Monday, September 21, 2009

Magical Mystery Tour Remastered: Goo-Goo-Goo-Joob

American imports to the UK have seldom been hugely popular with the general public after that initial rush of novelty-value has worn off: the hoola-hoop, peanut butter, The Dukes of Hazzard, herpes ... Frankly, we could've done without most of them if we're honest. However, just occasionally our cousins from over the Atlantic who can't spell 'colour' correctly get something dead right. And that was the case with Magical Mystery Tour. Initially released in the UK in the unique format of a six-song double EP, in America (where such things were, you know, 'not done') the addition of all The Beatles' 1967 singles - 'Strawberry Fields Forever', 'Penny Lane', 'All You Need is Love', 'Baby You’re a Rich Man' and 'Hello Goodbye' - gave Capitol an LP for the vital Christmas market. Although it wasn't actually released in Britain until 1976, The Beatles In Songs & Music From A Colour Television Film Called "Magical Mystery Tour" is now regarded as a vital part of the Beatles CD discography – the missing link between Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Beatles.

The soundtrack was recorded at various sessions between 25 April and 7 November 1967. During these (somewhat confusing and, indeed, confused) six months, 'All Together Now' and 'It's All Too Much' from the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, the eventual b-side 'You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)' and several unnamed (and, apparently, tedious and lengthy) jam-sessions were also taped. Because Abbey Road was often unavailable at short notice, The Beatles recorded some of these in a bunch of other London studios like De Lane Lea, Olympic Sound and Chappell. As this period also coincided with a shit load of herbal being smoked, the death of Brian Epstein, a sojourn in Greece where they almost bought an island, meeting the Maharishi, George going to San Francisco and finding it full of 'horrible spotty drop-out kids on drugs' and the – gloriously haphazard - filming (and subsequent editing) of the Magical Mystery Tour film itself, it's actually quite astonishing that The Beatles managed to record anything of much interest.

The soundtrack songs themselves have always been something of a strange mutant bunch. 'I Am the Walrus' is, of course, a much-admired masterpiece of invention, gobbledygook and studio trickery. 'The Fool on the Hill' and the title song are also terrific and well-regarded. But 'Blue Jay Way' is a genuine contender for the very worst song that the Beatles ever recorded - an overproduced melange of production tricks and ADT without anything remotely resembling tune to go with it.

The remaster - its Capitol label reproduction standing out like a sore thumb amid a barrel full of Apples (and Parlophones) - kicks-off in a satisfyingly 'wow' way with the 'Magical Mystery Tour' itself. It's always been The Beatles great-lost-single-that-never-was-of-'67, recorded just days after Sgt. Pepper's had been put to bed and, thus, including every production trick that they'd learned from that gargantuan effort. It's a rather slight song, in term of composition at least, meandering through a series of stop-start segments and only really held together by the piano and Ringo's excellent drumming. But the spirit of Macca's vocals and the brass section help to carry the performance to a suitably impressive close. The biggest bonus of the remastering is how it has affected the song's twenty second travelogue coda. Left-field. Impressionist. Jazz. 'The Fool on the Hill', one of McCartney's most interestingly introverted and self-analytical pieces hits an early peak, its mood noticeably warmer and more full than on the 1987 CD. Ringo's finger-cymbals, previously wide in the extreme left of the stereo spectrum and little more than a gentle 'brrrrng' that the listener might've been vaguely aware of, now sound bright and sharp. The Mellotron-led instrumental, 'Flying' acquires a respect it had never previously sought, or gained, courtesy of Macca's complex bassline and the trickery of the final forty five seconds; a wash of backward tapes and random organ notes that accompanied one of the film's few genuinely impressive sequences.

'Blue Jay Way', alas, is still the hole where the rain got in. A product of jet-lagged inertia, even when Harrison got it home and into the studio, the others sounded as bored with the whole thing as he'd been when writing it. A few reveals in the soundscape - the marginal echo on the cello, for instance - do little to enhance 'Blue Jay Way's reputation as a drug-sodden turkey of the first order. The listener is stuck to his or her seat far more effectively than Derren Brown could manage last weekend. It's a huge relief when the turgid lump finally finishes and, it's not without coincidence that the following song begins with the words 'let's all get up...' I've always rather liked 'Your Mother Should Know,' I have to confess. Again, it's McCartney doing that 'twenties showband' thing, something which he'd flirted with before and would continue to pop in and out of, on occasions, for pretty much the next thirty years. Sometimes, they're awful ('Maxwell's Silver Hammer' for one) but, now and again, he'd catch not only the novelty value parody of the genre but, also, some of the feeling too. Lennon and Harrison both had their own dabbles in this sort of area (drawn by the wistful nostalgia for the songs of their childhood that both, rather, enjoyed). It was only in retrospect that the former, in particular, would try to give the impression that this was nothing to do with him. He sounds happy enough here singing the backing vocals and, indeed, in the film coming down the stairs in his white suit with a big grin all over his face. In terms of the remastering, however, 'You Mother Should Know' is a disappointment, with the vocals mostly confined to the wings of first the left and then the right stereo channel and sounding cramped and claustrophobic because of it. It's a huge relief when, after nearly two minutes of this, Macca finally kicks the door open and emerges into true stereo only to find that the song's almost over. Pity.

There's fresh and bitter disappointments aplenty in 'I Am The Walrus', although in this case there's little that the remastering team could actually do about it. The complexities of the song's mixing process are already well known but, suffice to say that an attempt to turn a mono mix into a stereo one using ADT doesn't always work and this is a prime example. As soon as the song reaches the first 'radio interlude' (2:03) it drops into 'mock' stereo for most of the rest of the recording and the resulting harsh timbre and murky panoramas are woefully in evidence on even the crappiest of stereo equipment. Lennon, a poor man made tame to fortunes blows at the best of times, was on startlingly fine form here but he had his work cut out trying to fight his way through the fog of the resultant cluttered and compressed mix. Fortunately, he just about manages it and, along with aspects of the breathtaking production, can still be glimpsed out of the gloom. Oompah-oompah.

The 'greatest hits of '67' second side of the original LP features four of The Beatles best known and most loved songs. And 'Baby You're a Rich Man.' Which is probably one of the main reasons why Magical Mystery Tour was the fifth of the remastered Beatles CDs I went for and not the twelfth. 'Hello Goodbye' gets off to a smashing start, the scored strings playing, generously, off George's reverb-laden slide guitar stabs. It's also got ('Lady Madonna' aside) the best backing vocals on any Beatles recording (a much under-rated part of their superb musical arsenal). It's still a very slight song, of course, particularly compared to some of the complex monstrosities around it but it had 'hit-single' written all over it from the moment Macca wrote the thing. And, even Lennon (who reportedly loathed it - or, at least, claimed to in retrospect) enjoyed the percussion-driven bit at the end, smothered in echo and handclaps. 'Strawberry Fields Forever' doesn't, quite, get the startling makeover that some bits of The Beatles remastered catalogue have. But it still sounds stunning. The jangly Byrds-style guitars of the song's first minute suddenly replaced (at 0:59 in the middle of the word 'going', if you're looking for the join) into the thunderous cello-and-brass second version. The backward cymbals threaten to suck the unwary listener into the recording itself. Thereafter, it's a free-for-all with gong-like guitar frills, svarmandal, Mellotron and a ten-man percussion section battling for prominence. And, before you can say 'cranberry sauce' (twice) we're into 'Penny Lane.' Macca always said he wanted a very 'clean' production and that's exactly what you get from listening to the remaster - it sounds like it was recorded in a white room, by men in white suits, on white instruments. The full delicacy and dazzling invention of George Martin's multi-layered score (heard to full effect on the Anthology version) can be appreciated in a 'glimpsed through the bushes' way here. If you know where to look, you can catch the Cor Anglais, the oboes and the groaning double-bass through the massed pianos, trumpets and Mr Mason's piccolo solo. Remember, too, when that crass simplification that Lennon was the surrealist and McCartney the family entertainer comes up in casual conversation - name me a cleverer and, for want of a better word, more psychedelic line in a Beatles song than 'though she feels as if she's in a play/she is anyway.' Oh, and this is one of only a handful of Beatles songs that Michael Jackson never got his grubby mitts on too. Bet you didn't know that.

'Baby You're a Rich Man' had a curious genesis - initially written for the Yellow Submarine movie but then used as a B-side when one was needed urgently. It's a particular favourite of this blogger, with its quasi-funk groove (Ringo's drumming, in particular, is almost disco half-a-decade before the term had any frame of reference) and mad clavioline interludes. The lyrics are good too, the alcoholic Scouse junkie wife-beater taking time out between regular acid trips to get all philosophical and mystic and yet still having enough sense to take a poke at both 'the beautiful people' and (more hypocritically) capitalism. This, let us never forget, coming just a few months after good old Working Class Hero John was busy voting Tory in the general election because he felt his taxes were too high. In fact, in the summer of 1967 the main thing that was occupying John Lennon's time wasn't politics, it was destroying his own ego by munching Adam Strange all day and all night. That he didn't end up a pathetic casualty - like Syd Barrett or Brian Jones - is a miracle in and of itself. That he managed to write some halfway decent songs at the same time, is the biggest surprise of the lot. 'All You Need is Love' sounds spectacular on the new CD. Joyous. Affirming. Measurable. Timeless. All-embracing. Of late, the song's had something of a bad press (Revolution in the Head is especially harsh on it) largely because the ideas that its dealt in seem, from a safe and cynical distance of forty years, to be naive. Which, of course, they are now and, indeed, were then. Doesn't mean they were worthless, necessarily. Remastering gives us a chance to marvel, again, at George Martin's stunning production ('I'm ready to sing for the world, George, if you'll just give me the backing!') That aside, there's not much new to report - you'll know it all off by heart - but it's clear, crisp and fun. There's a party going down for all of the London groovy people in Studio 1. But, seemingly, the whole world's got an invitd through the magic of satellite TV. In a stroke, The Beatles invent MTV and Live Aid. Next time they were on telly, however, people wouldn't be quite so in-tune with them.