There are plenty of literary references with the multitudes of incredible songs performed and produced by The Beatles. The band were so neatly intertwined with the greats of literature that they helped to intellectualize pop music as a whole, transforming it from radio prattle to revered and continually revised works. For the most part, much of that elevation was down to John Lennon.
Paul McCartney and Lennon had been writing songs since their teens, but while Macca was more than happy to keep toes tapping and hips shaking with music hall bouncers, Lennon was more focused on achieving artistry. This would be present in his songs like ‘Help!’ and ‘In My Life’ and continue as the band grew in age and esteem. One such song deeply connected to literature was Lennon’s archetypal acid song, ‘I Am The Walrus’. Among a varied range of influences, the song can be linked to one of the finest playwrights of all time, William Shakespeare.
Lennon was quick to lean heavily on his inspirations when writing songs and the words no matter where they came from. For ‘I Am The Walrus’, the lyrics leapt right up from the page. The song was directly inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and saw Lennon use an allegory to create a mystifying point.
“Walrus is just saying a dream,” recalled John in his infamous 1980 interview with Playboy’s David Sheff. Like many dreams, the song is actually a composite of a few different themes. The basic rhythmic pattern came from one song about inner-city police, which Lennon had based on a police siren. The other two threads were dreamed up when Lennon was high on acid, with one being written as if he was on a cornflake.
In the same 1980 Playboy interview, Lennon confirmed: “The first line was written on one acid trip one weekend. The second line was written on the next acid trip the next weekend, and it was filled in after I met Yoko… I’d seen Allen Ginsberg and some other people who liked Dylan and Jesus going on about Hare Krishna. It was Ginsberg, in particular, I was referring to. The words ‘element’ry penguin’ meant that it’s naïve to just go around chanting Hare Krishna or putting all your faith in one idol.”
It sees Lennon put down on paper the fuzzy drug-fuelled sessions that underwrote the band’s output and showed that songs don’t necessarily have to mean anything to be considered great. But where does the Bard himself, William Shakespeare, enter into the fold? When the band finally got the song into the studio while recording Magical Mystery Tour, the group began playing around with the mix, looking for a way to enrich Lennon’s already kaleidoscopic vision.
The song contained words that Lennon had created for his own literary exploration In His Own Write and told Sheff just how he came up with them. “You know, you just stick a few images together, thread them together, and you call it poetry. Well, maybe it is poetry. But I was just using the mind that wrote In His Own Write to write that song.”
The song would also feature a rarely heard BBC broadcast of Shakespeare’s King Lear, which would inspire Lennon and make the final cut. “There was even some live BBC radio on one track, y’know. They were reciting Shakespeare or something, and I just fed whatever lines were on the radio into the song.” Ironically, thanks to the song’s lyrics “pornographic priestess” and “let your knickers down”, the song was later banned by the BBC.
However, it wouldn’t diminish its legend, and ‘I Am The Walrus’ is often seen as one of Lennon’s finest compositions, even if it is largely nonsense. It’s fair to say that The Beatles did, in fact, intellectualize pop music. It’s equally as fair to say that they had no idea they were doing it. They were just four lads from Liverpool writing music about what they knew, the fact they just so happen to be as culturally relevant as William Shakespeare is purely a sign of how wonderful they were at it.