Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Magical Mystery Tour

I am of an age such that I grew up with D.A.R.E., a federally-funded program in which cops come into schools (I'm using the present tense, but does this still even happen?) and try to talk kids out of trying drugs by lying to them about what drugs actually do. The effect of D.A.R.E., in my experience, is that kids are confused for a while ("Doesn't marijuana give you hemorrhoids and make you want to jump out of tall buildings or something?" "No, no, you're thinking of heroin." "I thought heroin is the one that makes your pancreas leak endocrine fluid such that it wells up in your brain stem and affects motor function..." "Yeah, well, the important thing here is that you don't give in to the evils of peer pressure, because if you do we're gonna kick your ass") but eventually, unfailingly, realize they've been lied to, which contributes to growing adolescent disillusionment with the world around them, which itself, in some cases, encourages them to turn to drugs. What would be more effective, at least for kids as geeky and artsy-fartsy as I was, would be to show certain key scenes from Magical Mystery Tour and warn kids about the terrible art that sometimes gets produced under the influence of psychedelic drugs. That at least might have made a lasting impact, and it would have been based in some kind of truth.

Of course, the Beatles also produced great art thanks to psychedelics. "She Said She Said" wouldn't exist if John hadn't eaten acid with Peter Fonda one day, and the entire Revolver album is practically drenched in acid, to say nothing of Sgt. Pepper. But you have to admit that the Magical Mystery Tour film suffers from a unique level of excess, as well as an inherent belief in the fact that everything the Beatles touch will necessarily be awesome-- which might be understandable considering that for four straight years, it had been. Well, the winning streak had to end eventually. Today I'm listening to the title song from the Beatles' very strange, deeply stupid film of 1967.

You know, I should clarify something-- I love Magical Mystery Tour (the film). I LOVE it! I love it completely unironically, too. I will watch it anytime you want. (No one else ever wants to watch it with me for some reason, though.) Speaking as a Beatles fanatic, watching the Beatles jump around being silly and adorable and self-indulgent is TOTALLY something I can get into-- and there are a few particularly dreamy scenes with our lads that can get me properly aflutter. But I'm also aware, as a reasonable person, that the movie is objectively kind of dumb. And this kind of dumb film is opened with today's slightly dumb song.

You know, that's not fair. The song is good. The song is fine. But interestingly-- unlike, say, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," or especially "Help!" or "A Hard Day's Night"-- it is hard to hear "Magical Mystery Tour" as anything other than the theme song to something else. It has a certain perfunctory nature to it, if that makes sense. As if Paul said to himself, "well, if we're going to make a movie, we need a theme song!" and slapped it together. That, of course, is exactly how "A Hard Day's Night" was written, too, but the difference is that "A Hard Day's Night" doesn't sound like it was written that way.

In fact, it's hard to believe that such a slight song was recorded literally a few days after Sgt. Pepper was all finished, some time in the spring of 1967. But it was. And the recording process was so disorganized that one of the disgruntled hired trumpeters actually wrote the trumpet score out for Paul and George Martin, neither of whom had had the time the prepare anything, because he was sick of waiting around. That said, the brass is very well done. (Good on you, trumpeter!) And John and George, who would eventually get sick of Paul's schemes for the band to do all this stuff together, seem to be rallying gamely here. (Sgt. Pepper must take a lot out of you, though.) Ringo sounds like he's having the most fun-- the energy in his drumming sounds genuine, as though he's excited to kick off this new, fun project, and you get the sense that if not for the drumming this thing would collapse into a small mess.

"Magical Mystery Tour" isn't actually bad. It's just disappointing in the context of the Beatles' entire career, and necessarily overshadowed by all the other great moments. The film is the same, really. But it's still a pleasant enough song. I chose it for an innocuous summer Tuesday on purpose-- I hope it manages to inject a little magic and mystery, however slight and stupid, into your day.

"Magical Mystery Tour," released in the U.K. side A track 1 of Magical Mystery Tour double EP, November 27, 1967; in the U.S. side A track 1 of Magical Mystery Tour LP, November 27, 1967.


  1. I like it, although it's hard to say why. More important: Do we know who's singing the first verse? Is it John? Ringo? Both? Someone else? I researched this a couple of months ago, but already have forgotten.

  2. I think the key here is to not take the song too seriously. I think it's probably a good example of craft at work. And viewed that way, i think it's an okay song. I never saw the film, so i have no imagery associations with the song, or the album, in that respect. I do love the little piano jam at the end fadeout, but it seems to be missing in the clip you posted or lost in the ramp up of the crowd noise. My memory is of the album, so ....