Though wedged between the comparatively giant Sgt. Pepper’s and 1968’s White Album, Magical Mystery Tour nevertheless played a part in The Beatles' story, and put a cap on a year in which the band made yet more music nobody was totally prepared for them to make. The album was released as a companion to a meandering, band-directed movie, and its first half is probably one of the lowest-stakes sides in the band’s catalog—a relief, in a way, from how high-stakes their music had become. Still, this was The Beatles in 1967—momentum was strong. What had started out as a string of acid playground rhymes turned into Lennon’s angriest song this side of 1970 (“I Am the Walrus”), while McCartney’s simple sentimentality had taken on a quality that felt stoic, almost abstract (“The Fool on the Hill”). There was a rare instrumental (“Flying”), a foggy Harrison drone (“Blue Jay Way”), and an invocation of the past by McCartney that blurred lines between sweet and eerie (“Your Mother Should Know”).
While the band had helped rechristen the album format as an artistic statement unto itself, they were still releasing singles—as in tracks that weren’t associated with any album. Designed primarily as a consumer service, the second half of Magical Mystery Tour collected what they’d offered in 1967. The yin-yang of McCartney’s “Penny Lane” and Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever” (originally released on the same 7-inch record) arguably says more about what ground the band covered in seven minutes than any other two songs in their catalog—the former baroque, charming, and upbeat; the latter dense and melancholy—variations on a theme of seemingly simple pasts refracted, dreamlike, through the present. And if “I Am the Walrus” was Lennon’s dark foray into contradiction and surreality, McCartney’s “Hello, Goodbye” was its bright counterpart. “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” probably doesn’t get the credit it deserves. “All You Need Is Love,” debuted to an estimated 400 million people in the world’s first live international satellite TV production (Our World), did receive wide acclaim, and while cynicism and embarrassment about 1967’s Summer of Love would set in as soon as a few years later, it probably deserves more.
As for the movie that gave the album its name, press coverage of it was so uniformly hostile (not to mention viewer feedback to the BBC switchboard so sustained) that McCartney went on the BBC the day after it first aired to defuse the tension. Asked why he thought people didn’t like it, McCartney said he wasn’t sure—he liked it fine.