The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour Could Have Been a Great Prog Rock Classic

The Beatles’ under-appreciated Magical Mystery Tour album celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Magical Mystery Tour, which some consider to be an extended EP serving as a soundtrack for The Beatles’ then-upcoming self-produced and directed holiday film, might have been the band’s greatest musical achievement. The album, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary today, set a completely different standard for prog music by the band who did more to advance rock artistry than virtually any other.

They wouldn’t even have had to steal songs from their as-yet-and still undreamed of soundtrack for Yellow Submarine to do it. The Beatles had everything on tape already to make that happen. All they had to do was put the album out the way traditional film soundtracks were done at the time. The American album versions of A Hard Day’s Night and Help! included the incidental music from the movies. George Martin scored and recorded the music for A Hard Day’s Night. The U.S. version of the Yellow Submarine soundtrack had the songs on one side and Sir George’s orchestral scores on the flip. Magical Mystery Tour’s incidental music captured the band’s experimentation in ways never covered on their official releases.

Filmmakers point to the one-hour movie Magical Mystery Tour as groundbreaking independent auteur celluloid. The incidental music in that film was also unlike anything the band had put on vinyl. The band was fresh off Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, largely considered their masterwork. But a lot of that credit has to go to George Martin. As a matter of fact, or rumor, 50 years ago the classic album was nicknamed Martin’s best because his deft fingers are all over that production. But most of the incidental music from the film was produced by the Beatles themselves using the wondrous engineering of Geoff Emerick, Ken Scott and John Timperley, who co-engineered “Your Mother Should Know.” 

Listen to The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour on Amazon Prime

The core songs of the album were included on The Magical Mystery Tour EP. It had two 7-inch singles containing six songs. Disc one had “Magical Mystery Tour,” a rollicking horn-infused carnival bark with a polyrhythmic section when the backing goes to 3/4 and the horns stay in 2/4, and “Your Mother Should Know” on the A-side, backed with “I Am The Walrus.” “I Am The Walrus” is a masterwork. The chords may be simple, the rhythms uncomplicated, but the production is as complicated as it gets. “Your Mother Should Know” might have benefitted from a snippet of a song within a song reminiscent of something someone’s mother should know, like “Honey Pie” on The White Album. Disco two had Paul’s Maharishi parable “The Fool On The Hill” and the instrumental piece “Flying” on side one, and George Harrison’s fogged up “Blue Jay Way” on the flip.  The EP came with a gatefold sleeve and a 28-page booklet.

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The Capitol Records’ version of Magical Mystery Tour was a full-length LP. The six soundtrack songs plus five other songs released by The Beatles in 1967. The U.S. album set a record of the largest initial sales of any album in history. What prog album has done that?

The Beatles were continually expanding their musical repertoire and play a vast array of instruments on the album. John Lennon played electric and acoustic guitars, acoustic and electric pianos; mellotron, organ, clavioline, and the harmonica on the album.  Paul McCartney plucked acoustic and electric bass guitars and guitars, piano, mellotron and recorder. George Harrison played electric lead, slide and acoustic guitars; organ and harmonica. Ringo Starr played drums and an assortment of percussion.

The Beatles were very fast workers. Except for “The Fool On The Hill” and “Your Mother Should Know,”  all the songs for the EP were recorded before filming began on September 11, 1967, in a period that included the recordings of “All Together Now,” “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number),” “It’s All Too Much,” “Baby You’re A Rich Man” and the summer of love anthem broadcast live around the world “All You Need Is Love.” The non-romantic love song opens in alternating 3/4 and 4/4 time and if there is one thing prog fans love, it is seven. “Blue Jay Way” ends the verses on 7/4 time as well. The incidental music was recorded after the Beatles completed the two weeks of filming, dividing their time recording, editing, and doing additional filming.

“Flying” which comes off as a psychedelic 12-bar piece on the album, is actually an excerpt from a much longer, and much more intricate piece called “Aerial Tour Instrumental.” It soars, swoops and captures the oddest of sounds while staggering basic rhythms against unattainable time constraints.

The Lennon-McCartney instrumental “Shirley’s Wild Accordion,” featured Shirley Evans on accordion and Reg Wale on percussion. The Beatles had made good use of outside classical musicians already, so they’d already set that precedent, though wouldn’t include guest guitarist Eric Clapton for several months. The song also included Ringo Starr on drums and Paul McCartney on maracas and backing vocals, prodding Shirley to get wild with that accordion. The score was written by Mike Leander who arranged the strings for “She’s Leaving Home” when Martin was out having tea or something. It was a sore point between them that made Martin visibly cross during the Anthology series. The session was produced by John Lennon, who caught the song in eight takes. It didn’t make final cut, but could have made the album.

The sauce on the spaghetti scene, “Jessie’s Dream,” was written by McCartney-Starkey-Harrison-Lennon. The music is wonderfully cinematic, in the independent European tradition. Most of the album was recorded at EMI Studios on Abbey Road, in London, but some were booked at independent studios like Olympic, De Lane Lea and Chappell.

The orchestral version of “All My Loving,” which plays while Ivor Cutler is drawing hearts around Aunt Jessie on the beach comes from sessions recorded for the 1964 George Martin Orchestra album Off The Beatle Track. As I’ve said, Martin’s music on Beatle recordings was already a precedent on the other soundtracks, so it would not have been out of place. Perhaps near “Your Mother Should Know.” The album also could have included the organ version of “She Loves You.”

The Beatles also had access to the film’s lyrically poetic dialog. Including the rhythmic onomatopoeia assault by Victor Spinetti, who played the TV director with the knitted sweater in A Hard Day’s Night, the mad scientist in Help!, and would go on to direct a stage adaptation of Lennon’s book In His Own Write. The film also included a singalong, which could have been repurposed.

The Beatles didn’t only have fun with the songs. The Magical Mystery Tour cover and the booklet also threw dozens of in-jokes which have been interpreted as “Paul Is Dead” clues, like a sign at a desk in front of Paul reading “I was,” blood-stained shoes, the words 3 Beatles, and a photo in the back of the booklet that spells out RIP. There’s a phone number on the album, 527-1438, which when you called it, at the time, was the number of a funeral parlor. Some claim to hear the phrase “Ha Ha Paul is Dead” if you play the coda of “I Am the Walrus” backward. You already hear “Bury my body” and “Untimely Death” in the fadout, which was recorded from a BBC performance of King Lear. The words “cranberry sauce” have been misheard as “I buried Paul” (as well as “I’m very stoned” in some circles) in the second fade-out of “Strawberry Fields.” And who knows what George is harmonizing in the background of “Blue Jay Way.”

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The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s performance of “Death Cab For Cutie,” which some believe told the story of the accident that claimed the original Paul McCartney, played during Jan Carson of the Raymond Revuebar’s striptease scene in the film, but I’m not quite sure if the Beatles could have included it on the album. The song was written by Vivian Stanshall and Neil Innes, and was already included on their 1967 album Gorilla. “Death Cab For Cutie” was actually a parody of Elvis Presley’s 1957 hit “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear.”

The songs included on Magical Mystery Tour were inventive, the ones left off may have been meandering while revolving on record players, but the production team at EMI would have made sure it was commercially palatable and thematically consistent. Disparate sounds would have been afforded proper segues, further allowing the band to exercise their musical muscle. Given the attention to detail given the Beatles’ final releases, the album’s difference could have made it a new standard.