At the end of April 1967, with Sgt. Pepper's recently finished but
not yet released, Paul McCartney had an idea for a new Beatles project, a film that focused on the
coach journeys that they made as children in the north of England, the ‘mystery
trips’ in which the destiny was unknown. It is clear that it being 1967, and
with LSD substituting marihuana as the new drug of choice, those journeys were
going to have a magical and surrealist element added to the definition of the
word ‘trip’, which was completely distinct. As on the first single that they
had released that year, Strawberry Fields
Forever/Penny Lane, the Beatles’ childhood memories were going to be tinted
by the psychedelic experiences that gave the ‘Summer of Love’ its definitive
McCartney took his first idea to the studio, the song that gave the album its title, which is a kind of jubilant introduction to participate on the strange journey. John Lennon helped him with the lyrics and a few days later they recorded it: with a heavy drum presence from the undervalued Ringo Starr, Lennon’s legendary 64 Gibson J-160E and George Harrison’s Fender Stratocaster Sonic Blue used as rhythm, together with a strong horn section that serves as a thunderous opening. Its function is the same as the title song of Sgt. Pepper's - the album to which it is most closely related - to create expectation for what is going to come afterwards.
Following that, the next five songs were recorded to be included on the soundtrack of a ‘television special’. The Fool on the Hill, which is another great piano ballad with the McCartney stamp; Flying, a psychedelic instrumental that leaves clear that this trip is awash in LSD (and that is one of the few songs from their catalogue credited to all four members); the lysergic Blue Jay Way by Harrison, with his indian touches; Your Mother Should Know, another nod from McCartney to Music Hall; and Lennon’s incredible tribute to Lewis Carroll on I Am The Walrus, one of the top songs illustrating psychedelia.
In England these six songs were released on a double EP, which received some excellent reviews, despite the cold reception to the film that was broadcast on television. But in the US their record company decided to collect together the singles that had been released that year on the B side, and release an LP that went straight to number 1. The singles were: the fundamental Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane (the best single in history?); All You Need Is Love, which they had recorded for the first global broadcast in history and which served as a slogan for the hippie explosion; its B side, Baby You're A Rich Man, a song that unites a verse from Lennon to a McCartney chorus, and that continues to seem to me to be one of the great hidden treasures of their discography (listen closely to McCartney’s Rickenbacker 4001 bass lines); and the childlike Hello, Goodbye.
Like in everything recorded that year, the format of two guitars, drum and bass was left behind and the recording studio became the protagonist. Free from the ties of having to reproduce their music live, their songs are replete with ‘added details’ like orchestras, string and horn sections, mellotrons, vibraphones, indian instruments, claviolines and complicated vocal harmonies. The guitars lose protagonism against the psychedelic instruments, with only a small eight second solo for Harrison on All You Need Is Love. On this track Harrison employs his famous Stratocaster ‘Rocky’, covered entirely in painted psychedelic colours; advancing the sound of his times with the slide.
The Beatles continued flying high and demonstrating that they were, at least, eight miles high above the other groups of the period. Released 50 years ago in the States, Magical Mystery Tour is the only one of the Beatles’ American releases that has gone on to form a part of the Beatles’ canon. It might be that it is not strictly speaking an album, certainly it does not have the unity of a Sgt. Pepper's or a Revolver, but it is, song for song, absolutely essential.