Happy 50th Anniversary to The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, originally released in the US November 27, 1967 and in the UK December 8, 1967.
Magical Mystery Tour is often perceived as the Beatles’ first chink in the armor because their television special of the same name didn’t perform well upon release (to put it mildly). Not to mention the towering achievement of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band a mere six months prior.
However, as critics have pointed out more recently, the American edition of Magical Mystery Tour is a sonically innovative and positively euphoric listening experience when heard as 11 songs by a great band. The musical patchwork of new and familiar material was empathic proof that their creative vision put them head and shoulders above their competition, even when others felt they weren’t firing on all cylinders.
Between the joyous burst of trumpet fanfare, paisley drum fills, and lush harmonies cartwheeling across the carnivalesque groove, one can’t help but feel energized by the travelogue concept of “Magical Mystery Tour” as the bus engine comes roaring across your speakers. The opening title cut eases right into the folkadelic dream “The Fool on the Hill,” a strike at the people opposed to the prevalent hippie culture of the time. “He never listens to them, he knows that they’re the fools,” Paul McCartney sings over tufts of flute and somber piano chords. “They don’t like him / The fool on the hill sees the sun going down / And the eyes in his head see the world spinning ‘round.”
Magical Mystery Tour ascends skyward for the vapor-trailing instrumental “Flying,” an extremely rare tune where all four band members share the writing credits (the other being “Dig It” from 1970’s Let It Be). The free-floating mood, adorned by Ringo Starr’s stacked harmonies and John Lennon’s vertigo-inducing keyboard flourishes, fits in perfectly with the experimental tone of the album. Written in the fog-bound Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles, “Blue Jay Way” is a haunted house of a hit. The blurred harmonics successfully convey George Harrison’s jet-lagged dislocation while waiting for his publicist Derek Taylor to arrive.
“Your Mother Should Know” is another idiosyncratic wrinkle that adds to Magical Mystery Tour’s whimsical nature, taking its title from the screenplay of A Taste of Honey and harking back to Busby Berkeley showtunes with its heads-in-the-clouds nuance.
Closing side one is the enigmatic fairytale “I Am the Walrus,” inspired by Lennon’s fascination with Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter” poem from Alice Through the Looking Glass. As the story goes, Lennon was tickled to find out children were analyzing the band’s songs in school, so he decided to make his next one as lyrically confusing as possible. “‘Walrus’ is just saying a dream—the words don’t mean a lot. People draw so many conclusions, and it’s ridiculous,” he explained in The Beatles Anthology. “I’ve had tongue in cheek all along—all of them had tongue in cheek.” Starting at the 3:31 point until the end, Lennon’s esoteric creation deconstructs itself into a vortex of ear-assaulting sounds that leave the listener feeling disturbed yet intrigued at what side two has in store.
The charmingly innocent “Hello, Goodbye” bounces along sunbeams with its lively piano hooks, shuffling percussion, and dreamy vocal arrangement. Surprisingly, Lennon felt the song was “three minutes of contradictions and meaningless juxtapositions,” which is peculiar after listening to “I Am the Walrus.” However, despite the duo’s creative differences, “Hello, Goodbye” skyrocketed to #1 on the pop charts with a “Hela, Heba, Helloa” outro catchy enough to stick in your head for days.
The nostalgic one-two punch of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” embodies much of what fans love about the outstanding Lennon-McCartney tandem. The former offers a glimpse into the social isolation Lennon felt as a child in Liverpool. “I was different from the others. I was different all my life,” he revealed in the January 1981 issue of Playboy. “The second verse goes, ‘No one I think is in my tree.’ Well, I was too shy and self-doubting. Nobody seems to be as hip as me is what I was saying.” The latter reflects on McCartney’s upbringing in his old neighborhood with a carefree melody like The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” from Pet Sounds. Interestingly, there’s a sly reference to female genitalia in the song’s second chorus. “We put in a joke or two,” McCartney disclosed in The Beatles in Their Own Words. “‘Four of fish and finger pie.’ The women would never dare say that, except to themselves. Most people wouldn’t hear it, but ‘finger pie’ is just a nice little joke for the Liverpool lads who like a bit of smut.”
“Baby, You’re a Rich Man” rides along a cheerful beat (backed by McCartney’s boogie-woogie bass line, Lennon’s trippy Clavioline squiggles, and jangling percussion) that you can picture a young woman in a tie-dyed Mumu singing along to while twirling in a stoned circle. Some believe Lennon and McCartney are nonchalantly teasing their manager Brian Epstein for being a “rich man” thanks to their unparalleled success. Yet like many of the Beatles’ best songs, the story is suggestive enough to remain open to interpretation. Legend has it that members of the Rolling Stones were present during the “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” session, and one of the tape boxes from that day has “+ Mick Jagger?” written on it, suggesting that the flamboyant singer is audible in the song’s irresistible chorus.
Only a handful of Beatles songs breathe the same rarefied air as “A Day in the Life” or “Let It Be,” and “All You Need Is Love” is one of them. Naturally chosen as the representative of Britain, Lennon elected to write this gloriously uplifting anthem for Our World, the first televised satellite link-up between 25 countries, with more than 400 million viewers tuning in globally. “We were big enough to command an audience of that size, and it was for love,” Starr reminisced in Anthology. “It was for love and bloody peace. It was a fabulous time. I even get excited now when I realize that’s what it was for: peace and love, people putting flowers in guns.”
From the French-themed fanfare to the majestic gospel-infused finale, “All You Need Is Love” is a sweet breeze of pure optimism cutting through the murk of our complex and confusing world. Listen to the sweeping survey of musical ideas artfully interwoven during the coda that begins at the 2:43 mark: J.S. Bach’s Two-Part Invention in F Major (trumpet duet), “In the Mood” (played by the brass section), “Yesterday” (shouted by Lennon), “Greensleeves” (played by the strings), and “She Loves You” (sung by Lennon). That final minute brings the Beatles’ career full circle: four mop-headed boys from Liverpool at the embryonic stage of their career had evolved into some of the most renowned musicians and songwriters in the industry.
Fifty years have passed since The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour put rubber to the road, and their trailblazing musical paths stretch for miles. Almost every song here could easily represent the pinnacle of most artists’ careers, making it virtually impossible to pick out highlights as they veer between abstract experimentalism (“I Am the Walrus,” “Blue Jay Way”), lighthearted odes (“Penny Lane,” “Hello, Goodbye”), and some of the band’s finest work (“Strawberry Fields Forever,” “All You Need Is Love”).
Commercially, the album soared to #1 on Billboard’s Top LPs chart for eight weeks in early 1968 (receiving a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year later that year) and remained in the Top 200 until February 1969. The album experienced a resurgence in popularity during its 45th anniversary, climbing to #1 and #2 on the Billboard Catalog and Soundtracks charts, respectively. Magical Mystery Tour is as apt an album title as you’ll find: not only is it a masterful cinematic fusion of psychedelic rock and orchestral pop, but it also celebrates the idea that music can still invigorate, inspire, and surprise—even if you had a hand in inventing it.