How the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour was almost, but not quite, saved

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Pity the poor Brits, who only received the first side of the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour as an EP. After all, Side 2 of the 1967 American version included the greatest double-sided single in Beatles history — “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” — when Capitol paired the original film’s music with a trio of recent double-sided hits.

It made for a surprisingly effective soundtrack, when you consider its association with such a badly conceived, awfully executed movie misfire. But even the American version of Magical Mystery Tour — released in the U.S. on November 27, 1967, it’s now part of the canon — struggles to overcome comparisons with the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, issued earlier the same year. There’s no over-reaching theme on Magical Mystery Tour, no fizzy medleys, no eye-popping maze of cultural icons to pore over on the cover — and that tends to expose the weaker songs in a way that it didn’t for Sgt. Pepper.

So, we have Paul McCartney offering the limpid, but ultimately undercooked “The Fool on the Hill” and, with “Your Mother Should Know,” another in what has become an unbroken series across the decades of pre-rock throwback piffles. George Harrison, who had begun an often-interesting exploration into Indian music, took an experiment with drones on “Blue Jay Way” to the point of monotony. That’s to say nothing of the tossed-off instrumental filler of “Flying.”

Sometimes the added-on songs on the project’s second half are no better: John Lennon’s “All You Need Is Love,” for all of its pop culture cache as the first globally broadcast song, remains more pastiche than visionary. The dopey “Hello Goodbye” would have been, without question, the worst No. 1 song the Beatles ever had — if not for the morbid, crashingly boring “The Long and Winding Road.”

Thankfully, there’s the title track. Goofy, but mindlessly tuneful, more about feel that anything, it gets things off to a stirring start. “I Am The Walrus” possesses one of the band’s nastiest grooves. And “Baby, You’re A Rich Man,” though it won’t be confused with the Beatles’ best work, is filled with a string of intriguing musical moments.

Still, none of that compares to the towering successes of this album’s legendarily tacked-on double-sided No. 1. Wonders of studio wizardry, eccentric and eclectic, spectacular and specific, and perhaps most of all very, very British, “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Field Forever” are all but definitive — both for their individual writers in Paul McCartney and John Lennon, but also for the band itself. When people say something is “Beatle-esque,” this is what they are talking about.

So great is the impact of these two Beatles songs, in fact, that they almost – but not quite – save the whole album.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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