The Beatles Mono Reviews 10: Magical Mystery Tour
So we’re getting near the end of these reviews now – after this there’s only the White Album in the mono box set. Do people want to hear my thoughts on the Abbey Road/Let It Be reissues or is it more the mono mix differences you’re interested in?
Magical Mystery Tour gets surprisingly little respect as an album among Beatles fans, which I can only assume is because of its semi-canonical status (it was only released as a double-EP set in the UK, and padded out to album length in the US with singles) – either that or its association with the famously disastrous but really not all that bad film to which it was a soundtrack. Either way, it’s still one of my very favourite albums – up there with Help!, Rubber Soul and Revolver as the band’s best work.
(Incidentally, when the Magical Mystery Tour LP was finally issued as an LP in the UK, they used Capitol’s masters, which included weird reprocessed-fake-stereo versions of the mono mixes of the tracks on side 2. As until buying this box I only owned the album on vinyl, that means that I’ve never heard the proper stereo version of Baby You’re A Rich Man so won’t be able to compare that one very well).
Magical Mystery Tour itself is an inauspicious start to the album, given that there’s very little actual song there, with what little interest there is coming from the horn arrangement, and from Lennon’s comedy Scouser voice. The melody – what there is – is mostly a reworking of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. I don’t hear any distinct differences between the mono and stereo mixes, but what details there are are much clearer.
The Fool On The Hill again has few if any noticeable differences between the mono and stereo mixes, but is one of the most rewarding songs on the album. This simple, sparse melody is the kind of thing that McCartney used to be able to write almost without trying, and which he appears to have consciously chosen to give up bothering with around 1969. It’s a shame, because this plain little D major/minor tune is one of the best things he’s ever written.
And the arrangement, which is stunningly clear in this new mastering (and I can’t say often enough how much better these CDs sound than any previous release, and this is coming from a fan of vinyl), shows that McCartney had been paying attention to Brian Wilson – almost all the distinctive instrumental touches (the flute trio, the huffing bass harmonica, the jew’s harp) had been used by Wilson on Pet Sounds and/or Good Vibrations. But this isn’t to say that the music here is a Beach Boys pastiche – the answering phrases on the acoustic guitar in the second verse are not something Wilson would ever do, the recorder part (the single most distinctive bit of the entire record) is McCartney’s original idea. And most original of all, and totally Ringo, that hand percussion. The finger cymbal on the second beat of each bar in the chorus is completely out of nowhere, and still throws me off balance a little, but in a good way.
Flying is an instrumental credited to all four Beatles. A simple 12-bar with a gorgeous mellotron part played by John, it’s pretty much like all the other twelve-bar instrumentals they noodled around with but didn’t release. The guitars in the mono mix sound a bit louder than in stereo.
Blue Jay Way is one of George Harrison’s most musically interesting songs. It sounds more like a standard pop song than his recent Indian work, thanks partly to the full-band performance, but like those songs is based around a drone, switching between C and Cdim7, with no other chords (George, like myself, was almost obsessed with the tonal ambiguity possible with diminished 7ths – you hear them, especially Ddim7, throughout his later Beatles and early solo work).
The mono mix has far fewer backing vocals than the stereo mix, and the ‘cello appears to be much higher in the mix (there’s a little run of notes just after “soon will be the break of day, sitting here in Blue Jay Way” that I’d never noticed before, despite twenty years of listening to this album).
And the mastering quality is so good that you can hear the Hammond organ’s motor kicking in in the opening bars…
Your Mother Should Know is the first case I’ve come across of the mono version being substantially inferior to the stereo. There’s phasing slathered over the whole thing, getting more noticeable towards the end, and the whole mix is very tinny. The cymbals, in particular, sound incredibly swooshy, and the whole thing sounds like listening to a tape that’s been chewed up, through a tin can. It’s a shame, because the song itself, while hardly a masterpiece, is pleasant enough. But this just sounds bad.
I Am The Walrus is one of the most extraordinary pieces of music ever recorded, based (as so much of Lennon’s best work) on the most banal of sources. I’ve spent three days trying to write this piece, and this and Strawberry Fields have caused me the most difficulty – how do you talk sensibly about great art like this? Were I a more honest writer, this entire article would have been replaced with me talking about a bus journey I took into work about two years ago, listening to the Beatles through headphones and reading Promethea, and breaking down in tears because the human race is capable of this kind of utter, life-affirming beauty and greatness, and still spends the vast majority of its time doing such awful, dull, and downright evil things instead.
Which is, actually, I think one of the things this song’s famously oblique lyric is about. The lyric was inspired by a letter from a kid at Lennon’s old school, who told him that the teachers who ten years earlier had been saying Lennon had no potential were now teaching Beatles lyrics in class. So he took an old Scouse playground rhyme (the version in Pete Shotton’s book is very slightly different, but the way we used to sing it in school was “Yellow belly custard, green snot pie/All mixed up with a dead dog’s eye/Slap it on a sandwich, nice and thick/And drink it down with a cup of cold sick”) and proceeded to write the biggest load of nonsense he could think of.
But it’s nonetheless resonant nonsense – the rage at the teachers who he believed to have oppressed him mixes in with the police (the melody of the song is taken from a police siren) to become hatred of authority and repression in general, especially the repression of artists – the policemen are ‘sitting pretty’ while ‘you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allen Poe’ – and of sexuality. It manages simultaneously to be utter nonsense and perfectly expressive, the surrealist rage of the id against the ego. A lot of heavy lifting went into this album, looks like someone read the insanity workout review.
And the music complements it perfectly, and this is as much down to George Martin as to Lennon. Lennon’s chord sequence is, of course, extraordinary, being as it is based on a circular pattern of all the major chords that start on the white notes, but Martin’s arrangement adds to that, sticking a perpetually ascending string line over the perpetually descending bass part (most noticeable in the fade) to create the musical equivalent of an Escher picture (I’m sure I’ve nicked that line from somewhere, but it’s true nonetheless).
But the really extraordinary thing about Martin’s contribution is the sound. Martin had been inspired by Bernard Herrman in his arrangement for Eleanor Rigby, and that’s an influence that’s definitely in evidence here (and on Strawberry Fields, very much this song’s twin, and about which I’ll have less to say partly because I’m saying some of it here), but the difference is in how the parts are recorded. The ‘cello parts on this, especially, are recorded with the mic up against the strings, producing a sound that you could never hear in a normal orchestral or chamber performance – it’s simply not possible to get your ears that close to that many instruments simultaneously – and giving the instrument a different timbre from anything I’ve heard in music before the Beatles (and one that had a few imitators, notably ELO – listen especially to Roy Wood’s ‘cello playing on 10538 Overture). The orchestrations on the Beatles’ records at this point were genuinely sounds that had never been heard before. And they were being created by a man in his forties, an ex RAF officer who always wore a jacket and tie to work.
And those ‘cello parts are far more audible in the mono mix – up front and centre, loud and grungy and with a huge, magnificent sound. You can hear the bow scraping across the strings. I’ve actually had to interrupt myself from typing this several times to play air ‘cello, and I’m only very slightly ashamed of the fact.
Everyone is on form here (though George stays in the background) – Paul’s bass is rock-solid and makes up a vital part of that Escher staircase at the end (when the chords become almost redundant, and the harmonic movement comes from the interaction between strings and bass), Ringo’s playing like a man possessed, even the Mike Sammes Singers (of all people) are sounding suitably strange.
And then you have possibly the most perfect serendipity in the whole history of recorded music, when the radio that was being randomly fed in to the mix said “are you, sir?” straight after Lennon’s “I am the eggman”. (Incidentally, the radio at the end means that up until the release of Love in 2006, the last minute of this song had never been released in true stereo, a fake-stereo bit of the mono mix being edited on).
And one last thing, for the Doctor Who trivia fans among you – one of the actors in the performance of King Lear heard on the radio in the fade is Roger Delgado, later The Master (the proper one).
Hello Goodbye was the A-side while I Am The Walrus was the B-side. Has ever a track been so completely outclassed by its flip side? Hello Goodbye is a mindless little nothing, written as essentially a game to show Alastair Taylor, Brian Epstein’s assistant, how easy songwriting was. The mono and stereo mixes are essentially identical.
Strawberry Fields Forever… this is frankly unfair. The last couple of albums each had *one* monumental track about which I could easily write a book. This one has two – and they’re similar enough that a lot of what I would say about this one (the string sounds, Martin’s arrangements) has already been said about Walrus. I can’t possibly write *another* thousand words on *this* song.
What I can say is that more than Walrus this is a genuine group effort. While John wrote the song (and listening to his home demo on Anthology 2, the bare song with just him and the guitar would have been quite sufficient to make a remarkable record even without the contributions of the other band members), Ringo does some of his best playing on here, playing what sounds like a through-composed part, getting steadily more complex throughout the track (quite astonishing when you consider that the recording we have is, of course, a splicing together of two different performances/arrangements that were created separately). While George is in the background – as he was through much of 1967, having become disillusioned with the band at the time – his slide work in the earlier part of the track foreshadows much of his later playing style.
And McCartney of course came up with the Mellotron countermelody/intro (played by the horns in the second half of the track). Does anyone else think that this sounds influenced by the BBC Time Pips, incidentally?
I’m not doing Strawberry Fields justice here, much as I wouldn’t I Am The Walrus had their positions on the album been reversed, but this is one of the greatest pieces of popular music ever recorded, and everyone involved – all four Beatles, George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick – did a staggering job of making a record that sounded like nothing else that had ever been recorded. Martin is particularly to be praised for his contribution here. He was always more of a fan of McCartney’s work than Lennon’s (and continued to work with McCartney up to the present, off and on, while never collaborating again with Lennon after the Beatles split) but while his arrangements for McCartney’s work were tasteful, intelligent, and complemented the music beautifully, his work on Lennon’s songs, especially in 1966 and 67, was some of the most imaginative, innovative and groundbreaking work as an orchestral arranger and record producer ever.
It’s one of the great musical tragedies of our age that a man as talented as Martin has such a duff ear for talent (with the staggering exception of the Beatles) – while the comedy records he made before working with the Beatles, and his own occasional bits of experimental electronica in the early 60s, are wonderful, since 1970 he’s mostly worked with people like Celine Dion, America and Ultravox, wasting an extraordinary production talent on material that’s unlistenable no matter how much he improves it.
But here, working with Lennon (who, no matter how much he later denied it, needed Martin possibly more even than he needed McCartney – the only times he ever even came close to the power of his Beatles work were when he was working with Phil Spector, an even more auteurish producer), Martin lets out a side of his musical ability that otherwise would never have been set free, and it’s quite, quite gorgeous.
The mono mix differs only slightly from the stereo mix, mostly in that the double-tracking on the lead vocal is more noticeable.
Penny Lane is another McCartney one that was on the other side of a Lennon classic (this time as a double A-side) but here, while it’s not up to that extraordinary level, McCartney at least provides an extremely good track. The interesting thing here is the way the song sounds so simple and ordinary, while being simultaneously surrealistic lyrically ( it’s a bright rainy summer day in autumn, and ‘finger pies’ is both sexual slang and a rather unpleasant image that could have fit into that poem I quoted earlier), and musically a stylistic melange.
Even though it all fits together well, we actually have here several very distinct, separate types of influence. The inspiration for the basic feel of the song appears to have been the Beach Boys’ Wouldn’t It Be Nice, which shares its rhythmic feel (the piano here is very roughly playing the same role as the mandolins in the Beach Boys’ track, while the horns in the later verses are kinda-sorta like the accordions) and whose melody line has something of the same shape ( try singing the first two lines of the verse of one over the backing track of the other – “(Penny) Lane there is a banker selling photographs/of every head he’s had the pleasure to have known” sounds very much like someone noodling round “(Wouldn’t it be) nice if we were older/And we wouldn’t have to wait so long” – the resemblance is closest on ‘every head’ and ‘and we wouldn’t').
But then McCartney has noted the similarity between the staccato, four-on-the-floor feel of the WIBN rhythm to a slowed-down Motown track, and so we have horn pads in the choruses that could easily come from soul records of the period (or at least from a British band like Sounds Incorporated who tried for that kind of feel). And then over that we have the piccolo trumpet part inspired by Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto. The amazing thing is that this utterly calculated, intellectual pastiche of several different styles feels as light, breezy and simple as it does. A charming little minor masterpiece.
Depending on how you count I’ve Got A Feeling, Baby You’re A Rich Man is the last true Lennon/McCartney collaboration (at least to be released by the Beatles – McCartney contributed to Lennon’s Gimme Some Truth during the Get Back sessions, though that song was later released as a Lennon solo composition), with Lennon writing the verses and McCartney the chorus. The result is a minor, but interesting, track, especially for Lennon’s clavioline part (set to sound like a shehnai, a type of Arabic oboe) and some interesting backwards instruments. It also appears to have inspired Lennon to write some of the song fragments that later turned up on Abbey Road (the chorus would fit rather well with Mean Mister Mustard) and to have been at least partly inspired by With A Little Help From My Friends.
There’s a rumour going round that John sings ‘Baby you’re a rich fag Jew’, presumably aimed at Brian Epstein (the Beatles’ manager, who was, indeed, rich, gay and Jewish), but he doesn’t – although it would not surprise me had Lennon sung this during the session ( Lennon was not the most sensitive man in the world when it came to identity politics – his suggested title for Epstein’s autobiography had been simply Queer Jew).
I can’t speak for the differences between mono and stereo mixes here from personal experience, as before the 1987 CD release the only true stereo mix of this song was on a 1971 German vinyl issue of the album, so I’ve only heard the stereo mix in a dodgy MP3 copy, owning the albums on vinyl rather than CD before the reissues, but I’m informed that the stereo mix has louder bass and is missing some of the effects after the lines “far as the eye can see” and “often enough to know”.
And All You Need Is Love – possibly the most unfairly-maligned Beatles single ever. Yes, the lyrical sentiment is trite (though no less true for all that), but the song was written and performed for the world’s first ever international round-the-world TV broadcast, and so had to be simple to understand and to sing along to.
That said, musically, this is very innovative. I’d be very surprised if it wasn’t the most metrically-irregular piece of music ever to get to number one – the verse is *almost* in seven/four (or alternating bars of 4/4 and 3/4), apart from one bar of eight (two bars of four), while the chorus is *almost* straight fours, but the last bar is in 3/4. That it sounds so simple and sing-along anyway just shows that these supposedly ‘difficult’ metres are actually only difficult when they’re written by a deliberately difficult composer.
In the same way, this song is possibly the first post-modern hit single, presaging sampling culture by quoting other pieces of music throughout (the Marseillaise, Greensleeves, In The Mood, Bach’s two-part invention in F major, Yesterday and She Loves You). As is appropriate for a song written for a celebration of TV, the medium is very much the message here – the verse lyrics are genial gibberish, leading up to the simple message. It’s an advertising jingle for the concept of love, but with orchestrations at the end in the style of Charles Ives. What is there not to like?
But my favourite bit of the record is unfortunately not as noticeable in the mono mix as the stereo. I never really noticed this until the singer Glenn Tilbrook did a bit on stage where he’d perform his favourite *seconds* of pop music (like just the bit in Space Oddity where David Bowie says “ssseven!” in an amazingly camp way). Tilbrook pointed out that George Harrison, presumably petrified at the thought of playing his guitar solo live in front of a billion people (the claimed TV audience for the Our World show), played half the solo then just got his fingers tangled in the strings – something that’s covered up by quickly ducking the guitar in the mix and mixing up the string part.
On the mono mix (the one they spent time on), there’s a clean edit on the first wrong note on the guitar, but on the stereo mix you can clearly hear Harrison flailing almost randomly for another bar or so. It’s one of those little mistakes (like the ‘fucking hell’ on Hey Jude) that, by showing the Beatles were human, actually make their records all the more impressive, and I miss it. (Though I’ve no idea why this wasn’t fixed, as between the TV broadcast and the single release John redid his lead vocal and Ringo added a drum roll under the intro to replace a tambourine part from the broadcast version).
The other mono/stereo differences here are fairly minor – the drums are quieter on the intro, the fade is quicker, and the tinkly barrelhouse piano you can hear buried in the mix in the stereo version is even less audible.
Magical Mystery Tour is the first Beatles album where the differences between mono and stereo are fairly minor. The next album – the ‘White album’ – would see the greatest differences yet, before their last two albums dropped mono altogether. Of the mono releases, this is the only one where I’d say the stereo release has the slight edge over the mono (for Your Mother Should Know not sounding appaling) but I don’t know the stereo Baby You’re A Rich Man well enough to know if that tips the balance back. But mono or stereo, this is some of the best music ever recorded.
(One final question re: the White album – would you prefer me to do with this like I did with Mono Masters, and just deal with ‘important’ tracks or those with huge differences between mono and stereo, or would you prefer two posts, a disc one and a disc two, dealing with every single song?)