45 Years Ago: The Beatles’ ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ Tops the Charts
Following the culture-shifting ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’ the Beatles found themselves at a place where creativity charged alongside their expanding egos. Armed with a couple of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ leftovers, a handful of one-off singles and way too much time to indulge their studio whims, the band put together ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ as both the soundtrack to a flimsy TV movie and a late-year placeholder while they assembled the pieces of their next proper album.
And for the most part the album — which stood atop Billboard’s album charts on Jan. 6, 1968 — works, largely thanks to the leftovers and singles that came together during and immediately after the ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ sessions. ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’ were recorded at the very start of ‘Pepper,’ throughout the last two months of 1966, and were released as a single in February 1967. ‘All You Need Is Love’ and ‘Baby, You’re a Rich Man’ were recorded a month after the ‘Pepper’ sessions concluded and released in July. ‘Hello, Goodbye’ and ‘I Am the Walrus’ preceded ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ as a single by a month.
Those are most of the good songs. The rest of the 11-song album (which was released as a six-track EP in the U.K.) is a bit wobblier. The title cut is Paul McCartney-guided psychedelic whimsy that never departs from the gate, ‘Your Mother Should Know’ is his nostalgia heading toward a terribly corny place and ‘Flying’ and ‘Blue Jay Way’ are barely defined sketches. Only McCartney’s subtly rendered portrait of crushing loneliness, ‘The Fool on the Hill,’ stands out in the new batch of songs.
Conveniently, the singles are grouped together on side two (except ‘I Am the Walrus,’ which closes the first side), making ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ an easy edit. And divided this way, the album sounds like the logical sequel to ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’: part kaleidoscope-blinded overindulgence, part art-pop brilliance. At its best, ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ pairs studio-as-playground adventurism (‘I Am the Walrus,’ ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’) with increasingly maturing songcraft (‘Penny Lane,’ ‘All You Need Is Love’). It’s not perfect, but it’s a fitting comedown from ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’’ gargantuan high.