There are some songs within The Beatles back catalogue which are clearly designed to do one thing or another. Whether it’s a straight rock ‘n’ roll song or it allows the members of the band to share something personal, something vulnerable—some songs have been constructed with a sincere and clear direction. Others, well, other songs are designed to confuse and confound.
One such song is the Magical Mystery Tour classic, ‘I Am The Walrus’, a song so deeply steeped in Fab Four folklore that we often forget the original intent of the track. John Lennon may have been writing a psychedelic allegory but he certainly had a target in mind. In part, at least, Lennon was attacking Hare Krishna.
‘I Am The Walrus’ is a shining piece of Beatles iconography. The song is widely touted as one of their most trippy and thanks to Lennon’s wide-ranging lyrics, allowed countless interpretations of the track, each one varying slightly from the other. Composed as the final song Lennon wrote in 1967, the singer was extremely pleased with how it turned out, hoping it would become the next single.
Lennon was outvoted by Paul McCartney and George Martin who pick ‘Hello, Goodbye’ as the follow up to ‘All You Need Is Love’. After the band had split, Lennon later cited this point as the moment “I got sick and tired of being Paul’s backup band”.
The complexity of the song is likely down to its unusual conception. The track is a composite of three pieces written across different weekends back in 1967, the height of LSD use across the globe and colloquially known as the Summer of Love. “The first line was written on one acid trip one weekend, the second line on another acid trip the next weekend, and it was filled in after I met Yoko,” recalled Lennon.
The nonsensical moments in the song were put in there by design, as George Harrison recalls in 1967, “People don’t understand. In John’s song, ‘I Am The Walrus’ he says: ‘I am he as you are he as you are me.’ People look for all sorts of hidden meanings. It’s serious, but it’s also not serious. It’s true, but it’s also a joke.”
The duality of both this song and Lennon’s own feelings are given license to roam on this track. While Lennon is seemingly happy to create metaphor and moments of pure madness he is also just as happy to write both a clearly trippy line and a deliberate attack—such was his varied and fragmented writing style. It would allow Lennon to write a thinly veiled attack on Hare Krishna.
It can seem an odd choice to try and attack an otherwise wholly peaceful religion but there was something phoney about those picking up the practice in 1966 and beyond that upset the bespectacled Beatle. Like any good songwriter, he channelled his frustrations into a masterpiece of a track.
The Hare Krishna movement began in 1966 in New York City and quickly gained a reputation for being chock full of beat poets and artists. The religion, based largely on Hindu scriptures, quickly became a hot fashion accessory and allowed Westerners a taste of Eastern philosophy without having to leave their district.
“Part of it was putting down Hare Krishna. All these people were going on about Hare Krishna, Allen Ginsberg in particular. The reference to ‘Element’ry penguin’ is the elementary, naive attitude of going around chanting, ‘Hare Krishna,’ or putting all your faith in any one idol,” recalled Lennon back in 1980 when speaking to David Sheff. “I was writing obscurely, a la Dylan, in those days.”
While the song may have been flecked with the sneering barbs Lennon intended, its original conception was from another literary world, “It’s from ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter.’ ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ To me, it was a beautiful poem. It never dawned on me that Lewis Carroll was commenting on the capitalist and social system. I never went into that bit about what he really meant, like people are doing with the Beatles’ work.”
Of course, for those who are keen Lewis Carrol fans, the matching up of characters didn’t quite work, something Lennon himself later cottoned on to. “Later, I went back and looked at it and realised that the walrus was the bad guy in the story and the carpenter was the good guy. I thought, Oh, shit, I picked the wrong guy. I should have said, ‘I am the carpenter.’ But that wouldn’t have been the same, would it? (singing) ‘I am the carpenter.”
When you try to find the ins and outs of a maze-like song such as ‘I Am The Walrus’ the chances are you will get lost. It’s safe to say that while there is a clear attack on Hare Krishna, and more likely those who joined as a fad, it’s clear that this track more than any other is deliberately meant to confuse.
This is a song to encourage you to think and question, whether that’s society, capitalism, religion or, indeed, who the walrus really is.
It’s not Paul.