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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Magical Mystery Tour

Magical Mystery Tour was broadcast in Britain on Boxing Day, December 26th, 1967.  It was such a failure with both the critics and the public that ABC-TV, which held the American rights, never aired it.  Paul's idea for an avant-garde film for television had been conceived well before the death of Brian Epstein, but without the manager's guidance, it quickly descended into chaos.  The Beatles set out with no script (only some rough scenarios), no director (surely they could do it themselves) and a bus full of actors who were told to simply "act."  The final nail in the coffin was that this wild, psychedelic extravaganza was shown by the BBC in glorious black and white.  But, while the TV show was a colossal debacle, the accompanying soundtrack was a runaway hit, despite the fact that much of the music was merely a pale imitation of Sgt. Pepper six months earlier.

In the UK, the soundtrack was released as a double EP, with the songs in the following order:

SIDE A

Magical Mystery Tour  - The title song is by McCartney, and the basic track was recorded on April 25th, only weeks after the completion of Sgt. Pepper.  He had only a few lines at the start, however, and asked the other Beatles to call out suggestions as they rehearsed in the studio.  The same approach was used days later when he kept four trumpeters waiting as he and producer George Martin worked out on the spot what they wanted them to play.  In spite of the haphazard method of its creation, the song works well as an opening number for the film because of its simplicity.  The trumpet fanfare at the top may not be the equivalent of George's crashing chord at the beginning of A Hard Day's Night, but it does the trick.  The low-key instrumental break allows a voice-over to set up whatever semblance of a story is to follow, and the fadeout makes for a nice segue into the action.

Your Mother Should Know - Essentially, this is only one verse written by McCartney and stretched out to an entire song.  He changes one line to create a second verse and merely sings "da da da" for a third.  The basic track was recorded at Chappell Recording Studios on August 22nd and 23rd, the second night turning out to be Epstein's final visit to a Beatles session.  A remake was attempted and abandoned in September before returning to the original version and adding an organ part by John to the instrumental breaks.  This song is used for a big production number at the end of the film. 

SIDE B

I Am the Walrus - I have already covered this song as the B-side to Hello Goodbye in my most recent entry, but this is as good a time as any to point out that the group did learn something from director Richard Lester, and that was how to film a musical sequence.  The one for this song is the best in the film and, like the sequences for Can't Buy Me Love and Ticket to Ride, serves as yet another fine example of a stand-alone music video years before the creation of MTV.

SIDE C

The Fool on the Hill - A minor classic by McCartney, which could have easily been released as a single, as evidenced by a cover version by Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66 that went to number six.  While the lyrics are little more than a simple character portrait, the melody and the recording itself are sublime.  Paul plays a fine solo on recorder, John and George add harmonica and Ringo plays finger cymbals.  To further enhance the sound, George Martin wrote a score for three flutes.  The sequence for this song was filmed at great expense in Nice, France, showing Paul on a hilltop shot from a helicopter.

Flying - The only instrumental ever released during their career and the first composition to be credited to all four Beatles.  And, even though it is technically an instrumental, all four Beatles sing "la la la" for the final verse.  The fairly simple melody is performed by the group on their usual instruments, with John adding the Mellotron.  The sounds at the end of the song were compiled by John and Ringo and continued for several minutes, but the recording is wisely cut short.

SIDE D

Blue Jay Way - Harrison's contribution to the soundtrack is a swirling psychedelic piece composed while he was in LA waiting for a friend on a foggy night.  You truly get the sense of the fog in the sonic textures, from the eerie organ to the distorted backing vocals by John and Paul to the lone cello scored by George Martin.  It is also the most psychedelic musical sequence in the film.

In the US, Capitol Records knew that the double EP would not be popular with the American audience, so they created an album by putting all of the soundtrack songs on side one and all of the singles from 1967 on side two, making a very attractive package - so attractive that it became a best-selling import in the UK.  By 1976, the double EP was discontinued, and in 1987, when the group's entire catalog was first issued on CD, Magical Mystery Tour had the distinction of being the only album presented in its original American format.

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