Monday, 27 September 2010

Magical Mystery Tour

A perverse index of how successful Sgt Pepper was can be found in the backlash that followed six months later. Today, the slating that Magical Mystery Tour received seems magnificently irrelevant to the group’s reputation. Indeed, it’s rather gratifying that The Beatles used their huge commercial clout to convince the BBC to devote an hour of the Boxing Day schedule to their rambling stoner home movie: having done their three years of punishing, crowd-pleasing itineraries, they were now doing what the hell they wanted. Take that, The Man!

Yet the kicking they received was not entirely undeserved. The Beatles do appear to have lost focus quite rapidly after Sgt Pepper, partly as a result of McCartney’s bullish determination to maintain it. Just four days after finishing Pepper, when they probably should have taken a break, they were back in the studio working on Magical Mystery Tour. Another factor was the death of their manager Brian Epstein, which was not only traumatic but robbed them of a key authority figure. And although they’d been doing lots of drugs for some time by this stage, in the air of the summer 1967 – and with a resounding creative and commercial triumph behind them – it’s just possible that it all went to their heads.

In the Anthology series there’s a sequence of interview clips where nobody can come to a consensus on whether ‘All You Need Is Love’ was written specially for the Our World TV special or not. It’s generally unclear to me whether the material they were recording in this period was intended for specific projects, or whether they were just slinging songs together and putting them out wherever seemed appropriate at the time. Up to this point, their record releases had been very straightforward – they aimed to average a single every four months and an album every six. Recently the gaps between releases had stretched, but the pattern was more or less the same. Yet post-Pepper, they were working on two different soundtracks (Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine) whilst still putting out singles, but not working on an album. Their approach to the Yellow Submarine soundtrack appears to have been to use it as a dumping ground for less favoured material (as evidenced by poor George contributing two of the four new songs).

In addition, the group were also accruing offcuts like ‘You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)’, which didn’t see the light of day until the ‘Let It Be’ single in 1970. Pre-Pepper, they’d never had time to mess about in the studio. Now they seemed to be doing it quite often, no doubt to the delight of George Martin and his team who had to sit around until the early hours committing to tape what might only be an extended in-joke.

A lot of the material from this period has been celebrated in retrospect, and there’s a lot to like about it. The only real dud on the Magical Mystery Tour EP, for me, is ‘Blue Jay Way’ (I even like the much-maligned ‘Flying’). ‘I Am The Walrus’ is of course a Classic Beatles Song, as Lennon gets away with a measly single contribution to the soundtrack by the simple tactic of making it one of the most astonishing pieces of popular music ever made. (It’s been analysed enough elsewhere – Howard Goodall covers it well in the documentary I linked to in the second piece on Revolver.) Neither ‘The Fool On The Hill’ nor ‘Your Mother Should Know’ would have dragged down the hit-rate of Sgt Pepper. Although there’s sometimes a lethargy to the performance or a lack of polish in the production to the tracks from this period, it’s only by comparison with their own high standards – and you only have to listen to the ‘Weimar’ version of ‘Your Mother Should Know’ (recorded after the ‘proper’ version, but discarded) to know that they were still disciplined enough to search for the best way of doing something rather than go with the first thing that came into their heads.

Yet whilst these tracks may have been celebrated individually, they simply don’t add up to as much as Sgt Pepper, or indeed Revolver or Rubber Soul. It’s annoyingly nebulous and I’m possibly trying too hard to justify an instinctive response here, but it does seem that the unifying sense of purpose which had shaped earlier Beatles albums is missing here – and would arguably remain missing until Abbey Road.

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