Disappointing Albums, Music

51 Disappointing Albums: ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ by The Beatles

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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.

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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.

21 responses to “51 Disappointing Albums: ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ by The Beatles

  1. Great review Tony
    I have listened to so much music since the early sixties, but there are some albums that I always come back to (eg ;Highway 61, Ziggy Stardust)……and really all of the Beatles albums would be included. They changed and grew, but in a weird organic way, like they weren’t even trying to

  2. The album is actually a conception of the American record company, Capitol. In the UK, Magical Mystery Tour was a six-track “double EP” of two seven-inch records with two songs on two sides and one each on the other two. Capitol turned it into an album by putting these six tracks on side one and the band’s five non-album single sides from 1967 on side two. Capitol was notorious for mangling the Beatles’ catalogue to extract more releases and more profit, but this was the one time something good came of it, such that the album has since become “canonical”. But so far as the band’s market in its home country was concerned, it wasn’t an album at all, disappointing or otherwise.

    1. You are quite right and this isn’t the last time that I’ll look at an album that is arguably not an ‘album’ at all but rather a compilation. However, it is, as you say, now canonical and has been for some time. Your mention of the Capitol versions makes for an interesting discussion. I grew up in Canada and listen to albums like The Beatles Second Album and Beatles VI endlessly as a teenager. I vaguely understood that the British versions of the earlier albums were different but my whole experience of the band was based on the North American versions. Apparently The Beatles themselves were not happy about them but for at least two generations of Canadian and US fans, those were the albums. The Smithereens, a brilliant New York power pop band who appeared in the late 80s, actually recorded all of the songs on Meet The Beatles for an album called, predictably, Meet The Smithereens. I’ve always wondered what happened when they toured England or, indeed, Australia and what happened when the album appeared in those places. It must have seemed like an eccentric effort. Thanks for your comment and thanks for reading!

  3. Sorry , can’t agree at all regarding MMT. Firstly it was never meant to be an
    “album”. It was originally a soundtrack EP. (and a great one at that) The songs themselves on the extended album are wonderful Beatle songs in every way. Tuneful , inventive , inspiring…What’s not to like?
    And as for the TV special..It has some great moments. And as Paul says , where else are you going to see John performing “I Am the Walrus”? For that matter , where else would you see “The Bonzo Dog Doo Da Band” performing “Death Cab for Cutie”? (Which inspired another band of course)

  4. Yes I am pretty sure Australia got the double ep release similar to UK. ‘Hello Goodbye’ is a good sing anyway.

  5. Good review Tony. And like everything they did, it always rewards another list. They were just light years ahead of any other band recording.

    So glad you mention Ringo. He took rock drumming to another sonic and technical level which is still inspirational.. I love this story about him:”The best thing that ever happened to Ringo Starr was when The Beatles invited him to join. The best thing that ever happened to The Beatles was when Ringo said yes.”

  6. “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?” YOU CAN’T BE SERIOUS. The Fool is a saint, a mystic, a hero, a man who knows what really matters.. He is God’s fool. Does anyone seriously take it any other way? What’s more it is extremely characteristic of Paul’s general attitude to life and people. It’s at the heart of his outlook as an artist.

  7. I remember the comment “we gathered a bunch of interesting people on a bus but nothing interesting happened”.It reminded me a lot of the Beatles morning cartoons, something to suffer through till they played a song.

  8. “Now that’s Paul. Another good lyric. Shows he’s capable of writing complete songs.”
    -John Lennon, when asked about The Fool on the Hill in 1980.

  9. Never knew MMT to be anything but a 6 song extended EP. Never mind. I LOVED all the tunes apart from Flying which, for me, was just a filler. Your Mother Should Know is much under-rated, and I Am The Walrus doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. Listen to a cover of this tune by the early English Prog Rock band, Spooky Tooth who gave this song a hard metal edge to it, and you can begin to appreciate the brilliance of the tune. And as for Ringo Starr, I have to agree with other comments here. Very much the engine room of the band. I remember Mick Jagger talking about Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman being the engine room of the Rolling Stones and how the band would not function in the same way without that chemistry- the same goes for Ringo. Paul had a far more melodic role to play in the Beatles but listen to the way Paul and Ringo work together – it’s beautiful. Paul’s bass playing is also grossly underrated. His uncanny rhythmic sense, coupled with his ability to compose interesting and melodic bass lines has long been ignored as a critical element of why so many of the Beatles songs resonate in the way that they do.

    1. I just listened to Spooky Tooth’s version of I am the Walrus. You weren’t kidding! They find the metal in there alright. It’s interesting to hear it without Martin’s sonic touch. Thanks!

  10. As several commenters have pointed out, Magical Mystery Tour began its life in the UK and Australia as an extended EP with 6 songs. The LP version appeared in North America at the same time and added, as side two, the singles, Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane and All You Need Is Love/Baby You’re A Rich Man along with the b-side of I am The Walrus, Hello Goodbye. The LP was released in the UK in 1976. I did wonder if this disqualified it as an ‘album’ but decided to include it anyway. It has become part of The Beatles canon of albums in a way that Live At The Hollywood Bowl and the Hey Jude album, among others, have not. My understanding is that both the EP and the album were regarded at the time as the follow up to Sgt Pepper. Either way, Magical Mystery Tour is an important piece of the puzzle, particularly as The White Album was such a departure. The fact that it wasn’t regarded as an album by The Beatles themselves raises complicated questions about an artist’s intentions and exactly what does constitute an ‘album’, as opposed to a compilation. It’s gets even more complicated with posthumous releases and contract fulfilling patchwork affairs. Watch this space!

    1. The thing about genuinely creative people, there’s always some brave failures.
      That’s the inevitable consequences of not playing safe.
      So in the big picture, this is an important part of the Beatles greatness.

  11. I agree with most thoughts stated by Tony Thompson, but ‘Hello Goodbye’ really is much more than a so-so song. So-so lyrics, yes, but the bright sound with smashing harmonies is so much more. I remember to this day, when the Beatles appeared in their fantasy uniforms on the TV-screen and we were electrified. Whenever I here a CD, which contains this song, I immediately repeat it at least once.

  12. In Aust we got the British versions. That was fine. Recently heard remastered stuff & was bloody impressed with Ringo.
    I think the magical mystery tour track is an epic & under rated. I heard Paul do it live in Sydney.. Wow.

  13. Magical Mystery Tour disappointing? Really? REALLY? Okay, so maybe you wanted to stir the pot a bit by including a Beatles album but why this one when there are three much more obvious picks? The White Album is really just a brilliant mess. That thing where John keeps saying number 9, the horrible Birthday song, Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?, Rocky Raccoon. Please. The best you can say is that the great stuff is immeasurably great and the rest is just silly. Worst of all, someone let Yoko sing on Bungalow Bill. Or what about the Let It Be album. Yes, the title song is wonderful but the rest of it is the sound of band breaking up and quickly running out of ideas. Most people know Let it Be and The Long and Winding Road but what are the other stone cold classics on it? Get Back? Maybe. Across the Universe? Sure, but neither are really top shelf Beatles songs, are they? So, Dig A Pony anyone? And then there is Abbey Road. Over produced with too many glimpses of the shape of Pauls to come. Maxwell’s Silver Hammer is awful and the medley seems like a great alternative to actually finishing songs. Honestly, Magical Mystery Tour, ep or album or whatever, represents a band at the height of their powers. What’s really disappointing is that they never came within cooee of matching it!

  14. Overall I think it actually hangs together well as an album with the extra tracks. They are excellent songs, recorded at much the same time and with a similar feel. It makes a fine and coherent picture of a band absolutely at the top of their game, just before the glass shattered. John hasn’t yet become too cynical. Paul is not yet too twee. George is quietly coming into his own and Ringo is being mighty behind the kit. Plenty to like.

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