Sunday, January 18, 2009

Stop the insanity

During my days as a wide-eyed youth in the '90s, I recall seeing a best-selling book just about everywhere books were sold: Stop the Insanity, by a spiky-haired woman named Susan Powter. I never read the book, but I do remember being irritated at its ubiquitousness and the vagueness of the title. What insanity, I wondered.

Well, now I'm writing a post called "Stop the Insanity," and the subject is clear. We need to stop pretending that "Magical Mystery Tour" is a good album.

That's right, I said it. The Beatles made a bad record. For decades, the Beatles have been cited as an influence for just about every successful rock/pop act that has followed them. The band's catalog has become something like holy scripture -- "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" is widely regarded as either the best or first concept album ever, and the post-Beatles solo projects the band members were involved in after the fact are granted nearly the same reverence.

Or they would, had the ex-Beatles not definitively shown us what silly people they really were following the band's breakup. Paul McCartney dabbled with the very hit-and-miss band Wings, George Harrison wound up getting eclipsed by his involvement in the "Free Tibet" movement, John Lennon married Yoko and produced a seemingly endless series of audio abortions, and Ringo Starr emerged as the tiny conductor of Shining Times Station on the "Thomas the Tank Engine" program for children.

To be fair, Lennon and McCartney did pen and produce some good music following their stint in the Beatles, but I think it's safe to say that the majority of the work they did in the '70s and '80s was garbage.

But let's not get too far into the post-Beatles weeds here. What I want to discuss now is the set of rose-colored glasses the Fab Four's work is regarded with in retrospect. Specifically, I want to deal with the atrocity that is "Magical Mystery Tour."

First, some historical information. "Magical Mystery Tour" was originally released as a six-track EP in late 1967, the soundtrack to an ill-fated Paul McCartney project, which had "ordinary people" going around in a bus and having "magical" adventures... which was an idea Macca stole from the late Ken Kesey (author of "One Few Over the Cuckoo's Nest") and his band of "Merry Pranksters," who ate a bunch of acid, climbed aboard a colorfully-painted bus, and traveled the United States. The film project was a flop, since no magical adventures ever materialized, but the soundtrack proved to be a hit, and stayed on the number-one spot on the U.S. lists for eight weeks in 1968.

The record's A-side begins with the title track, "Magical Mystery Tour," which has about as much depth and musical interest as the soundtrack to any pre-'80s sitcom... in fact, the soundtrack to M*A*S*H is far better, using the instrumental version of "Suicide is Painless" for a show about the Korean (and really, the Vietnam) war. Next up is McCartney's "Fool on the Hill," which is perhaps the only decent song on the album... although it's certainly no "Penny Lane."

Track three, "Flying," is an instrumental, and is incredibly forgettable. This is followed by "Blue Jay Way," which is terrible and makes LSD seem like something to do to get yourself into the mood for a psychedlic suicide. "Your Mother Should Know" is a half-decent, and rather boring, McCartney piece, which may constitute the only evidence that "Magical Mystery Tour" is indeed a Beatles record at all.

Finally, we make it to the album's supposed tour-de-force, "I Am The Walrus." I'm not exactly sure where to begin, other than to say that this is a dogshit song. Worse than that, really. But let me tell you about my first experience with it.

Back when I was a teenager, I got it into my head that I'd missed out on an amazing movement in popular music -- the '60s and early '70s. Having been born in 1980 to a pair of bluegrass-lovers, I grew up listening to Willie Nelson and Clint Black and Rickie Nelson and Alabama (the band, not the perennially-racist state).

When I was 15, I received three important albums: "The Cream of Clapton," Paul Simon's "Graceland" (which I still regard as the greatest album ever made) and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Up until then, I'd been listening almost exclusively to a cassette tape of Billy Joel's "Piano Man" I'd purchased in British Columbia a year earlier after hearing "River of Dreams" on the radio. I decided that the '60s clearly were an important time in music history, and set out to listen to as much of that era's rock and roll as I could get my ears around.

It wasn't long after I got these first three key albums that I found myself, with a freshly-earned twenty-dollar bill in my pocket, driving my parents' car to the record store, where I found a copy of "Magical Mystery Tour" on CD. "Ah ha!" I thought. "This is the Beatles, and it's in the 'acid period.' If I listen to this, I'll gain insight into that strange and phenomenal era."

Well, I bought the record and eagerly tore through the wrapping plastic as soon as I got back to the car. I felt like I was going to gain some secret knowledge, some kind of illumination. Imagine my disappointment on placing the CD in the vehicle's sound system and turning up the volume. I believe my reaction was something like, "Oh."

I didn't want to believe it at the time, and I know there are a lot of people who still don't believe it. But it's a shit record. "I Am The Walrus" eventually came on, and I'd had enough.

I've listened to that song countless times in the 12 intervening years, and it's just indefensible. That hasn't stopped people from trying: "It's absurdist," "It's a study in juxtaposition," "It's sheer genius." No, it isn't. It's John Lennon being as high on hallucinogens and yogi spirituality as he could possibly get and writing a cretinous parody of a Bob Dylan song. The nonsense lyrics are often mistaken for being "deep" -- they aren't. There is no trenchant meaning hidden in the phrase "Semolina pilchard / climbing up the Eiffel Tower." That's just stupid. It's meaningless, and, anticipating a probable objection, meaninglessness does not confer depth.

I want to point out that I have no problem with drug usage. I've actually tried a few myself. If eating LSD and staring at a shrub for nine hours makes you happy, I say, go ahead. But please, keep the insights you discover to yourself -- don't foist them on the rest of humanity. That's what "I Am The Walrus" really is: the ramblings of someone who's been high for the better part of three months directed at people who haven't been. It's nothing less than infuriating, and I am sick and tired of everyone pretending that it's avante-garde genius. In fact, if Mark David Chapman had his lawyers bring up "I Am The Walrus" during his murder trial, he might have gotten off on a manslaughter charge.

It's only fair to point out that "Penny Lane" and "The Fool on the Hill" are terrific tracks, but they're out of place on what is otherwise a rotten, meaningless record. McCartney wrote those anyway, and he can be righteously lambasted for having penned "Ebony and Ivory" and "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" later, during his solo career.

The 1960s were an amazing time of cultural exploration and experimentation. While we have many gems that came out of this time, there are also a fair amount of turds -- William S. Burroughs' "Naked Lunch" is a fine example of the latter. "Magical Mystery Tour" certainly falls into the "failed" category, and my view is that now, forty years later, we really need to quit pretending that it's a landmark record.


samrocha said...

Love it! This is what RIMATARA should be all about, I think.

John Henry said...

Great post. I love the Beatles, and I own 10 of their albums, including compilations. MMT is not among them. All of the good songs are available on various compilations, and 'I am the Walrus' is probably the 'popular' song of theirs I loathe the most. Well, after 'The Ballad of John and Yoko'.

In their defense, even the Beatles' worst albums have some brilliant and inventive songs. But it was still nice to read someone who agreed about the special awfulness of 'I am the Walrus'.