Friday, 2 April 2010

Magical Mystery Tour

One of those rather neglected Beatles albums: from their golden period, yet perhaps (by association with the dreadful film) seen as a lesser work. But less it isn't.

A relistening is an interesting exercise. McCartney's songwriting in the title track "Magical Mystery Tour" title track is, it now strikes me (which didn't it strike me before?) surprisingly clanking and melodically dull; and taken objectively this is a repetitive cul-de-sac of a text. Yet it is saved, and more than saved, by its brass, its harmonies and above all by Ringo's storming drumming. I could listen to it all day.

"The Fool on the Hill" has always struck me as, somehow, an ineluctibly suburban song. I say this less from any deictic or specific lyrical cues in the track (the lyrics are rather too self-consciously vague and symbolic) as, I don't know: the vibe; the counterpointed melody line. Or perhaps just the melancholia, something my own upbringing has imprinted upon the topography.

"Flying" Though it is by-the-numbers, there's something about this instrumental that just gels. Something genuinely uplifting here.

... which makes the perversely studied drabness of Harrison's "Blue Jay Way" all the more striking. The tune is dour, the vocals weary, the shifts in tempo jolting and mechanical, and (above all) the cod-profundity of folding a Buddhist noble truth ('don't belong') into a banal request to friends not to be late to the party you are throwing ('don't be long') little short of wincing. Like those people who think the 'God is nowhere/God is now here' rebus an articulation of profundity. This is not to say, of course, that the song doesn't work, in context, here. On the contrary, it is the needful downer before the chirpy McCartneyisms of

"Your Mother Should Know". When I was younger I delighted in the staircase up-and-down giant steps of the melody line. It's still pretty neat, I'd say. But what struck me as an especially nice touch on this relisten (something that hadn't struck me before) was the way this perky hymn to the maternal has its melody picked up not with la-la-la, but paternally with McCartney singing 'da-da-da-da...'

"I Am the Walrus" is still sublime, and partly so because it still presents a glittering cliff face of possibility. I get the Alice in Wonderland vibe, the bouncy free-associative surrealism angle. And when I was younger I wondered if there wasn't a spooly nightmare of eating and being eaten buried in the lyrics (the eggs, those huge tusked walruses). The most recent time I listened to it I wondered idly if the 'eggmen', rather than being directly connected with actual eggs, were indirectly connected with metonymic eggs: that, not to beat around the bush, eggs being what people eat for breakfast, the 'eggmen' weren't the topic covered in the newspapers people read whilst they had their breakfast. Something of an interpretive leap, I concede; although one that opened the song for me in a new way as a critique of tabloid modes of representation; necessarily about the Beatles themselves insofar as they were so often the subject of tabloid reportage, but mixed in with the crude moralising (you've been a naughty boy, youlet your face grow long; you've been a naughty girl, you let your knickers down), boisterous mob-oriented hooting and tossed-salad of popular topics: nuns, policemen, foreigners.

"Hello, Goodbye" is again a necessarily piece of tracklisting, separating out two of Lennon's weightiest and most wonderful tracks. If I listen to "Hello Goodbye" now it seems to me filler in the wallbuilding sense; but also provokes a desire to read its banged-home either/or scenario in a Kierkegaardian way.

"Strawberry Fields Forever". I have nothing useful to say about this, the most perfect of Lennon compositions.

"Penny Lane". Or, actually, this extraordinary matching McCartney track.

"Baby, You're a Rich Man". For some reason I've always assumed that the 'baby' being addressed is female, which makes the 'rich man' tag nicely contrary.

"All You Need Is Love". Ian Macdonald says somewhere that people criticise this track for its naivety, on the grounds that you need lots of other things apart from love, including air, food, water, shelter and a pension plan; but says Macdonald, they're missing the point. 'All You Need Is Love is a transcendental statement,' he says (I'm quoting from memory) 'as true on its level as the principle investment is true on the level of the stock exchange.' I used to think that was right, but now that I listen to it I think it undersells the metaphysical ambition of the track. Lennon's gorgeous chant is about the principle of cosmic equivalence, where all the things he lists wholly equal and amount to all the other things. There's nothing you can do that can't be done is one of Kant's a priori analytic judgments; but Lennon's mystic contribution to the philosophical debate is to insist that all things are like this. That nothing, when it's all properly understood, is synthetic in the Kantian sense; and that 'all' is a synonym for 'love' that dissolves away the categories of separation, not least amongst them 'you' (and me) and 'need'.

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