1967 was inevitably going to be a make-or-break year for the Beatles. In fact, before they released the outstanding “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” single, everything seemed to be stacked against them. Their decision to quit touring in August of 1966 was a risky move, especially because that fall they didn’t release a new single (let alone a new album) for the first time in their career. On top of that, each member had grown a mustache, and John finally began donning glasses in public–not insignificant modifications for pop stars. Add competition from the Monkees, another charismatic quartet who were overtaking the Beatles in the hearts of teenage girls and had the backing of an NBC TV series to promote their records, and 1967 could have easily answered a question frequently on the lips of journalists at the band’s early press conferences: when is the bubble going to burst?
After months of silence, that aforementioned magnificent single in February finally gave the world a taste of what the Beatles had been up to in the studio, and it was followed in June by the landmark Sgt. Pepper album. (Overrated in my book, but still, it was huge.) Later that month they made history with the worldwide debut of “All You Need is Love” via international satellite. Any doubt of the band’s staying power had effectively been erased. They survived John Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus” controversy. They survived a complete image makeover. They survived the Monkees. They survived being AWOL for half-a-year. It was abundantly clear: the Beatles could do no wrong.
And then came Magical Mystery Tour. Hot on the heels of so many highs–some but not all drug-induced–Paul McCartney took the reins in the band’s self-directed (if you can call it that) film that proved to be the biggest flop of their career.
“You know what, Ringo? I feel like people don’t give you enough credit. Let’s tell people this movie was your idea.”
Critics trashed the project, but there was one major saving grace: its six-song soundtrack in which the Beatles took psychedelia to new extremes and sang about walruses and fools on hills. The opening cut was “Magical Mystery Tour,” essentially a rewrite of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” but to these ears a much better song. As I said in that write-up, “The concept is the same: introduce a quirky idea via Paul McCartney’s raw, shouted vocals.”
But while “Sgt. Pepper’s” boasts some incredible guitar work, it feels very much a part of its home album. “Magical Mystery Tour” stands on its own a bit more strongly, and also sets up a more intriguing ambiance.