beat. I’ve always heard bits and pieces of Tommy here. It’s psychedelic, sure, but it’s so English. The Fool on the Hill is an odd song lyrically. Do we sympathise with the fool, do we pity him, or do we despise him? Lennon later noted “They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool”. Did Paul regard Lennon as the fool? Is this the same guy who was Watching the Wheels 10 or so years later? The self-styled ‘Dean of Rock Critics,’ Robert Christgau thought it was the worst song ever and that it would appeal to Simon and Garfunkel fans and Transcendental Meditators who deserved it. Flying is The Beatles song we always forget, an instrumental that makes a perfect introduction to the druggy Blue Jay Way, George Harrison’s strange LA odyssey. Again the drums create a discordant dreamscape and a thumping heartbeat as the singer pleads with someone to not be long. Your Mother Should Know is one of the great McCartney melodies but the song has never sounded entirely finished to me. Which leaves I Am The Walrus, the template for so many Lewis Carroll-esque psychedelic moments. The lyrics are like a Brion Gysin/William Burroughs cut up, a whole bunch of images and phrases floating around in a post modern cloud of cultural associations and assonant implications. George Martin bends the opening piano sound to keep us in the Magical dreamscape and Ringo once again fills the room with dread inspiring murmuring paradiddles. I’ve always liked the trumpet that echoes Lennon as though he is approaching the Fisher King’s castle. Again the English Garden (or is that Eliot’s Englishgarten?) is summoned. It’s at the heart of the album proper and this chapter for The Beatles. It’s a song they never would have been able to do live and they never had to try. Lennon is retreating into a dark place that will become all too vivid with his first solo album. Why is it disappointing? It’s easy to understand how it was a let down after Sgt Pepper’s. It’s essentially a soundtrack with bonus songs. It also includes Baby You’re A Rich Man and Hello Goodbye, two so-so tracks from a band that didn’t do so-so that often. But perhaps, the real problem with the album is that it just isn’t fully realised. Side one suggests a direction and an interesting stop between Pepper and the increasingly solo/collective sound of The White Album. It would have been interesting to see how far they could have gone with the whole Magical Mystery idea. A long way, I suspect. Why should you hear it? In retrospect, it doesn’t sound like a hodgepodge, just a top shelf transitional album from a truly great band. If you are one of those Beatles fans who believe that they actually broke up in 1968 and became each other’s backing band, then this is their last album. Revolver has, in the past twenty years or so, become generally considered to be their finest moment. If you are, dare I say it, ready to move on and rediscover another Beatles album, this is the one. It might have been disappointing at the time but, as Paul McCartney sometimes says when people ask him if The White Album should have been a single LP, “come on guys, it’s a Beatles record!” For the rest of this series, click here. Facebook Twitter Pinterest LinkedIn Email About the Author: Tony Thompson Tony Thompson lives in Melbourne and is the author of Summer of Monsters, a novel about the early life of Mary Shelley.