At this point in my life I traded after-school reruns of Tom & Jerry and Saturday mornings of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for constant music videos on MTV and late-night satellite radio exploration. I’d discover all sorts of bands and artists through these formats and buy their albums at the end of each week.
Being on the later side of the 90s, the music industry was on the cusp of a cultural shift. Bands like Metallica found their way on radio stations playing songs by Sheryl Crow and Jewel. Hip-Hop began pushing themes of how much money rappers were making instead of how much they desired. Country singers without cowboy hats were as common as alternative rockers emulating the 1960s mod movement instead of Kurt Cobain. Arguably, it might’ve been the golden age of mainstream variety, but it was surely the golden age for me (and the record stores who took my money).
For spring break that year, my parents decided on a family vacation in Walt Disney World. Both of them hated flying, and since Mom had recently gotten a new van, the drive from Chicago to Orlando would be somewhat more comfortable and far less hectic. For my brother and sister, 1,200 miles might as well have been 12 million miles, and being cooped up on the road for two days would be like suffering a fate worse than death. It wasn’t a big deal for me though: I had my Walkman. I bought $10 worth of batteries along with a new portable cassette carrying case, outfitted with ten of my favorite albums. I thought I’d put my headphones on and be transported into a musical dimension of R.E.M., David Lee Roth-era Van Halen, Nirvana and Dinosaur Jr.
The Beatles were back on the scene around this time thanks to their Anthology collections and two ‘new’ songs that’d been making their rounds on the charts. I enjoyed their music, probably because I grew up listening to them. Being my Dad’s favorite band, I don’t think a day that went by when I didn’t hear at least four or five of their songs in our house.
Around this particular time in my album investments, I began purchasing my own copies of Beatles’ albums. I was up to Magical Mystery Tour at, an album I bothered listening to only once and aside from “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane”, I had completely written it off as gimmicky trash.
In one of those moments from ‘The Old Man’ straight out of A Christmas Story, and my to the family’s dismay, Dad had the bright idea of leaving before sun up to get a ‘head start’ on the trip. Apparently, this was decided after dinner earlier that night unbeknownst to me. I was either helping my brother load the suitcases, or I was in my room trying to decide which ten cassettes I’d take with me for the interminable journey. Piling into the van and heading out on the road in the pitch black darkness of 3am was both surreal and kind of exciting. Our vacation had officially begun!
An hour of nodding in and out sleep had passed by the time we reached the interstate. At this hour there was no way on God’s green earth Dad would’ve turned the radio on, and being thirteen years old, getting bored was the worst thing imaginable so I grabbed my trusty Walkman. I placed those grey spongy headphones on my ears, and reached beneath the seat to grab that cassette case. I felt around in the darkness and my heart sank. There was nothing under the seat but the few packs of Walgreen’s brand AA batteries I had placed there earlier that day. I went over to the seat my older brother was in and searched there. After getting called something profane for waking him up, I realized that it was over: sometime during the hustle to get in the van at this unholy hour, I forgot to bring my beloved cassette carrying case.
I collapsed in my seat barely breathing. How could I have been so careless? The whole reason I wasn’t dreading the twelve hundred mile trip like my brother and sister, was because I had those tapes to feed my Walkman. I stared out the window into at the empty interstate and starless sky, collecting my thoughts, fighting back tears, and cursing my existence. I looked down at my pathetic Walkman and opened it. I’m not sure if I was mocking myself in humiliation or trying to make myself feel better, but thankfully there was a tape loaded in it. I took it out and squinted to see what it was in the darkness. The tiny white letters printed on the aluminum cassette read Magical Mystery Tour.
It could have been worse. I could’ve forgotten extra batteries, or worse yet, the entire device itself, but I couldn’t help but think I deserved it. In the days leading up to the trip I taunted my brother and sister for not having their own Walkman to keep them entertained, like the smug little turd that I was. At this moment they were both sound asleep like perfect little angels and I was awake eating up with guilt from the inside out. Maybe it was my first bitter taste of karma? I leaned back in my seat, took a deep breath and decided to take my medicine like a man. I pressed play and cranked the volume.
I listened to Magical Mystery Tour back to back, over and over again. Mainly because I had nothing else to do, and maybe because I wanted to look somewhat entertained, as to avoid the much deserved heckling from my brother and sister.
Sometime after what seemed like the two hundredth play through, in some twisted turn of events or Stockholm syndrome, I found myself enjoying it. There was something about Magical Mystery Tour that got under my skin.
Of course playing it so much, it was probably hypnotic, but beyond that, it took that many plays to truly understand and maybe even appreciate Magical Mystery Tour for what it was. I actually liked the album.
Magical Mystery Tour is a strange album in Beatles lore. It was commercially successful and was nominated for a Grammy award, but in modern times, seems to be overlooked. It was originally released as an EP, the soundtrack to The Beatles’ self-produced television film of the same name. When it was released in America, Capitol records expanded it to LP form, filling the flip side with all of the non-album singles they had released that year. At the time, I was always disappointed with the lack of guitar songs. It always felt like the underachieving younger brother of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to me, swapping out the epic fanfare with boring psychedelic pop. The non-album singles are pretty decent and as just about any die-hard fan will tell you, The Beatles’ at their worst are probably better than most bands at their best. I can’t say I agree, but I understand the sentiment. Sadly, just not in 1996.
We’ve all heard Magical Mystery Tour’s popular songs on mainstream radio. “I Am The Walrus”, “Hello Goodbye,” and “All You Need Is Love” are embedded in our DNA, but there’s quite a few underrated gems making up most of the record. “Your Mother Should Know” is a sappy parody of lounge music, “Blue Jay Way” pre-dates shoegaze about twenty years, and “Baby You’re A Rich Man” has oddly enough, become one of my favorite late-era Beatles songs! It’s not full of hits or has a coherent narrative, yet it plays well start-to-finish. It has just enough weirdness and ambition to be interesting, but enough simplicity and lightheartedness to be easily ingested and welcoming. Upon my first listen, it was probably not cool like Revolver or a dark epic such as The White Album. But I was just too knuckleheaded with my preconceptions to enjoy it at face value.
What’s funny about the situation, is that out of the entire week long trip, my memories of riding in the van listening to Magical Mystery Tour are far more vivid than the times spent at Disney.
Don’t get me wrong, the entire family had a blast and it’ll always be my family’s greatest vacation with some of my most cherished memories of them I have instilled in my heart. But there’s something profound about being stuck with something and learning to love it. Maybe that’s why families go on vacation anyway? To put themselves in situations where they can’t run from each other and force themselves to reconnect.
Magical Mystery Tour is still not my favorite Beatles album, but I correlate a certain sense of bittersweet nostalgia with hearing it. Most importantly, I learned the valuable lesson of second chances. Through my arrogance and sulking, I gave the record a proper listen (albeit a few hundred times probably) and found my preconceptions and unfair judgment were keeping me from enjoying it in the first place. How many Magical Mystery Tours do you have in your life? Maybe it’s not even a record, it could be a book, or a movie, even a person! I’ve done it many other times and not just as a punk thirteen year old, but as an adult and even as recent as a writer for this site.
I may be stepping over certain lines here, but maybe one of these days all of us can give an album, or a movie, or a person, another listen or at least a proper chance. Worst-case scenario, our first opinion still stands, but maybe in the same twisted turn of events I experienced during spring break of 1996, we can discover something far more enjoyable than our first impressions.