We’re taking a look back one of The Beatles strangest songs, ‘I Am The Walrus’, and finding out who exactly Lennon was talking about when he wrote the track for the 1967 television film The Magical Mystery Tour.
If you missed The Beatles the first time around there’s a good chance that you will, at one point in your life, have professed to not liking them. Whether it was because of teenage rebellion or a refusal to believe the hype, at moments in our lives we’ve all claimed the Fab Four to be a dinosaur.
Such claims are usually met with a snort of derision (quite rightly) but there is some validity to the argument, namely in songs such as ‘I Am The Walrus’. The track, upon first listening, is a confounding fever dream of cartoonish imagery and kaleidoscopic language that would seem more at home in a Monty Python pastiche.
Lennon and McCartney may have been credited with the song but it is solely written by Lennon. Released as the B-side to ‘Hello, Goodbye’ the track has become synonymous with the Fab Four’s wilder days, often cited as another pulsating and confusing introduction to The Beatles use of LSD. But in fact, its roots go back to Lennon’s school.
A student from his former school, Quarry Bank High School, sent Lennon a letter telling him that his teacher has been analysing Beatles lyrics. The letter, which amused Lennon, inspired him to construct one of his most deliberately confusing songs.
“Walrus is just saying a dream,” recalled John in his infamous 1980 interview with Playboy. 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.
The school theme returned for the middle eight of the track when Lennon asked his school friend, and former Quarrymen member, Pete Shotton, if he could remember a rhyme they used to chant as kids. “Yellow matter custard, green slop pie / All mixed together with a dead dog’s eye,” went the rhyme and Lennon grab the pieces he liked to add further texture to the song.
It was a deliberate ploy. Lennon had become so weary of being constantly put under the microscope that he was intent on making the most obtuse statement he could. “Let the fuckers work that one out,” he said during the writing of the song. The variety of different lyrics and their differet references is truly baffling. For example, “the egg man” either refers to Lennon’s love of Alice in Wonderland in which Humpty Dumpty features, or it’s a sexual act singer Eric Burden would perform on women which Lennon witnessed at some time. It’s enough to leave you spinning.
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.”
“In those days I was writing obscurely, à la Dylan,” Lennon recalls. Often being quoted as saying that Dylan had been getting away with murder for his expressive lyrical style, something The Beatles were not being afforded. So was there ever a real “walrus”? The answer, as you might imagine, isn’t simple.
Lennon confirmed that he had picked the character of the Walrus, taken from Lewis Caroll’s poem ‘The Walrus and The Carpenter’ but didn’t realise. When constructing his confusing anthem, that the Walrus was the villain of the piece. “I thought, Oh, shit, I picked the wrong guy,” he said, before adding: “I should have said, ‘I am the carpenter.’ But that wouldn’t have been the same, would it? [Sings, laughing] ‘I am the carpenter …'”
When the song was released, the multi-layered track was enough to send those teachers, music critics and Beatles nerds who had spent so much time dissecting the Fab Four’s work, into overdrive. Each lyric was chewed up regurgitated and re-chewed—each one analysed within an inch of its life.
Lennon could sit back smugly and enjoy his work. The singer had sent swathes of the listening audience into a spin. He had created one of the most deliberately confounding songs ever written and achieved his goal—but he still had one more joke to share. In 1968, on the band’s self-titled White Album, Lennon added the lyric “the Walrus was Paul” to the album track ‘Glass Onion’.
Later he remarked, “I threw the line in—’the Walrus was Paul—just to confuse everybody a bit more. It could have been ‘the fox terrier is Paul’. I mean, it’s just a bit of poetry. I was having a laugh because there’d been so much gobbledygook about Pepper—play it backwards and you stand on your head and all that.”
So while it may well be one of the first port of calls for all The Beatles naysayers out there, it may even be marked as the lunatic lyrics of a fuzzy druggy mess. In fact, it was Lennon toying with his public and showing himself to be the expert songwriter he was because truly nobody but Lennon could have written this song. More to the point, nobody would have dared to.