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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  • JC Mosquito

    There you go. Magical Mystery Tour sold well, so it was successful that way, but it wasn’t even an album to start with, and for reasons cited, certainly wasn’t that great an album in the end anyway. As for “There’s no over-reaching theme on Magical Mystery Tour, no fizzy medleys…” – same could be said about Sgt. Pepper. However, put “Strawberry Fields Forever and “Penny Lane” back with the Pepper sessions, add “Walrus,” then drop a couple of weak cuts (your choice), and that would’ve been the crown jewel in the Beatles royal… jewelry hat, or whatever it’s called.

  • Tom Terrrific

    Still, it’s the Beatles’ most psychedelic album. It’s completely lysergic, way more than SPLHCB.

  • JC Mosquito

    Age is irrelevant. Rubber Soul is good, and Revolver is even better, and both are older.

  • JenniferBunny

    Good grief. This reviewer is way off on this one.
    This is not only their most underrated album, but their best period.

  • One Mississippi

    It’s a GREAT album.This reviewer is nuts !

  • David Pierpoint

    You’re nuts. Hello Goodbye is one of the greatest records ever produced.

  • Ted Scott

    Pity the poor Yanks who had to buy a whole album to get what we Brits got as an excellent double a-side single of ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Strawberry Fields’. Possibly, the very best double a side ever made. The e.p of Magical Mystery Tour made a darn sight more sense then the extended album, which was filled with just that,’filler’. Magical Mystery Tour was as you say one of the Beatles less successful experiments, but at the time was a valid experiment.

    • Curt B

      i think the single was available in america as well.

    • CoCo Turtle

      Tell everyone, Ted Scott, the name of the song, and artist, that kept this excellent double a-side single from reaching #1 in Britain?

      • JC Mosquito

        “Wand’ring Star” by that vocal powerhouse… Lee Marvin, wasn’t it? I hear it every night on that Amazon commercial with that little white dog with its leg in a blue cast.

        • CoCo Turtle

          Haha, nope! The song stalled at number two, one place below Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Release Me”. Pity the poor Brits!

          • JC Mosquito

            You’re right – the details got away from me. However, Wandering star by Lee Marvin stopped Let It Be from achieving UK number 1 status.

  • J Powell

    Although everyone is entitled to their view, i do find this review quite nasty and spiteful. Blue Jay Way & Flying encompass a mood not found on other Beatles albums/EP’s whatever. I love them! Magical Mystery Tour (song) rocks! For all of the minor flaws in the film and album, i love the whole package…. to think Sgt. Peppers & MMT in the space of 8 months… incredible! P.S I think The Long & Winding road is one of the highlights on Let it Be as well. I am not one of those people who think everything they did was genius… i still skip over Rocky Racoon and What Goes on.

  • Curt B

    you lost me with this…

    “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.”

    The last was a hit ballad. Maybe like Paul you didn’t like the orchestration added in later?
    Hello Goodby is a great song in the tradition of Drive my car. Had it been on an earlier album you might have praised it!

    You did NOT like MMTour. You liked the single they added onto theUS album. Admittedly it is not their best work but still a better album than most others from the time period. It was thrown together to make money, not art.