Tuesday, November 22, 2011

We Are All Together: The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour EP

When an artistic movement helps to define an era, the era can – and often does – supersede the movement, leaving whoever is participating in it to their own devices until they can regain their bearings. The haze of ’67 was brought on in large part by The Beatles with “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever” and Sgt. Pepper, and celebrated by “All You Need Is Love.” The Beatles didn’t invent psychedelic music, but without their success with it other bands wouldn’t have recorded some of the songs I have written about/mentioned recently.

Ian MacDonald describes the summer of ’67 as something of an egalitarian free-fall, a time when the movement was starting to show its cracks. The Rolling Stones were framed and put on trial and sentenced, pirate radio all but disappeared; The Man plc had had enough of the fun times, the party was over. If Charles Shaar Murray could write a piece about the public abuse of The Sex Pistols and call it “This Sure Ain’t The Summer of Love” then I should say that the Summer of Love itself wasn’t all that loving in the first place (and hence the worldwide rebellions of 1968 didn’t come out of nowhere).

For The Beatles it was as if they had been elevated to a status that made them godlike, which is pleasant enough if all is well. The artistic highs – writing and recording one of the greatest, if not the greatest single of all time, album ditto – led to a dual anxiety and laxness, neither of which are helpful in making music. Add to this the death of Brian Epstein in late August and you can see how Magical Mystery Tour was more or less going to be patchy, and if you factor in drugs and their lingering side effects then it is a wonder the thing – soundtrack and movie – were done at all. Most groups would take a good break and think things out before proceeding, but as pioneers The Beatles were naïve in their way; they had to keep going in order to keep existing at all, and had already begun the project when Epstein died. In a way it was griefwork, and if it sounds distracted then that’s a good reason why.

I should also mention the collapse of the SMiLE project of The Beach Boys, due to the pressures Brian Wilson had as he tried to get his recalcitrant band to work on something utterly different while fighting Capitol Records’ legal team at the same time. The sessions were legendary from the get-go, and The Beatles (because the two groups had the same publicist, Derek Taylor) must have heard some of them, though just what they heard I don’t know*. If SMiLE had been released in January of ’67 as planned then so much would have been different, but it wasn’t and The Beatles, in effect, had no competition**. This added to their laissez-faire attitude, one which didn’t really suit them. (They also of course had stopped touring – something no group would normally do unless they were about to break up or were taking a breather. They had a right to stop, but it took the fresh air out of the group, and in the long run I think they suffered for it.)

If the public – or at least a good section of it – turned away from psychedelia, it was because they could hear in it – even if the words made little sense – a rejection of the world as it stood, and unless they were also were part of the counterculture, that rejection would include themselves. That psychedelia did matter to many as not just meaning drugs but an embracing of such things as the I Ching, Tarot cards and so on as guides and symbols shows the longing for another order of things altogether, a sensing even that behind the modern world of new-fangled things was an older order that would feed the soul…that randomness was a way of making art as well, what with everything – every symbol, every card – meaning something, after all…

Before '67 for The Beatles, this randomness was a tool to inspire new songs; but now it became for them a way to just get things done, an end in itself. The I Ching is a profound work, however and not one to be taken lightly; the Tarot can be used to present situations and suggest the obstacles and solutions to them, rather than just being a series of medieval symbols that are pretty. I don’t know if they used either of these in their work, but it was in the air, and as with anything the more attention and care given to them, the more you get back. Again, laxness and anxiety are not helpful in harnessing these random (or some would say not-so-random) sources, when what is needed is calmness and concentration.

Magical Mystery Tour the tv movie was shown on Boxing Day; this EP preceded it by a few weeks. It has six songs, each one a little more strange than the previous – “Magical Mystery Tour” itself sounds like a tv show theme, hectic, full of brass, echoes, desperate for attention and winning it, because they are “DYING to take you away.” It is as if The Beatles are more or less kidnapping their audience, promising strangeness and beauty and whatever else they need in return. If it’s “an invitation” then it is one of the most demanding ones of all time; the audience has a right to feel uneasy.

Then, from the menacing “coming to TAKE YOU AWAY” it goes quiet and still; “The Fool On The Hill” observes the spinning world, oblivious to public opinion, simple in his way but wise as well. I don’t know if this comes (as IMac guesses) from The Fool in the Tarot, but if you know anything about that card you know he is going along his business, dog nipping at his heels – far from the lonely figure McCartney sings about. It is a gently sad song – is the fool a pitiable figure, or is he at one with the world, centred, while everyone else is mad? He is there perpetually, “day after day” and his naive and childlike nature are admirable but also kind of unnerving. No one seems to know him, like him, care for what he says – so I, anyway, tend to find this song a little off-putting, though lovely as well. (The recorder and other instruments suggest the medieval Tarot-like vibe of the song, far more than the lyrics.)

Flying” is a mellow instrumental ; it sounds uncannily like Stax, reminding me of Booker T & the MGs’ McLemore Avenue, which is their own laid-back take on Abbey Road. This sounds as if it is an homage to that label to me, with added mellotron; weightless as the title suggests, and proof that all the Beatles together could indeed write a song.

Blue Jay Way” is a song that Harrison wrote while in Los Angeles, waiting for Derek Taylor; he may have been listening to the SMiLEsessions before writing this, if only because the tempo changes are of the same sort. It is - like all of Harrison's songs at this time - based on Indian music, but instead of being enlightening, it sounds as if he is just being whiny, unable to just go to sleep when he wants to. This is what I mean by the chance element - being stuck waiting for someone - might seem like a good idea at the time for a song, but in reality it's not. Maybe he should have just meditated, gone to sleep, called someone up? But MMT needed songs, and so this was included...

Your Mother Should Know” may not seem very intimidating or strange, but the fact that it’s an unfinished song (musically it just meanders along pleasantly enough) adds to the unease that has been steadily building up. The idea of dancing to an old song – a song from “a long, long time ago” (the WWI era, perhaps?) verges on the vintagizing effect. This sounds cute – to throw away the present for the past – but as a song it lacks knowingness that The Beatles usually kept in their collective back pockets. Is it anti-Modern? Has time stopped? Are The Beatles now like Hamlet, in a world out of joint? I am not sure, but I do know that while they were recording this Brian Epstein dropped by to see how they were doing – the last time they were all together. The old world is gone, there is nothing new and so why not celebrate the past? Things are getting more and more confusing, and I can’t blame the UK audience for finding this a less than satisfactory ending for the movie.

None of these songs could prepare the listener for the next song, however; in it a threshold is crossed, and the palpable underlying dissatisfaction in so many psychedelic songs utterly explodes.

I Am The Walrus” is the point at which The Beatles justify this entire exercise. To say that it’s monumental is barely adequate; it is such a big song that as it ends you aren’t in the same place as when it started, and hence pop music isn’t in the same place, either. It warps and changes and surrounds the listener, inducing (I’m sure, because I feel it) in more delicate listeners dizziness and slight nausea. There is simply nowhere to hide. The lyrics are deliberate nonsense (Lennon wrote them to frustrate any hapless interpreters, so I am going to leave them alone) and they are sung with such disgust and venom that they cannot help but be scary. (Not as scary as the Blue Meanies, but pretty close.) Every key is hit here, every target Lennon can think of is included, and this howl is more than matched by Steve Race (orchestration) and George Martin in the slowly vertiginous alternating keys and general claustrophobic feeling. (The only thing that breaks up that is the pause for “Sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun” which inspired Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne no end in Birmingham***.) The closest thing I’ve heard to it is “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” from SMiLE– that same repetitive churning, the same loudness, reflecting a world in chaos. Another small link is Lennon’s high “I’m CRYING” with Wilson’s “too tough to cry” in “Surf’s Up” – the nonsense of Lennon comes out of frustration/repression, whereas Van Dyke Parks’ lyrics are an expression of a collective memory, one where the child is father to the man. For better or for worse, Lennon spoke only for himself. (Another generation would bring their own energy to the song, of course.)

This was not pop music as usual and in a song that cries out against everything, some novelty – something new – must come to take its place. Lennon had caught up with McCartney on the avant-garde art front (thanks to Yoko Ono) and thus Lennon & McCartney then up the ante towards the end by baffling/assaulting the listener with the Mike Sammes Singers yelling, like cue-carded Village residents on drugs, “EveryBODY’s GOT ONE!” repeatedly while a live radio feed of King Lear is put into the mix, a record is scratched (the first time this happens on a single, I think – hello rap) and the cellos and horns keep blaring away. Gradually it fades away, as a whole world is falling apart. That this wasn't the last song in the movie makes sense, but on the EP it could only be at the end; because in more than one way, it is the end.

Out of the death of Brian Epstein came forth MMT, much like the unwanted liberation of Julie Vignon in Bleu - her husband's death eventually leads to her being discovered as a composer in her own right. The Beatles had already been in the process of finding their own voices, but with Epstein's death this was accelerated, with the attendant artistic egos coming out of what was once a gang bent on taking over the world. So the MMT stands as the last time The Beatles were indeed The Beatles; after this they began their lives as solo artists, the cover of their next album being blank, representing the effective clean slate they had been given, whether they wanted it or not.

So Magical Mystery Tour EP is a record of how they were caught up in the haze of '67, the death of Epstein, their own naivety that they could do anything and because they were The Beatles, it would be good. The grief and whimsy sit uneasily together, though, auguries of what is to come, just as in a couple of months another (overlapping?) tv audience will be outraged by this ending, one that includes "All You Need Is Love" and may or may not have the group itself as cameo masked figures. (They wanted McGoohan to direct MMT but he was too busy with The Prisoner to do so, and rightly figured they'd probably take over directing anyway.) Other groups would have done one more album to tie things up and then called it a day; but The Beatles had no leader (McCartney was their ringleader, as such, but there was no one outside the group to herd them) and thus lacked focus; they still had plenty of music to make, but after the movement, what was left for them? The times would now determine them, as much as the reverse; and the Magical Mystery Tour EP would be an indicator of everything to come, good, bad or indifferent.

Here we leave 1967 temporally, but it will come back, as ever when least expected, multi-colored and kaleidoscopic and celebratory. Why? In part because it is the year of the 60s when all held promise and so much was expected; expected in part because so many things had already happened. The intense flood of emotion and drama to come are the result of the feelings of being let down; of being betrayed. Maybe The Beatles continued on because others looked to them for The Answer; 1968 gives answers all right, but not the ones people wanted.

In a way that starts here too - MMT the movie was not praised in the UK at the time and people felt as if the Fab Four had let them down. Just the cultural weight of that alone would bring a new spin to '68 as if to say: the gods have clay feet. No one is perfect; better to enjoy the here-and-now-roughness of life than dream of an ideal world. So say we, The Beatles would have answered, born again, squinting in the new world's light; so say we.

*Paul McCartney visited Brian Wilson in April and played him “She’s Leaving Home” and guest-chomped on “Vega-Tables,” and generally encouraged him to “keep up.” The Beach Boys were able to salvage the SMiLE sessions and get Smiley Smile out of them, and then recorded Wild Honey in the same time The Beatles did Magical Mystery Tour. It seems unfair to compare the two groups, as ever, but these days Wild Honey gets a lot more love than MMT.

**The Rolling Stones were in disarray and both The Who and The Kinks were in states of transition from being Shel Talmy-vestibule-inhabiting loud rockers to being more thoughtful and rock-operatic.

***John Lennon once remarked that if The Beatles had continued they would have ended up like ELO, little knowing that once he’d died Jeff Lynne would produce “Free As A Bird.” There is no winning, sometimes…


Bob Stanley said...

If deluxe editions had existed in 1967, then MMT would have worked well as Sgt Pepper's bonus disc. The quality is a little lower, but only a little. I think the maudlin touches you mention (can I add the gorgeous piano coda to the title track, which was aped on a few fine '68 singles including Ice's Ice Man) would have actively benefited Pepper's peppiest parts. MMT is possibly the single biggest influence on the songs of Emmitt Rhodes, too, for which I'm very grateful.

A couple of other thoughts - for me, Your Mother Should Know is no more or less unfinished than anything they recorded pre-Revolver. And isn't the Mike Sammes Singers' Village chant "oompah oompah stick it up your jumper"? If I've misheard that all my life, I'll feel a right fool (non-tarot variety).

Mark G said...

Bob: Both are chanted, I think they are separate in the stereo mix. Together, they sound like "Gotcha Gotcha stevregonna gotcha"..

I do remember seeing this on the original TV broadcast, just about. Basically, my reaction as a 6yrold was "That was good, look forward to next week!" like it was a TV series. Yes, there was TV like this at the time, and as such looked a lot like "Do not adjust your set" to me, particularly the Black and White aspect (Colour TV? In South Shields? In 1967??)

Lena said...

They do indeed sing that first - you aren't mishearing anything! - but then switch to the more hysterical chant afterwards.

I agree there are some unfinished songs pre-Revolver, but then I guess my frustration w/The Beatles is that I expect them to write things on a par with "Drive My Car" or "I'm Looking Through You" - things that have a little more oomph to them, even if they aren't all that polished...to expect them to come up with songs equal to "In My Life" or "Yesterday" in the circumstances they were in would have been too much.

I will have to catch up on Emmitt Rhodes, am interested to hear him!

Rob M said...

I don't want to sound like a pedant but... the track listing, or at least the order of the tracks, is different on the vinyl double EP set from the order on the MMT LP. The EP set goes Magical Mystery Tour / Your Mother Should Know // I Am The Walrus /// The Fool On The Hill / Flying // Blue Jay Way. This leads to a debate about what is the proper order for the songs. Again, this isn't the order the songs appear in the film, and you have to wonder if there were some restrictions based on the amount that could be crammed onto a 7 inch 45 rpm disc. But listening to the songs in this particular order, which is how the public in 1967 would have heard it, gives a different impression from how it appears on the album. Ending with "Flying" and "Blue jay way" leads to a more melancholy finale to the set.

Good call on Emitt Rhodes, Bob. Definitely agree on that one. As for the deluxe edition idea, Charles Shaar Murray stated in a Mojo Beatles special that the "MMT" album is the other half of the double album that "Sgt Pepper" was originally meant to be.

Lena said...

I should have stated that the track listing I was following for this was from the first side of the MMT album and not the original EP as such; as you have said, the order of the songs is not really the same in the movie itself and this leads me to think that the songs don't really have to "be" in any particular order to make sense.

I am sure this would have been done as a deluxe edition add-on had they existed in '67; I am not sure if a double album would have worked, esp. since that would have meant over a year's wait for it, and I doubt if EMI would have liked that very much.