Updated: Mar 1, 2022
It was only two years after they made their American debut on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. In between those two years, however, the world saw this young English rock band evolve at warp speed, from four young and inspired Liverpudlians to The Beatles, one of the greatest bands in recorded history.
Before releasing Revolver in 1966, the Beatles began a summer tour that went through Germany, Japan, the Philippines, and the United States. Regardless of the great show that they performed in Munich, the Beatles sparked controversy in Tokyo after performing at the Nippon Budokan, or ‘Japan Martial Arts Hall,’ an arena that traditionally hosted events for judo, aikido, and karate. In the Philippines, Filipino news publications accused the Beatles of snubbing Imelda Marcos, First Lady of the Philippines, the morning after the Marcos family had invited them over for dinner. In the American South, they received violent backlash from fans after U.S. Newsweek later republished John Lennon’s famous statement that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” Lastly, after playing a show at Candlestick Park on August 29, 1966, the Beatles concluded their careers as touring artists, feeling egregiously disrespected and unloved by their fans.
For a brief period after, the Beatles decided to temporarily separate from each other. John began writing “Strawberry Fields Forever” and Paul wrote a screenplay. George immigrated to India to learn about Hinduism and Ringo spent time with his wife and newborn son. Brian Epstein, who was once busy with the Beatles, began drinking and drugging away the sorrows of his extravagant yet sad life.
During the latter months of 1966 leading into 1967, the Beatles began working on new album concepts. In a Mental Floss article, Eddie Deezen recalls that “Mystery Tours were all the rage in England-- these being low-budget weekend getaways [with] groups of people riding overnight on a bus to a surprise destination.”(Deezen, 2011, par. 2) During this time, in April of 1967, it is understood that Paul McCartney took a flight from England to the United States. In an article for Rolling Stone, author Douglas Wolk provides that “[Paul] got the idea for an hour-long movie that would document a free-form bus trip, a sort of British equivalent of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ adventures in their bus.” (Wolk, 2017, par. 5)
As extravagant as it sounded, this idea was in its beginning stages, and the Beatles had been secretly recording another album, one that made such an outrageous alter ego for the group that it would not only rebrand them as a unit but also provide a pseudo-unifying backstory that would change how the world perceived them completely.
Released on May 29, 1967, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band broke yet another musical threshold. While many believed that their inhibition to perform live would hinder their musical prowess, the Beatles, now designated as a studio band, proved that they could survive. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band marked a new age for the Beatles. They rid away from the black and white of the past and introduced a new resurgence of color, not only literally but metaphorically, in that they achieved their goal to push the musical boundaries of rock ahead of their time. Sgt. Pepper peaked at number one on the Billboard Top LPs chart on June 30, 1967, and stayed there for an outstanding 233 weeks after its release.
Despite their success, however, it is reported that the Beatles were not writing songs as efficiently as they were before. Wolk states,
“With touring no longer a question, [the Beatles] had the luxury of fine-tuning their songs at length in the studio; the same band that had recorded its first album in a single day was now tinkering with individual recordings for weeks on end.” (Wolk, 2017, par. 1)
This by no means indicated that the quality of their music had worsened. Rather, if anything, it proved that their musicianship and creativity were evolving in different ways. As they had continued to reap the benefits from their hard work on Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles still continued to release singles. Debuted on June 25, 1967, for the Our World broadcast, the Beatles made an on-screen appearance for their hit track, “All You Need is Love.”
After this performance, the Beatles still needed respite from their music. However, as Wolk proclaims,
“The reason for the artistic slowdown was simple: It was a beautiful summer--there were parties to go to and drugs to take...Among those parties was a big bash at Epstein’s house; he’d asked the band to arrive early so they could discuss something important. But, as Harrison later recalled, “Everybody was just wacko. We were in our psychedelic motorcars with our permed hair, and we were permanently stoned … so we never had the meeting.” (Wolk, 2017, par. 9)
Despite the thrill of the summer of ‘67, a common controversy at the time was the relationship between the Beatles and their manager, Brian Epstein. The group had been drifting away from him for a while, and knowing that his contract was close to expiring, they remained unsure of whether to renew it or not. Regardless, as time went on, they continued to enjoy their eventful youth. Lennon, Harrison, and McCartney reportedly went to Greece for a brief part of July and Ringo stayed in England with his family. Nearing the beginning of August, however, the group reassembled to work on McCartney’s “Your Mother Should Know” and also participate in transcendental meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a guru who would become an important figure for them over the course of the following year. The Beatles were coming back together, once again, and they were ready to take the world by storm. But, on August 27th, 1967, the Beatles had gotten a call regarding Brian Epstein. He was found dead in his London home of an accidental prescription-drug overdose. “We loved him, and he was one of us,” Lennon said at the time. Brian Epstein’s impact on the Beatles is undeniable. While many viewed him as a faulty businessperson, Wolk disagrees by saying,
“Epstein really had been a crucial part of their organization-- the person whose business acumen gave them the freedom to concentrate on their music. The Beatles’ creative chemistry thrived on their differences as artists, but it was their business problems that would ultimately tear them apart a few years later.” (Wolk, 2017, par. 11)
After Epstein’s death, the Beatles regrouped to continue recording tracks for the Magical Mystery Tour album. After laying down three original tracks in early September, the Beatles set out from the 11th to the 15th of 1967 to film what would become the visual counterpart to the Magical Mystery Tour. During the editing process, which ended up taking around 11 weeks, the Beatles recorded a handful of sessions at Abbey Road Studios from September 25th to October 25th of 1967. It was during these sessions that they completed the spacey trio of “Flying,” “Blue Jay Way,” “I Am the Walrus,” and began recording Paul McCartney’s “Hello, Goodbye” and “Fool on the Hill.”
It is important to note that Magical Mystery Tour is not considered a part of the Beatles’ album catalog. It hit the British market as a double-EP, but because the U.S. wouldn't accept it as a viable format, Capitol Records created an LP for the American market that would place the six songs from the EP-- “Magical Mystery Tour,” “The Fool on the Hill,” “Flying,” “Blue Jay Way,” and “I Am the Walrus”-- on side one and the other five tracks, titles that had appeared as singles in 1967-- “Hello, Goodbye,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Penny Lane,” “Baby, You’re a Rich Man,” and “All You Need is Love”-- on side two. Released on November 27, 1967, Magical Mystery Tour became a phenomenal hit, peaking at number one on the Billboard Top LPs chart on January 5, 1968, and staying on the charts for 93 more weeks. A month later, on December 26, 1967, the Magical Mystery Tour film made its debut on the BBC Network. Because it aired on Boxing Day and was also shown in black and white, this film was a major flop with scathing reviews. “Blatant rubbish,” declared the Daily Express, “...The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” While the album never boasted the same success as its predecessor, Sgt. Pepper, Wolk recalls that...
“The Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack did what the movie was supposed to do – despite being a grab bag of the group’s 1967 singles and songs recorded specifically for the film, it holds together surprisingly well as an addendum to Pepper, giving us an image of the psychedelic Beatles refining their enhanced perceptions into individual pop songs so potent that they changed the whole landscape of music.” (Wolk, 2017, par. 3)
The first half of this LP features “Magical Mystery Tour,” the Beatles’ introductory song to the surrealistic musical experience that is the Magical Mystery Tour. As the Beatles repeat the phrase, “roll up, roll up for the Mystery Tour,” they mesmerize the listener as the song repeats a quick and tight drum rhythm laid down by Ringo, ornamented by trumpets and other orchestral additions. Just as Sgt. Pepper’s first track “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” welcomes the listener to the album, so does“Magical Mystery Tour,” as the Beatles seek to “take you away” from the real world and place you into their imaginary realm. The next four tracks, according to a Pitchfork review, “are low-key marvels,” as follows Paul McCartney’s “The Fool on the Hill.” On this track, McCartney provides an abstract take on his sentimentality towards others and perhaps an honest reflection on the way that he views himself, an innocent man ostracized by a cruel society. The emotional, almost satiric feel of the song places loneliness in a humorous form, as McCartney meanders across an English plain and sings hopelessly into the sunset. The next original track featured in the album is “Flying,” a laid-back yet decorated interlude, and “Blue Jay Way,” a George Harrison song that has a foggy and ominous drone to it. Then comes Paul McCartney’s “Your Mother Should Know,” what Pitchfork calls a “music-hall throwback” that blurs the lines between sweet and eerie, repeating a series of modulated chords with lyrics perhaps looking into the future, as the Beatles take an introspective look at current affairs in their own personal lives and how the truth behind their words will resound throughout the years to come.
In December of 1967, the headline for the Saturday Review editorial proclaimed:
“WHOEVER IT WAS that wrote the Bhagavad-Gita (the Celestial Song of Hindu theology) intended to define the perfect disciple when he wrote: "Who sees Me in all/and sees all in Me/For him I am not lost/and he is not lost for me." The disciple has just replied, and in surprisingly similar terms: "I am he/as you are he/as you are me/and we are all together."
Mike Jahn, the author of the aforementioned phrase, did an analysis of Magical Mystery Tour and proclaimed it as innovative. Jahn, after listening through it completely, noticed that there were a number of innovations that took place. One was that the third featured track, “Flying,” was the first instrumental and cut written by all four of the Beatles. Another innovation that Jahn listed was the 24-page coloring book that came along with the purchase of the vinyl. Most importantly, however, Jahn stated that the “real innovation of this album lies in its description of the Beatles’ personal involvement with Hinduism.” The reason why Mike Jahn believed Magical Mystery Tour was such a great piece of music was that it distinguished itself as an album that exhibited a bleak description of how the Beatles perceived everyday life through their newly acquired sense of Hindu philosophy.
This is specifically the case in “Fool on the Hill,” where Jahn believes Lennon and McCartney “speak of a detached observer, a yogin, who meditates and watches the world spin[.]” Conversely, Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus” melds acid playground rhymes into a story where, as Jahn states, “the yogin [(perhaps a metaphorical figure for the Beatles)] tells what he sees.” (Jahn, 1967, par. 6) Furthermore, according to Jahn, “I Am the Walrus” mixes surrealistic imagery with recurrent themes of duality (yin and yang, loneliness, and togetherness). The walrus, a character that Lennon was inspired to write about after reading Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, remains a mysterious character whose significance many today still debate. But, just as Carroll emphasized that his writing should not be overanalyzed, so did Lennon. In a 1980 interview for Playboy, Lennon said the following:
“It never dawned on me that Lewis Carroll was commenting on the capitalist and social 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? (singing) 'I am the carpenter....’”
While writers among the likes of Wolk, Jahn, and Scott Plagenhoef of Pitchfork all recognized Magical Mystery Tour as a perfect sequel to Sgt. Pepper, there are many that disagree. Among them is Alan Walsh, who, in January of 1968, published an article for Melody Maker that reviewed his personal opinion on the album. Walsh, who was highly concerned with its mass appeal, begins by asking: “Why then did [the Beatles] produce a film whose point, message, meaning, communicative intention, whatever you want to call it, was obvious only to the minds of John, George, Ringo — and, of course, Paul who masterminded the whole project?” Granted, tracks such as “I Am the Walrus,” “Blue Jay Way,” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” yield convoluted and ambiguous lyrics, but also, it seems that Walsh is playing the role of the newcomer, someone who just walked into the Beatles’ shop not knowing anything about their past. In other words, Walsh is saying that the underlying message of Magical Mystery Tour was inadequate and “far too subtle” for mass audiences--specifically younger demographics--to get behind.
Yet, these same demographics purchased the LP regardless. In a brief article for the Los Angeles Free Press, Tom Nolan writes that people (like Walsh) during his time tended to describe the album “as a rambling unhomogenized melange of disconnected dolly shots, a pretentious attempt at avant-garde art with spotty color and general weirdness that fails miserably[.]” However, Nolan thinks quite the opposite, proclaiming it as “superb, brilliant, great,” and interestingly regards the Magical Mystery Tour film as “by far the best of the Beatles films.” Nolan, an avid fan, provides that it is these critics, those who said that “the Beatles have fallen flat on their faces,” who are
“More simply a reflection of the mentality of the English journalists… sharp middle-class boyos, cast in their role by the thumb of birth, the brighter ones like [Robert] Frost gaining upward momentum as glib intellectual acrobats, where ideas are trampolines[.]” (Nolan, 1968, par. 2)
If anyone, the Beatles were those glib, intellectual acrobats, and if anything, the Magical Mystery Tour was the trampoline. While the concepts behind Magical Mystery Tour are rather convoluted, Nolan wrote to prove that the critics of his day seldom understood that music is art, and the beauty of it is in the eye of the beholder.
Regardless of the differences from the first half of Magical Mystery Tour, the second half, which collected the singles the Beatles had previously released throughout 1967, contains a sequence of some of the Beatles’ most iconic songs.
Beginning with the hit single “Hello, Goodbye,” a Lennon-McCartney track that addresses the natural duality of humanity-- hello and goodbye, yes and no, right and wrong-- and uses its chorus, “you say goodbye, and I say hello” as a repetitive unifying message that plays an easy and catchy upbeat hook, “Hello, hello, I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello.”
The following track, John Lennon’s hit song, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” features a melancholic personal surrender to the meaninglessness of life, as John sings “nothing is real,” but insists that this realization is “nothing to get hung about,” and to indulge in the simple pleasures of life. The album then plays “Penny Lane,” another McCartney-Lennon track that describes literally the sights and experiences that the group had while growing up in Liverpool.
It is important to note the stark contrast between McCartney’s “Penny Lane'' and Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever,'' as the dynamic range in both their sonic quality and lyricism says more about what the Beatles musically achieved during their career together in seven minutes than any other two songs did in their entire catalog. Again, duality seems to be a recurrent theme in this album-- while “Penny Lane” is charming and upbeat, “Strawberry Fields Forever” is brash, dense, and melancholy. The variations between the two circumnavigate a theme of a seemingly simple past refracted into a convoluted present. And, if “I Am the Walrus'' was Lennon’s dark foray into contradiction and surreality, McCartney’s “Hello, Goodbye” was its bright alternative. The second-to-last track, “Baby, You’re A Rich Man,” is “a scathing portrait of a social arriviste that may or may not have been intended as a jab at manager Brian Epstein[.]” (Wolk, 2017, par. 6) The album ends with “All You Need is Love,” a major melody sung by the Beatles that reminds the world that, regardless of the misgivings that life may bring, all you need to be happy is love.
In all, the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour album is, in my opinion, amongst the greatest albums that the Beatles ever produced. Decorated by vibrant colors, goofy filmmaking, and alter-personas (“I Am the Walrus''), this album instinctively unfolds the mystery of who the Beatles were, not only as counterparts to their band but also as individuals speaking their truths about their intricate lives full of fame and fortune. Through the use of surreal imagery and figurative language, harsh-yet-soothing chord progressions, and ornamented instrumentations, this album was a perfect cap to one of the most eventful years for the Beatles. Not only did it prove to the masses that the Beatles were here to stay, but it also proved to the Beatles themselves that those four boys who were once performing love soliloquies in pompous hairstyles and uniforms were more than just a hot commodity. They were the Beatles, a larger-than-life group of individuals who changed the world forever.
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