Assessing The Beatles’ 2009 Studio Remasters (Part Nine)

In Britain, it was a six-song EP.  In North America, an eleven-track album.  The soundtrack to a critically bashed TV special, the music from Magical Mystery Tour is better remembered today than the actual show.  (For those not around during its initial airing on Boxing Day 1967, it’s available on DVD.)  British listeners were only able to hear the new songs from the hour-long program on two 7-inch vinyl records.  The North American release put all the show songs on side one and five 1967 non-album A-Sides and B-Sides on side two of a 12-inch LP.  (It would take about a decade for that version to surface in Ol’ Blighty.)
Of all the 2009 reissues, like the 1987 CD releases, Magical Mystery Tour is the only title that follows the American track listing, which isn’t a bad thing at all.  In fact, these 5 bonus tracks make all the difference in the world.
Beginning with the title cut and ending with All You Need Is Love, the album is not only delightfully odd, it features some of the best material the band ever committed to tape.
Magical Mystery Tour kicks things off sounding like one of the most warped theme songs you’ve ever heard.  The vocals drift in and out of tune, the time signature is constantly changing and every once in a while a bus motors through loudly.  (The premise of the special involves a group of people going on a road trip.)  Another track that mixes horns with traditional rock instruments, despite its experimental loopiness, you’re willing to go along for the ride.  The lyrics are necessarily basic.  Not a lot of room for deep thoughts here.  By the time the singing stops, there’s some lovely piano playing that, inevitably, turns demented.  All in all, not a bad way to start.
The Fool On The Hill switches gears entirely with its soft, piano driven tale of a seemingly simple mind drowning in the wonders of the world and annoying everyone else with his unexplainable grinning, unresponsive nature, misunderstood point of view and stationary positioning.  Paul McCartney’s vocals are high and sympathetic while the music backing him up evokes the more whimsical moments of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album.
The next track, Flying, might be the most unusual in the band’s entire catalogue.  There are no lyrics in this psychedelicly funky instrumental.  The only singing comes courtesy of unidentified male singers who “la la la” along to the organ melody line in the song’s second half.   Like all good rock numbers, it turns you into a bobblehead for its tight two-minute duration.
Your Mother Should Know is a moving little throwaway that repeats slight variations of its only verse several times.  It sounds more like a B-Side than a soundtrack number but it’s still worth singing along to.  It’s yet another example of how The Beatles could make literally anything work, regardless of how silly, nonsensical, juvenile or repetitive the words could sometimes sound.
The best of the show songs is easily I Am The Walrus, a strong contender for best Beatles track of all time.  Simultaneously surreal and moving, it is literally crammed with unusual and entertaining sounds (not all of them from instruments) to match its imagination.  At the start, it sounds like someone is rhythmically sharpening a couple of knives.  Perhaps that’s an unintentional foreshadowing of this acerbic line, “Don’t you think the joker laughs at you?”, one of the few times John Lennon appears to tweak his audience on disc.  At a couple of points, you hear segments of Shakespeare’s King Lear taken directly from a BBC Radio broadcast.  It somehow blends in with this mishmash of sound.  The original 1987 CD version features some annoying feedback.  For the most part, it’s still here in this 2009 reissue, although the first time it happens it’s not nearly as ear piercing, thankfully.  Also, the use of outside backing singers works very well.  It shouldn’t surprise anyone that some of the lyrics were inspired by two separate acid trips.  For those unwilling to stick a tab on their tongue, settling for this far out number instead sounds like a smarter idea.  And safer, too.  Just an amazing song despite Lennon’s insistence on writing some of the most bizarre lyrics he could think of.  The last minute sounds better here than on the original CD.
George Harrison calls in from the spirit world on the truly weird Blue Jay Way.  Based on a true story, it’s the most challenging song to get into on the album.  When I heard the song on this reissue for the first time, it left me cold which was odd since I remember liking it back in the 1990s when I first went through the original Magical Mystery Tour CD.  Subsequently, after a few false starts, I finally got through a complete, follow-up listen.  With ghostly vocals dancing around throughout in the background and Ringo’s skillful drumming on display, I found myself more drawn to the arrangement.  I’m not sure I would ever sing along to this one (the melody line is a bit odd), but it’s definitely not out of place on this record.  Its otherworldliness blends in nicely with the other tunes.
The rest of the album is filled out with several strong numbers only previously available on single releases.  I’ve always had a soft spot for Hello Goodbye despite its very simple lyrics.  I used to think it was about the very pronounced differences in the personalities of Lennon and McCartney, how opposite they are in general.  But now that I know how the words aren’t nearly as significant as I once believed, it’s not nearly as great now.  Still, I sing along like a fool and that musical backing remains brilliant.  As is his custom from time to time, McCartney rips it up when he gets excited, especially near the end.  I never get tired of that.
Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane, the first two songs to come out of the Sgt. Pepper sessions, pop up next.  With his voice slightly altered and his thoughts often going in several directions at once, Lennon nonetheless offers some of his most insightful, albeit egotistical lyrics in the former.  In the first verse there’s a simultaneous sense of frustration and contentment with his celebrity (“It’s getting hard to be someone, but it all works out”) followed by a baffling malaise (“It doesn’t matter much to me”).  By the second, there isn’t anyone who compares to him (“No one, I think, is in my tree”) or can relate to him on his level (“…you know, you can’t tune in”) but he sort of accepts that (“…but it’s alright/That is, I think it’s not too bad”).  By the final verse, he’s completely confused about what’s real and what isn’t.  Musically, the song is as exceptional as the words.  Ringo’s on fire during most of the choruses and the endings (the false one and the real one) as he drives the beat faster during the up-tempo moments.  The unusual combination of modern effects with rock and classical instruments underscores the disorientating feelings in Lennon’s lyrics.  Lots of beautiful melancholia to be felt here.  Another strong contender for the all-time best singles list. 
Penny Lane, the flip of that song, couldn’t be more different with its cheerfully nostalgic, slice-of-life breeziness.  We briefly get to know a proud barber, a fireman devoted to Queen Elizabeth, a nurse who sells poppies and a driving banker as, once again, classical instruments play a prominent role in the arrangement.  McCartney’s wistful vocals are affectionate for these people and the place they inhabit.  Just a lovely tune.
With its chugging bass line, infectious handclaps and occasionally falsetto vocal lines, Baby You’re A Rich Man is very much a product of its era both in sentiment and arrangement.  For three minutes, we all can be one of the beautiful people.  I like how in the lyrics it’s never quite clear what that actually means which is probably the point.  There is no one definition.  It’s a universal concept.  The jokey line thrown into the chorus is goofy and, you would think, out of place but, this being The Beatles. it’s not. 
The album ends with the spectacular All You Need Is Love.  Opening with a few bars of The British National Anthem, it quickly turns into an anthem of its own with its boundless positivity and deeply moving arrangement.  Reflecting what was happening in teenage culture in 1967, it perfectly captures the mood of a woefully naive movement, that whole nothing-is-impossible silliness.  The recording’s party atmosphere makes you wish you were there in person.
Overall, the sound quality is superb with noticeable improvements regarding I Am The Walrus.  There should be no more complaining from the fussiest of Beatle fans.  Early pressings are enhanced with a short documentary about the making of the TV special and the album.  (The basic requirements to see it are QuickTime and Windows 2000.  Consult the back cover for more info.)  All the footage, which features voiceovers from every band member and producer George Martin, also appeared in The Beatles On Record.  Watching it with the sound off allows you to better appreciate some of the artsy shots from the special, like the tinted shots of landscapes set to Flying.  Unlike some of these reissues, I didn’t experience any audio troubles with the documentary.  The ever pesky sync problems, however, remain a burden.  Nothing really revelatory here but it’s cool to hear Ringo praise Lennon’s poetry, particularly his succinctness with certain lines, and Lennon praising his own I Am The Walrus in one clip and humourously noting how people take it way too seriously in another.
Besides the new Recording and Historical Notes, there’s plenty of photos, lyrics to the TV songs and the uninspired multi-page comic book summary of the actual special (which is more for hardcore fans, I’m afraid) that appeared in the original vinyl artwork.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band opened up exciting new avenues for The Beatles in the recording studio both musically and lyrically.  With the occasionally brilliant Magical Mystery Tour, their “psychedelic period” ended on a very positive note.  No more Love Me Dos from here on out.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, February 9, 2010 
12:46 a.m. 
Published in: on February 9, 2010 at 12:46 am  Leave a Comment  

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