Counterpoint on Magical Mystery Tour

Michael Gerber
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For everyone who loves “Magical Mystery Tour” (the film) or has come to appreciate it over the years, there’s someone who still hates it — Jim DeRogatis, a Chicago critic who broadcasts on NPR’s WBEZ, is a case in point. If you’re interested in reading his vilification of the movie (and a lot of the album), you can do so here:’-worst-mistakes-104650

Here’s the executive summary: “Nearly half a century on, the fascinating thing about “Magical Mystery Tour” the film is the rare glimpse it offers into one of the best rock bands of all time at its unaldulterated worst. And make no mistake: a spectacular, disastrous, largely incomprehensible and nearly unwatchable mess it was and remains.” And the music? De Rogatis describes “Penny Lane” as “one of [McCartney’s] less annoying romps through rose-colored nostalgia,” and “I Am the Walrus” as one of Lennon’s “lesser psychedelic fantasies.”

Yeah, exactly what I’d expect from someone who thinks “Sgt. Pepper’s” is the most overrated album in rock history and who unreservedly hates “Ram.”

DeRogatis has a right to his opinion, of course. I wish he were a bit more open-minded and less apparently convinced he’s handing down judgments on stone tablets, but that’s part of the game — gets you comments, anyway. 

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  1. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    I used to read the Chicago press a lot and I can’t stand Jim DeRogatis. Sorry I wish I could be more charitable but his kneejerk views on McCartney annoy the heck out of me.

    — Drew

  2. (Guys, I don’t have any more time to edit this down, so I’ll do two comments.)

    Unless you work for Jann Wenner, there’s no percentage in praising The Beatles. Either the reader agrees with you and gives you no credit, or disagrees and thinks you’re a goof.

    Contrarianism, on the other hand, wins over the haters AND makes you seem like an honest broker. I’m sure Jim DeRogatis genuinely doesn’t like MMT–god knows its flawed as hell–but within an impossibly crowded marketplace, there’s an advantage to being That Critic Who Disses The Beatles.

    Could DeRogatis include insight along with the contrarianism? Sure, but I couldn’t find any. Claiming “Hello, Goodbye” as a pop gem (and slapping down “Penny Lane” in the same breath) reveals exactly what we’re in for: “I like this, because I like it; and I don’t like that, because I don’t.” In a world drowning in commentary–viz. this blog–I need a bit more.

    Then there’s DeRogatis’ customary dis of Sgt Pepper “which this critic maintains is not only the most overrated album in the band’s catalog, but in all of rock history.” Well, when “this critic” is on one side of a work of art, and pretty much the entire rest of the world for 45 years has been on the other, at some point it must be entertained that “this critic”‘s opinion is malarkey. A few people don’t like chocolate; most do. That doesn’t make chocolate “overrated” or people who like chocolate “members of the chocolate cult.” There’s something positively teenagery about this style of writing, and it’s why our Dev is pretty much the only rock critic I can stand. (And why Dullblog is a sandbox offered strictly for fun.)

    One can not like Sgt. Pepper; one can claim it wasn’t the Beatles best; but the basis of Pepper’s preeminence–the absolutely galvanic, worldwide, extended reaction of people at the time–isn’t arguable. The first thing one would have to do is divorce the LP from its cultural impact, and not only is that impossible, it’s unnecessary, unless one’s sole purpose is to “prove” Pepper wasn’t all that.

    Pepper came along when there was a Pepper-shaped hole in the zeitgeist, and a single, non-splintered audience of kids listening, and young adults willing to hear, and even older people who could be attracted by McCartney tunes. Part of Pepper’s magic is its universality, and that’s not something an us/them rock critic like DeRogatis is going to value. Pepper wasn’t the hippies’ version of “Howl”–it was much, much, MUCH more universal. (And you could have sex to it.)

    Pepper wasn’t just a pop culture high water mark like, say, Blonde on Blonde–it was seen as the dawning of a whole new era. That it turned out not to be isn’t the LPs fault. To judge Pepper simply as a collection of songs, is to miss the point of it entirely.

    Part 2 in a moment…

  3. Getting back to MMT: the real issue here seems to be that DeRogatis doesn’t like hippies. Okey doke. But all of this is “reaction to”–reaction to Beatle-worship (rather than the fact that Scorsese and Gilliam like MMT), the cult of Pepper (rather than the LP itself), McCartney’s persona (rather than his music), reaction to people saying you missed the big parade, reaction to rock music’s declining cultural importance for your entire career…

    I get all this. I get it to a painful degree. I grew up loving the comedy of the 70s, which was its highpoint in both creative juice and cultural importance. Comedy in the 70s was like the rock of the 60s.

    But to walk around claiming now that Eddie Murphy/Joe Piscopo, or Lovitz/Carvey, or Will Ferrell/Cheri Oteri, were “as good” as “the overrated” Ackroyd and Belushi is silly. That would be about me, not comedy. And if you ignore wider cultural significance, that renders the comparison even more meaningless. Piledriving “Neighbors” doesn’t prove anything.

    On the other hand, he got me to read, and post this comment, so: mission accomplished, Jim DeRogatis. Clicks to you!

  4. Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

    Very good point about there being no percentage in praising the Beatles, Michael. And DeRogatis (and Greg Kot, his partner-in-criticism) do get reaction by being rock-throwers.

    But: really, why is this kind of commentary being PAID FOR in a world that, as you point out, is drowning in free stuff (some of it much better)? George Starostin’s free reviews are orders of magnitude ahead of DeRogatis and Kot’s, for example. That’s what makes me want to bang my head against the table when I see reviews like DeRogatis’ being hosted on NPR.

    And Drew, I’m with you on preferring to say “goodbye” and not “hello” to DeRogatis!

    Here’s why reviews like this bug me: we can learn a lot from some negative reviews, even about works we personally love. But not from this kind of review, which as Michael points out, is just “I like” and “I don’t” with so little real analysis or attempt to understand what the artist was trying to do.

    Basically, I think it’s pointless to review something if you know going in you have no affinity for that kind of thing. If you hate all heavy metal, for example, your views on any particular album are unlikely to be very helpful to anyone. Reviewing heavy metal anyway is just indulging your own sense of self-importance.

  5. Avatar matt m wrote:

    I have nothing to add to my total agreement with Michael’s comments except to say that I’ve had sex to “Howl.”


  6. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Some of the best Beatle commentary is posted free on the web by dullbloggers and Starostin, while the worst is by paid journalists. Don’t understand why.

    Magical Mystery Tour is wonderful because it gives us a chance to see John descending the stairs in their dance number, and shoveling spaghetti.

    If John Lennon had never picked up a guitar, he could have had an extraordinary career as a comedian. He was Peter Sellers, Monty Python and the Marx Brothers all rolled into one.

    Someone compiled their favorite comedic Lennon moments on youtube:

    – Hologram Sam

  7. Avatar matt m wrote:

    I have to add that it seems that DeRogatis either has never actually watched MMT (and is just taking this opportunity to “kill idols”) or has done and it completely escapes him at its most basic concept. Honestly, I think he lets it slip that it’s the former: Jessie is decidedly not a “proper English socialite,” and even someone from Chicago could intuit that. Also, they’re not wearing top hats during the YMSK finale.

    And so, this is what directs me to my agreement with Michael, and Nancy. It’s clear that this was written exclusively for the sake of Beatles-slighting, a sport that bothers me for all the same reasons. (And which is lampooned here by an old friend: –DeRogatis seems to be taking note of points 3, 4, and 5.)

    As I mentioned in the last thread, MMT is probably my favorite of all the Beatles’ films, because it’s an amazing, raw snapshot of the minds of the group at a particularly interesting time, as Paul observes in the director’s commentary on the DVD. It’s improvisation from a band not known for volume of product released without the polish on. I still maintain that the film is actually very accessible and has the potential to introduce legions of those inexperienced with art movies to the non-narrative film idea–the Beatles working yet again as a bridge between the avant-garde and mainstream. The meaningless thread that MMT is a waste of time squanders this rare, important talent.

    It’s possible that I only find it more troubling when the empty criticism comes from within the Beatlefan camp, in the guise of one of those things they’re “supposed to” dislike, but that’s another story.

  8. Matt,
    Re: Howl: seriously impressed here. I clearly spent my teens and 20s dating the WRONG WOMEN.

    I find the whole high/low divide in art depressing. Either you like something or you don’t, either you connect with it or you don’t, and labeling it seems like branding/marketing. My irritation with Yoko’s art, for example, is simply that–not with conceptual art, or the avant garde, or Japanese art, or 60s art. And my love of every Beatle movie except Let It Be is equally case-by-case. I understand one can apply labels usefully and honestly, but in a post-Duchamp world I don’t feel the need. Which puts me in weird positions like enjoying Warhol’s work a lot, his philosophy a little, and his personality not at all.

    DeRogatis’ biggest flaw when it comes to The Beatles aren’t the opinions (which, after all, are only opinions) but his seeming unwillingness to honestly engage them intellectually. As a rock critic, that seems like a big, and needless, blindspot. Which leads him to say silly things like Hello Goodbye > Penny Lane, when what he means to say is that Hello Goodbye conforms more to his preconceived notions of McCartney and The Beatles.

  9. Avatar CMO#9 wrote:

    “If John Lennon had never picked up a guitar, he could have had an extraordinary career as a comedian.”

    As much as I’d love to agree with this sentiment, I can not. John would have loved to be a comedian, that is for sure. I just don’t believe he had the chops to work out comedy bits and develop a routine. John was definitely funny but funny in context and within the group. He was a funny musician but he was a musician for a reason. There is an interview in the January 2013 Vanity Fair with Albert Brooks and a few pages into it, out of nowhere, he starts talking about John. I guess Brooks was friends with Harry Nilsson in the early 1970s. Here’s Albert Brooks on hanging with Harry and John:

    “Those guys would get rowdy, but John Lennon was certainly a fun person. And John Lennon, again, was a frustrated comedian. All these guys, comedy to them was the holy grail.”

    On meeting John for the first time in the back of Harry’s car:

    “I didn’t know what to do. And he said—that still remains the greatest thing to me—he leaned over and said, “I’ve known you for a thousand years.” And I just never felt bad again. That was a cool thing to say.”

    Relaying a funny story with John when Brooks’ comedy album was released:

    “He was going through a lot. He was separated from Yoko, but I remember my album, Comedy Minus One, had just come out and was in Tower Records. So he and Harry and I went in. He bought them all. He bought three boxes of them. Then he drove down Sunset and hurled them out like Frisbees. And again I’m going, “Don’t do that. You’ll get a littering fine.” Boom. He’s just throwing them out on the street. So it’s good and bad. I mean, it helped my Billboard number, but now they are all over Sunset.”

    On John’s view on comedy:

    “It was interesting to know what they think of comedy. They love comedy so much. It’s a language they don’t speak as eloquently. As much as you listen to the Beatles and say, “How do you write that song?,” they’re going, “How did you say that? Where did that come from?” And John was always the funniest Beatle. He had a sense of humor and he respected it so much.”

    I just love these little 1st person stories about the beatles. If anyone else agrees, check out the new DVD, Beatles Stories.

  10. Great stuff, Craig! Thanks.

    In my experience, top-flight comedy people envy musicians, and vice-versa. There’s an ineffable, universal connectivity to music that comedians covet; and a directness and earthiness to comedy that musicians like. Certainly from the mid-50s onward, the two arts converge…though I think they’re quite far apart now.

    I think John would’ve been a beyond-brilliant improvisor; I think George’s sensibility was probably more sketch. Those two vie for the title “funniest Beatle” in my book–George was slyer, but no less witty.

  11. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Agree about the connection between comedians and musicians. Maria Bamford is a talented violinist. Steve Martin has gotten real serious with his banjo, even collaborating with Paul McCartney. Of course, the Marx Brothers were multi-instrumentalists. Robert Benchley played the mandolin and cello.

    Here is John, George and Ringo guest starring in Helen Shapiro’s “Look Who It Is” (and catch John’s face when he first turns around):

    – Hologram Sam

  12. Avatar girl wrote:

    As for funniest Beatles, to me John’s word play was hilarious. George’s one liners were funny, but I also think Ringo was very funny. He could do the dry one liner as well as anyone. As for Paul, my kids asked me once, “Was Paul as funny as the others”? I think he was more the straight man. Paul was earnest. If you watch the interviews on YT, Paul was always the one who gave the most thoughtful replies.

    As for DeRogatis I agree with everything you have so eloquently said here. As for Pepper it is not only one of my favorite Beatles albums, but one of my favorite albums period. I don’t feel that this puts me in a ‘cult’. I love the album simply because it’s a great album. Along with all of their albums IMO, it still holds up today. And that is simply because it’s GOOD. I never get tired of listening to it. Paul’s bass playing is mesmerizing. Lucy in the Sky is a brilliant piece of collaboration with a wonderful arrangment. George’s guitar playing on Fixing a Hole is superb. Does DeRegotis and others, (Tim Riley also comes to mind) hear any of that? And if not,is it possible they are tone deaf?

  13. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    “If John Lennon had never picked up a guitar, he could have had an extraordinary career as a comedian.”

    As much as I’d love to agree with this sentiment, I can not. John would have loved to be a comedian, that is for sure. I just don’t believe he had the chops to work out comedy bits and develop a routine.

    I don’t know. He had enough discipline to write songs, rehearse them, and perform them with a group. I’m sure he had as much comedic chops as Spike Milligan. I think sometimes we get carried away with calling Lennon lazy. I just feel if he hadn’t been swept up by Elvis, he might have developed his comedic potential. He had the instinct, the timing. He thought funny, something the old comedians said you’re either born with or you’re not. He was organically funnier than many who call themselves professional comedians.

    I remember when John&Yoko co-hosted the Mike Douglas show for a week. I used to rush home from school to watch. One day, Lennon and Douglas sat down on the front of the stage, on the floor. He had an acoustic guitar. He muttered something to MIke Douglas, who cracked up with laughter. Douglas told the audience Lennon had said “this is the floor show.” It doesn’t sound like much when I type it out here, but it was hilarious, like seeing Groucho on Dick Cavett.

    – Hologram Sam

  14. Avatar CMO#9 wrote:

    John was funny. Very funny. Don’t get me wrong – I crack up all the time watching and listening to him. But, like Mike said, he was a terrific improviser. He always had that perfectly funny response or a snide, under his breath retort that was brilliant. I just don’t see him going on a stage and telling jokes and/or funny stories. Yeah, he could write great songs….and that mans he could write great comedy bits too? So, Richard Pryor was also able to write some chart toppers? People get carried away. Half the time were laughing so mcuch is bc its John Lennon making the comment. If it was Joe Schmoe, not so funny.

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