Magical Mystery Tour came at a strange time in The Beatles‘ ever-morphing career, and as a result often gets overlooked. Despite being nominated for a Grammy (has that ever really meant anything?), the insanely colorful sounding album was released as the accompanying soundtrack to what was considered to be an awful television film. Originally conceived as the Fab Four’s own epic take on Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, the shoot devolved into an argumentative mess, made nearly impossible to complete due to the group’s rabid fanbase that swept the locations. It was also released after Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the band’s universally accepted opus, and as a result fell short of expectations.
But in many ways, it’s the perfect follow-up, tighter than its predecessor, delving even further into the quirky, orchestral FM carnival that was so new to every consumer’s ears. Although not as grandiose as Sgt. Pepper’s, Magical Mystery Tour‘s leanness gives the listener a sense of urgency, letting us know that every trippy echo, every cheerful whistle, every calliope tapestry is there for a purpose. And with the newly remastered version, its true audio heaven, allowing us to experience one of the band’s most euphoric, instrumentally rich albums in all of its cloud gazing glory.
As a whole, the album is a near greatest hits package, featuring a second half comprised of all singles. People tend to forget that “I Am The Walrus”, “Penny Lane”, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Hello/Goodbye”, and “All You Need Is Love” all came from this record. However, the first half is no slouch either. The title track has never sounded better, rescuing offbeat sound effects such as the Magical Mystery Tour Bus revving up from their formally tinny master tapes. Whereas on the original album, the bus engine sounded vague and distant, the remastered track sends it roaring across your headphones, truly transporting you into the album’s whimsical realm. And the newly beefed up brass section on the title track sounds positively regal, biblical even, announcing the arrival of a king or parade.
Things get a little more mellow for the next four tracks. Whereas Paul McCartney’s bass line was nearly inaudible on the previous recording, here it drives the laid back songs, adding liquid momentum to the loungy “Flying”, and music hall nostalgia to the wonderfully schmaltzy “Your Mother Should Know”. Other stellar moments in the album’s first half include the eerie Hammond organ and faint tribal drumming on — in my opinion, George Harrison’s most underrated song — “Blue Jay Way”. For a piece inspired by the simple act of waiting for a friend to arrive at his Los Angeles home on a foggy night, “Blue Jay Way” is a haunted house of a hit, adding an ethereal, creepy mythos to the City of Angels.
But the true star of the remastered album’s first half if “I Am The Walrus”, which has never sounded more layered, hallucinatory, or demented as it does here. The track constantly loops around your speakers as it falls apart from its straightforward beginning into a busted up collage of monotone dialogue, ghostly backing vocals, and jingly sound effects (telephones, static, spaceships, you name it), finally giving the song the intense, nonsensical treatment it deserves.
The album’s weakest track kicks off the second half. Although the sunny elementary school music room stomp of “Hello/Goodbye” is catchy and uplifting, its lyrics still seem a little too basic. Made up entirely of opposite phrasing (“you say yes, I say no…you say goodbye and I say hello”…you get the idea), you can’t help but think McCartney phoned in the lyrics when he wrote them all those years ago. Its sound has aged well even if its subject matter hasn’t.
However, it’s the only weak spot on the entire album, if you can even call it a weak spot. Things pick up with the geographical “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”, John Lennon’s two-headed nod to Liverpool. Both tracks are legendary and feature the most symphony-heavy instrumentation on the album. And boy does it kick. The cello on “Strawberry Fields” adds a bit of hard-hitting sentiment to the track, and when mixed among Ringo Starr’s inverted drum samples and punctuating trumpets, the whole thing manages to sound melancholy, cheerful, and foreboding all at once, especially when it fades back in for another one of those ecstatically cluttered sound collages.
Following “Penny Lane” is another often swept over track, “Baby, You’re A Rich Man”. It’s not as all encompassing as some of The Beatles’ other songs, but it’s a nice little Lennon morality ditty on the perils of materialism with some innovative work with the clavioline from Lennon himself, an odd precursor the synthesizer that resembles a stretched out oboe in sound.
The album closes with “All You Need Is Love”, which remains as resonant as ever, musically, lyrically, and philosophically speaking. Its universal message of human kindness is sincere enough to keep it from being cheesy, and it brings everything full circle for the Fab Four, echoing verses from their early, early work as it fades out. Hearing the boys shout “she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah” over their loopy musical chaos gets one a little teary eyed when thinking about the sheer scope of their career; from four mopheaded lads who crafted straightforward rock n roll riffs to four long haired, complicated men who composed some of the greatest, elaborate, and profound music ever created. And the remastered version is no joke: get this thing now and listen to how fun aging can be.