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Fab Four Face-Off: What's Your Favorite Song From 'Magical Mystery Tour'?

September 16, 2009 |  6:00 am


With the official release of the Beatles' remastered catalog now fully accomplished, Pop & Hiss asks the musical question: What would go on your Beatles mix tape?

Continuing my bids for the best track on each of the Fabs' freshly repackaged long players, this entry considers "Magical Mystery Tour," the ninth album in the series.

Love me or dunk me in strawberry jam for selecting.....

"I Am the Walrus"

If you're sitting there thinking that is ridiculous, I get your point. A more reasonable choice would be the classic pairing of "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane": two multidimensional journeys back in time that are both exquisite works of autobiographical fantasy spinning and which together form one of those John-Paul dialogues that, as I discussed in yesterday's entry, make this later Beatles period so rich.

"Strawberry Fields" reminds me of a good Terry Gilliam film: a bizarre trip that's as delightful as it is menacing. "Penny Lane" comes closer to Terence Davies, a sweet but ultimately heart-ripping dip into the details of the past. Each song a masterpiece! Yet here I am, choosing some gibberish.

Why? And if not one or both of those beloved hits, why not the classic singalong "All You Need is Love," or the winsomely wistful "Fool on the Hill," or the lyrically inane yet unforgettable "Hello Goodbye"?

Well. I loved "Magical Mystery Tour" when I was 10, and in many ways I still regard it as a children's album. (I know, we haven't gotten to "Yellow Submarine" yet.) That's one reason to go for John's headlong jump into the realm of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear -- it's kids' stuff at its gutsiest, unapologetically nonsensical and loud and even disgusting. Lennon apparently cribbed the song's ickiest line, about "yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog's eye," from a remembered schoolyard rhyme, and like a real bad student, he put in a bit of Shakespeare at the song's end without even knowing his source. (A broadcast of "King Lear" was playing on the radio during the recording session.)

What a sound this silliness created. Layer upon layer of Beatles, orchestra, background singers and sound effects, all adding up to something actually catchy. So much art rock tends toward bloat; this song pushes at its own seams, but stays catchy. It's a Dali painting, a Bunuel film, a razor across the eyeball.

Plus, like Susan Sontag said, it's against interpretation. How can a critic not smile at the kiss-off?  Lennon apparently was inspired to write a nonsense song to defy a teacher at his old school who was making his student interpret Beatles compositions. What a punk. He didn't want to be canonized. So he gave those expert textperts a crabalocker fishwife and sent them off with a goo goo g'joob.

-- Ann Powers

Photo: Apple Corps.