Title: The second of Paul McCartney’s ‘wheezes’ in 1967 was that the Beatles should go on a working-class sharabang. The group hired a coach, filled it with actors picked on whims from Spotlight, and headed for the West Country. A huge amount of unscripted, self-directed and generally slapdash material was filmed for a 50-minute TV special, which was accompanied by a six-track double EP of new songs…
Cover: Bold, colourful, eccentric. The four Beatles appear in the costumes they wore while filming the I Am the Walrus section of the TV show.
Best song: I Am the Walrus, John’s psychedelic tour de force – not so much a song as an immersive experience. The writing was influenced by a letter Lennon had received from a pupil at his old school telling him the class were analysing Beatles songs. Tickled by his work being on the syllabus, he decided to compile an OTT, surrealistic, razzle-dazzle lyric (“Let the fuckers work that one out!” he joked at the time). It includes slang from his childhood, a reference to Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, lots of fantastic internal rhymes (“Expert textpert choking smokers/Don’t you think the joker laughs at you?”) and invocations of Lewis Carroll. The chords are just as brilliantly bonkers – every musical letter from A to G is used, and the fall and rise of the music during the chaotic fade-out is engrossing. And the production is endlessly interesting. I love the effect on John’s voice, George Martin’s arrangement, the various sounds effects, the snatches of a radio broadcast, and (in the pre-remastered version anyway) the dislocating switch from true stereo to fake stereo, which sounds really trippy on headphones.
* The Fool on the Hill, written by Paul, is a pretty little tune.
* I also like the written-on-the-spot-by-the-whole-group Flying – it’s often described as an instrumental, but has (admittedly wordless) vocals.
Worst song: Blue Jay Way, inspired by a house in the Hollywood Hills that George Harrison had recently rented, is dreary, interest-free and dawdles on for four minutes.
Notable outside contributions: An orchestra plays on I Am the Walrus, four trumpeters on the title song and three flautists on The Fool on the Hill. In the live radio transmissions randomly mixed into I Am the Walrus is a performance of King Lear. Although he’s not in the relevant clip, the cast featured future Doctor Who star Roger Delgado.
Alternative version: The American release of Magical Mystery Tour added five songs (taken from contemporary singles) to pad the EP out to a complete album. That edit was released in the UK in 1976 and has since been the official version in the Beatles discography. The additional stuff contains two masterpieces and a fantastic little gem. Strawberry Fields Forever was written by John in Spain while he was taking on a rare acting role:
George Martin’s vision in creating a fascinating soundscape is astonishing – especially when you consider that the finished song is actually two takes, recorded at different tempos and with different ‘feels’, outrageously cut together at the 1.00 mark. We get a mellotron, trumpets and cellos, some typically inventive drumming from Ringo, some backwards guitars and a fake ending – it’s thrilling stuff. The lyrics are a mish-mash of self-doubt, childhood nostalgia and deliberate linguistic uncertainly (“I think, I know, I mean, a ‘yes’, but it’s all wrong/That is, I think I disagree”). The song was released as a double A-side with Paul’s Penny Lane (the greatest 7” of all time?). McCartney wanted a ‘clean’ sound for this song, and the jaunty, precise instrumentation is an absolute joy. The lyrics, meanwhile, are full of wonderfully rich imagery and poetry, and contain both naughty slang (“Fish-and-finger pie…”) and surrealism (“The pretty nurse… feels as if she’s in a play; she is anyway…”). B-side Baby, You’re a Rich Man, which was written by John (verses) and Paul (chorus), is generally considered to be about Brian Epstein. I’ve always adored its strangeness – the Middle Eastern-sounding whine of a clavioline, the prominent ‘thwud-thwud’ bassline, and John’s high singing.
Review: In order to have peaks, you need troughs. After 24 months of unbeatable form, the Beatles took the foot off the pedal. Unlimited studio time, less pressure from the record company and the death of manager Brian Epstein in August 1967 all chipped away at the band’s quality-control setting. There’s greatness here – music of genuine world class – but also the kind of substandard work we haven’t had for a while. The proto-Python TV show is worth checking out for a handful of fun sequences: the performance of I Am the Walrus, John playing a grinning waiter shoveling food onto a fat woman’s plate, Victor Spinetti’s cameo, John amusing a little girl with some nursery rhymes, and a performance from The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. But you have to sit through a lot of boring, self-indulgent, badly filmed rubbish to get to the good stuff.
Eight semolina pilchards climbing up the Eiffel Tower out of 10.