Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Beatles — Magical Mystery Tour

Up until this point in the Beatles' career, their distinct eras of evolution could be charted through what major stylistic changes they underwent over a few albums before moving on to a new sound. The final stage of the band, however, began not with an album but with an outside event. Brian Epstein, the band's manager (and really the only one among the group who actively kept track of the money) died of a drug overdose in August 1967, months after Sgt. Pepper proved an artistic watershed for the band.

In retrospect, Epstein took advantage of the working class boys' lack of attention to their paper trail, and while he didn't bleed them like their very own Colonel Parker, he certainly knew how to shift the numbers around to take far more than was his due. Nevertheless, he was so close to the group, and they were so loyal to him, that the band suddenly found themselves directionless without their "fifth Beatle." The primary evidence of this is the garish, mad television project Magical Mystery Tour. I opted out of reviewing that as a separate entity because A) at only 55 minutes, it doesn't really qualify as a film and B) it is not noteworthy even as a short film or as an experiment of unleashed true drug-induced hysteria on American television. Fans should see it, as should anyone who would get a kick out of watching it and just imagining fans and their conservative, puritanical parents looking on in utter bewilderment at what unfolded in their living rooms.

Would Epstein have buried such a self-centered, inexplicable vanity project? Almost certainly. At the very least, he might have gently swerved the group toward getting a hold of a script.In a 1970 interview, John Lennon himself marked Epstein's death as the beginning of the end; up to this point, the group had displayed a certain separation, yet they still combined their individual artistic efforts into unified wholes. Magical Mystery Tour was the first indication that the group was at last tearing itself apart, through ego, through drug use and simply through fatigue.

The soundtrack, however, shows the band at the same creative high they'd been enjoying for a few years. A fair hint toward gauging its quality without hearing it is to consider that, when Apple forever set down the "proper" Beatles canon with their original CD releases in 1987, Magical Mystery Tour was the only American LP among the British albums -- in the UK, the soundtrack was issued as a double EP. Normally, the practice of chucking in hit singles for an international release requires the omission of album tracks or at least the disruption of flow; as an EP, they could easily expand the running time without sacrificing any other songs, but the insertion of five singles comprising the whole of side two is initially upsetting.

Fret not, however; Magical Mystery Tour greatly benefits from the inclusion of the singles, and their seemingly sloppy insertion only adds to the overall impact of the album. Though Sgt. Pepper heralded the Summer of Love, this soundtrack far more fits into the psychedelic sound that often misrepresents Pepper. That should come as no surprise to anyone who even saw still photographs taken from the film, but what is surprising is how almost every track on the album bumps against the barrier that separates the excellent Beatles tracks from the true cream of the crop.

Take those singles. Combined, the "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane" match-up is one of the band's most rewarding moments. One simply cannot pin down the Beatles' sound, but we tend to gravitate to their more personal numbers: "Hey Jude," "In My Life," "Help!," they're all widely accepted as some of the band's finest moments. In this single, or the one-two punch late in the album, fans are treated to childhood reminiscences from both John and Paul. "Strawberry Fields Forever," Lennon's contribution, bears some resemblance to his "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," not only in structure but in open drug influence. The drugs seep into his fond remembrances, turning the location of his youth into a serene state of mind that mixes the escapism of both Memory Lane and hallucinogens. Paul's song treads similar ground, and not just because the street of his song was located not too far from the orphanage of John's song. Both set a blueprint for fairy tale psychedelia, but where Lennon's tune is a pure spaced-out trip, Paul sticks to his growing affinity for quasi-baroque, its swelling euphoria complementing "Strawberry Fields" perfectly.

Nothing can top this lethal combo, but a number of tracks come impressively close. "Hello Goodbye" calls to mind the radiant giddiness of "Good Day Sunshine," and "All You Need Is Love" fleshes out Lennon's hippie anthem "The Word." Both rely on simple set-ups -- the contrast in "Hello Goodbye," the arguable naïveté of "All You Need is Love" -- but both are among the band's most uplifting songs. McCartney scores with another sweet tune with "The Fool on the Hill," a typical lilting Paul ballad that lacks the musical complexity of some of the songs he'd been producing around the time even as it displays some of his best songwriting. Of the original soundtrack, it likely ranks as the finest number.

Also noteworthy are "Blue Jay Way," George Harrison's droning, unsettling tune, and "Flying," an instrumental that manages to be as tightly constructed as it is bold and adventurous. The thick-corded guitars of the first segment give way to gentle Mellotron and wordless harmonies, only to end with trippy, ethereal Mellotron and studio tricks. Both are sadly neglected entries in the Beatles' canon, strongly written and instrumentally impressive, but perhaps just a bit too weird for their own good.

The most notable track on the album is likely Lennon's "I Am the Walrus." John was of course no stranger to studio and musical innovation and, as evidenced in "A Day in the Life," flirtations with the avant-garde, but "I Am the Walrus" clearly points to his coming immersion into experimentation. Lennon combined three unfinished songs into the final product, yet for all its studio wizardry it ultimately emerges a perfectly catchy pop tune, unlike the dreaded "Revolution 9."

The other three songs don't stack up to the high quality of the other 8, with Lennon's "Baby You're a Rich Man" particularly grating on the nerves. Its oboe-like clavioline rings out in fits and spurts over lyrics haphazardly meshed together from a failed tune each from John and Paul. The last time Paul tried to unload a line or two he couldn't use anywhere else, we got the middle section of "A Day in the Life." Here, it contributes to the weakest song the Beatles had recorded since their pre-Rubber Soul days. Nevertheless, Magical Mystery Tour is the great unsung album of the Beatles' repertoire, featuring some of the group's strongest writing and, in the case of "Flying," instrumental prowess. It might have marked the beginning of the end, but even as they walked into the horizon the Beatles couldn't help but be great.

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