Monday, November 3, 2014

Turn Left at Greenland, Part 11: ‘Magical Mystery Tour’

In this monthly feature on Psychobabble, I’ve been looking at how The Beatles were presented on long-playing vinyl in the United States. 

 And so Dave Dexter, Jr., was banished to the land of the Blue Meanies and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had rescued The Beatles—and pop music—from ever being treated with anything less than complete respect again. Neither them nor their peers would ever be tampered with for the sake of the American market and everyone lived happily ever after. Hoorah!

Only that isn’t how it all turned out, and the neutered and spayed edition of Revolver was not the last word on Capitol’s tinkering. But this time, can we blame the victims? Is it The Beatles’ fault that their very next US album released after their boldest epoch-defining artistic statement was not an LP they actually intended to release? It is not unreasonable to suggest such a thing since they chose to release the soundtrack to their homemade TV movie Magical Mystery Tour on a format that was nearly unsellable in America in 1967? Even at home the extended play record was on its way out. In fact, the Magical Mystery Tour double-EP set was released just days after the EP chart was discontinued in the UK, causing it to miss the number one spot it would had taken if it wasn’t being held from the top-spot of the singles chart by The Beatles’ own “Hello Goodbye”.

In earlier years, the EP was a very viable medium in England, functioning as a more affordable alternative to the LP. Songs such as “Twist and Shout” and “Yesterday”, which headed hit singles in the United States, performed similar roles on EPs in England.  In the summer of ’64, The Beatles bopped to number one with Long Tall Sally, their first EP consisting of tracks unavailable anywhere else. By the beginning of the following year it would sell a million copies all over the world.

One market that did not cotton to Sally was the US. The extended play simply did not sell in the States, and only two Beatles EPs— Four By The Beatles and 4-By The Beatles— would ever chart there (an EP would not go to number one in America until the release of Alice in Chains’ Jar of Flies CD in 1994). Perhaps the others would have done better if they’d all been named 4 Buy The Beatles or Fore Bye The Beatles, or some variation on that. However, Long Tall Sally did nothing on American shores, which is not surprising since it was not even released there. Instead its four tracks were split between The Beatles Second Album and Something New.

That was 1964. Three years later, the EP was even further out of favor in America. That might have changed had Magical Mystery Tour EP been released in the United States and not been available in any other format. Certainly American fans would have broadened their horizons if an EP had been the only way to obtain “Magical Mystery Tour”, “Your Mother Should Know”, “The Fool on the Hill”, “Flying”, and “Blue Jay Way” (the set’s most monumental track, “I Am the Walrus”, was available elsewhere on the back of the number-one smash “Hello Goodbye”). That would not be an issue since Capitol took no chances by leaning on their old phony format of compiling recent tracks with songs The Beatles only intended to release on 45.

This time it worked quite splendidly though. While there are those who prefer the American Rubber Soul to its UK counterpart or think Meet The Beatles is a stronger album than With The Beatles, only the purest purist could prefer the double-EP to Capitol’s LP. Beyond the minor irritation of having to lift the needle and flip the record every few minutes, beyond the bummer of shrinking a groovy LP-sized booklet of photos, comics, lyrics, and stories to EP-size (perhaps less of a crime was shrinking the front cover, which is surely The Beatles’ ugliest), there’s the fundamental issue of the content. Unlike A Hard Day’s Night or Help!, films for which The Beatles produced mostly excellent new material, some of the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack selections did not find the guys working at their peak powers. Much of it sounds like a pale retread of the Pepper sound with Paul grafting the brass that decorated the title track of his last album to another title song that isn’t nearly as strong. “Your Mother Should Know” revisits the nostalgia-jazz sound of “When I’m 64” with a weaker, more repetitious song. “Blue Jay Way” is very repetitious too, though its fazed-out atmosphere has a definite allure. “The Fool on the Hill” is a good ballad but “Flying”—funky as it is and mesmerizing as its tape-loop finish may be—is straight-up filler, perhaps The Beatles’ first.

Without the yellow border and song titles of the Capitol album, John, Paul, George, and Ringo were allowed to impersonate a walrus, a hippo, a rabbit, and a rooster in all their hideous glory without any unnecessary distractions on the UK EP.

There are reasons why this wasn’t The Beatles’ best crop of tunes. They’d spent so much creative energy on Sgt. Pepper’s—and their last five years of near-constant work— and needed time to recoup their inspiration. Instead Paul pushed them to keep working so he could complete a film that basically wasn’t an ambition shared by his band mates. John and George could only force out one song each, and those two tracks were arguably the best ones on the EP set. The recent death of manager and friend Brian Epstein made matters a lot more complicated. The guys were severely saddened, which is not the ideal mood for creating the kinds of jolly numbers their frivolous film required.

By bolstering a selection of pretty OK songs with such phenomenal ones as “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”, and very good ones as “Hello Goodbye”, “Baby You’re a Rich Man”, and “All You Need Is Love” (which is rated as very good or great by most people who aren’t me), the whole project becomes stronger. No longer do so-so tracks like “Your Mother Should No” and “Flying” constitute such a large percentage of the entire platter. They are mere passing moments on the way to “I Am the Walrus”, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, and “Penny Lane”. On the downside, the LP was rushed into stores so quickly (even beating the UK EP by eleven days) that proper stereo mixes of “Penny Lane”, “Baby You’re a Rich Man”, and “All You Need Is Love” were not completed, leaving these tracks in lousy duophonic mixes on the stereo LP (a complete stereo mix would not appear until 1971). It was almost as if Dave Dexter never left.

Capitol’s Magical Mystery Tour was a big hit on the commercial level too. No matter that the TV movie advertised on the album cover hadn’t even been released in the US, and wouldn’t until a one-off showing at fundraiser for the underground Liberation News Service at the Fillmore East in August, 1968. Magical Mystery Tour enjoyed the biggest sales of any LP in the US to that point, moving eight million copies in the first three weeks of its release. It even performed fabulously in the UK where it went as high as 31 on the charts as an import in January 1968. As the EP continued to evaporate, it would receive official release in the UK in 1976. And when The Beatles’ albums were released on compact disc for the first time in 1987, and the UK versions of these albums were finally standardized around the world, Capitol’s Magical Mystery Tour would be the label’s only album to be awarded canon-ship alongside Please Please Me, With The Beatles, Beatles for Sale, and the rest. As its contents were almost completely unique (only “All You Need Is love” appeared elsewhere on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack) it made more sense to put this one American album out intact instead of shuffling its contents into the Past Masters compilations. This continued to hold true for the 2009 remaster series and the even more recent Beatles in Mono vinyl box set. For one man, the Magical Mystery Tour album has been standard going back a lot longer than 1987; in the seventies, John Lennon himself rated it as one of his favorite Beatles “albums because it was so weird.”
Magical Mystery Tour was a UK top-forty hit LP as early as January of 1968, but EMI didn't  release it officially until 1976.

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