Fifty years ago this week, The Beatles released the “Magical Mystery Tour” album in the U.S. It was an album borne of both the remnants of the year’s sonic adventures as well as a loss of personal direction, yet it remained a huge success.
By the end of 1967, the Beatles had recorded and released their most commercially and critically acclaimed album to date, then only two months later lost their manager Brian Epstein to suicide. At that time, and something that he readily admitted years later, Paul McCartney took up the reins and tried to become the band’s new guiding force. History would show it to be the beginning of the end.
McCartney’s first idea was for the band to do an unscripted feature film about a bus tour, starring ordinary people who would get into so-called “magical” adventures. What became “Magical Mystery Tour” was a psychedelic television film filmed in vivid color with a soundtrack of new Beatles’ originals.
The film premiered the day after Christmas on British television in dreary black and white. Coupled with the sloppy and incoherent editing that emphasized the fact that the Beatles were not filmmakers, “Magical Mystery Tour” was mercilessly panned.
In retrospect, the film is by no means a masterpiece, but it is a precursor to the whimsy and absurdist humor of Monty Python who would debut on television two years later. It’s also very heavily carried by its soundtrack, which in the U.S. included all of the band’s prior non-album singles of 1967.
The originals are inconsistent, ranging from the sublimely ridiculous (“I Am the Walrus”) to the self-indulgently ridiculous (the old-time music hall-influenced “Your Mother Should Know”). “I Am the Walrus” is John Lennon’s love of Lewis Carroll-inspired nonsense come to full flower, complete with taped sound effects, distorted strings and a snippet of “King Lear” at the very end. It’s also the best of the film’s original songs.
In between are Paul’s jaunty “The Fool on the Hill,” George Harrison’s dour and lethargic “Blue Jay Way” and an instrumental titled “Flying” which was one of the first and only Beatles compositions to give writing credit to all four members.
The singles in the second half fit seamlessly into the mix. “Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane” is still their finest accomplishment and a definitive statement for the band. “All You Need is Love” was the song the band performed live to a global audience in June, with many seeing it as a kickstart to the so-called “Summer of Love.” In the end what could have been a disaster of an album turned into the band’s final statement on the year of psychedelia.
Even the most inconsistent Beatles album is a hit, and “Magical Mystery Tour” was no different, remaining at No.1 on the Billboard charts for eight weeks. The album’s approachable whimsy with the singles’ commercial appeal not only meant that the album stayed popular, but that arguably giving a kid “Magical Mystery Tour” as his first Beatles album meant he would be a fan for life.