I think it’s appropriate to start things off with the first record I fell in love with. If you own vinyl (like with any medium) you probably remember that first album you absorbed in full—not likely the opus of your generation on your first try, but it holds a paramount significance in your musical sojourn.
The first album I really listened to on vinyl was The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. My parents had a small collection of records they had bought in the eighties; mostly latin balladry (Julio Eglesias) or pop music (The Carpenters). My parent’s best albums were on oodles of tape at that time. My best friend Jason and I were looking back through time (sick of our generation’s shiny pop music; even the alternative genres were hedging into this era’s pop spin cycle) and were enamoured with sixties rock. At a sale in a Mennonite community north of the city Jason found two albums for two dollars each: the aforementioned Beatles album and Led Zeppelin’s IV.
My parents had a hi-fi sound system in the basement. It was a relic of high quality musical architecture—not the minuet stereos now used to project digital music on a computer chip, but heavy speaker cabinets that played music physically inscribed on an object that took up space. It was the kind of system that demanded you were planted and dedicated to listening to an album through and through. Jason gifted me both albums with the knowledge that we would spend long days in my basement listening to them, flipping them over and over, the needle sliding over their backs like a junky looking for a workable vein.
Magical Mystery Tour (1967) is easily the most psychedelic Beatles record. Much of their music, beginning with Revolver, leans into the loose ‘psychedelic rock’ sound, but MMT is a good chaotic tumble into the sound that found composure in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1968). Compared to the other titles from the Summer of Love, it is still essentially pop, but to virgin ears like my own (and others at the time) it is a glance into the cultural movement that spawned the metal of the seventies, the new wave of the eighties, then annihilated itself with nineties grunge (…and perhaps making a resurgence with some indie today?).
Side A features music from the full-length film by the same name, which portrayed The Beatles in their most absurd roles. The vinyl I have comes with the original twenty-four page colour booklet that recounts the story with stills and pre-Yellow Submarine cartoons. The adventure begins on page one:
Away in the sky, beyond the clouds, live 4 or 5 Magicians. By casting WONDERFUL SPELLS they turn the Most Ordinary Coach Trip into a MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR. If you let yourself go, the Magicians will take you away to marvellous places.
Maybe YOU’VE been on a MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR without even realising it.
Are you ready to go?
SPLENDID! The story begins on page 7…or 8…
The entire story is laden with hallucinogenic innuendo, which was charming for a blossoming psychonaut like myself. And the music matches the mood. The title song invites you on a tour, guaranteeing satisfaction (literally) and making you feel that you are a part of the ride. The Beatles were performers even though they weren’t playing live—and the fact that you couldn’t see them live meant that for listeners, this was the only twelve inch round black window to see the band through. For young Jason and Jack sitting in a Canadian basement circa 2000, this was the only method available for observing the band. The Beatles knew this about their audience in the sixties, and their effort to make every song worthy of favourite gives the music a timelessness.
[Tangent: it’s a testament to an effort that most bands don’t expend now; rather the listenership is so scattered and eclectic that the immediacy of a song is favoured over its ‘timelessness’.]
Nevertheless, most of the songs on Side A remain generally under-rated. The second song, ‘Fool on the Hill’, is a chillingly cheery song about a hermit who knows the world but is far from it. In light of the recent social networking boom, one passage sounds prophetic: “Well on the way, head in a cloud, the man of a thousand voices talking perfectly loud / But nobody ever hears him or the sound he appears to make and he never seems to notice…”. That’s how I feel about Twitter most of the time. There was no Twitter when I first listened to the album, but highschool had the same alienating essence to it. At a time when my peers were turning to Korn or Eminem or emo to give voice to the confusing competition we subjected each other to, I found ‘Fool on the Hill’ to be the most emotive sound I could find. For all its pleasant fluting, it also speaks to a frustrated soul finding solace in himself against a tide of negativity. In less general terms, the song meant a lot for an amateur neo-hippie like myself who found it incredibly weird that people cared so much about gossip that they would figuratively slit each other’s throats for sheer entertainment.
The song is followed by the rhythmic instrumental, ‘Flying’, which surprisingly does kind of sound like flying. The song pulses forward, helped by the tracking that runs the horn section subtly from back to front. What’s more surprising is that this song has never appeared in a film as the soundtrack for a driving scene. After I managed to inscribe the vinyl to tape we listened to it in my car on late summer evenings, cranked, with the bass pounding down rural roads outside the city.
‘Blue Jay Way’ is George Harrison’s least recognizable song, although it is recognizably Harrison. It is proto-Portishead mixed with chill electronica. The bridge is a drawn out chanting, “Please don’t be long / Don’t belong”, the last word(s) impossible to differentiate, and in my little hormoned brain I heard the two interchange like Rubin’s vase.
The next song is one of the most diminutive Beatles song. ‘Your Mother Should Know’ is an easy-listening foxtrot, a kind reminder that maybe, while you’re tripping on this record, you should remember that your mom is just upstairs and knows you’re stoned in the basement listening to weird psychedelic music with your friend, completely silent and awestruck.
The last song on Side A is the anthemic ‘I Am the Walrus’. This is the familiar tune, most recently covered by Russell Brand at the 2012 Olympics. The story of John Lennon sitting by a window listening to European ambulances and inspiring the Doppler vocal effect for the verse is well known, although the reference to Paul McCartney’s costume on the album cover, combined with the conspiracy that Paul was dead and replaced by little known Billy Shears, is less apparent. The song appears to be nonsense; in a way it is a continuation of the rambling talkin’ blues revitalized by Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’. The wonder of the song is further propelled by another element that is less apparent in modern pop music: vaguity. The song is a string of words, and if you are prone to apophenia (as every human is) you will find a rational pattern in them. Every person will have their own impression, and a grand subjective debate grows, splitting off the myriads of ideas in a display of the kaleidoscope that is our reality. And if you have never listened to the song chemically altered, you might just enjoy the joyous GOO GOO G’JOOB, as anyone would. The innocence and mysteriousness kneaded into the song mirrors an image of the youth culture at the time: naïve, idealistic, and experimental, but intelligent—all the values youth cultures (before and) thereafter has strived for.
Side B is a haphazard collection of singles that we now know as hits: ‘Hello, Goodbye’, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, ‘Penny Lane’, and ‘All You Need Love’. With the exception of the oddball ‘Baby, You’re a Rich Man’ you can easily hear these songs on any Beatles collection. They may make the album more approachable for a non-Beatles fan who is ambivalent or antagonistic, but they do not make the album what it is. It is Side A, and it’s demand to sit still for nineteen contiguous minutes and take the tour, that make this album so special.
And that is something that Jason and I could not easily find in modern music (at least not to our satisfaction): an album that does not ask to be cut up and shuffled, or listened to in the background on the bus, or through one dangling ear bud. You had to sit down, in front of the speakers, and listen.
Jack Caseros is a Canadian writer, scientist, and psychonaut whose other creative non-fiction has appeared in Steel Bananas, Drunk Monkeys, and The Fiddleback. His first novel, Onwards & Outwards, was released in 2012 to zero acclaim. You can read more about Jack (but not much more) at www.jackcaseros.webs.com.