I Am the Walrus
- John Lennon – lead vocal, electric piano, mellotron
- Paul McCartney – bass, tambourine, backing vocal
- George Harrison – electric guitar, backing vocal
- Ringo Starr – drums
- Mike Sammes singers – background vocals.
I Am The Walrus is one of The Beatles’ most iconic songs. Its continued fame is due in large part to John Lennon's uncanny way with words. Decades later, this song still has people debating.
John Lennon wrote I Am The Walrus with no contribution from anyone else in the Beatles.
Among some of the confirmed points of reference, Lennon drew from included Lewis Carroll, a pair of acid trips, a police siren, Allen Ginsberg, Hare Krishna, a childhood nursery rhyme, and a bit of Bob Dylan thrown in for good measure.
While at his home in Weybridge one evening, Lennon became fixated by the sound of police sirens and penned the lines
Mister city policeman in harmony with the sound.
I had this idea of doing a song that was a police siren, but it didn't work in the end (sings like a siren) 'I-am-he-as-you-are-he-as...' You couldn't really sing the police siren."
- John Lennon, 1980
Also laying around were a rhyme about Lennon sitting in his garden, and a line about sitting on a cork flake. When Lennon decided he couldn’t take the thoughts further, he decided to combine them.
Around that time Lennon had also received a letter from a student at his old school, Quarry Bank High School, mentioning that a teacher was having students analyze Beatles lyrics. He responded with a letter of his own to the student dated 1 September 1967 (a letter which Christie's of London auctioned off in 1992 to a private collector), but also, in a way, with a song.
Lennon decided to create a song so intangible that it would prove un-analyzable and sought to introduce some of the most confusing lyrics he was able. The concept for I Am The Walrus flowed easily from there.
Visiting friend, Peter Shotton of The Quarrymen responded to Lennon’s request for a nursery rhyme with:
Yellow matter custard, green slop pie,
All mixed together with a dead dog's eye,
Slap it on a butty, ten foot thick,
Then wash it all down with a cup of cold sick
Fans of the I Am The Walrus will recall the lines
yellow matter custard and
dead dog’s eye.
As Beatles’ biographer Hunter Davies, who was present during parts of the composition of the song recalled, Lennon remarked to Shotton shortly thereafter
Let the fuckers work that one out.
As Lennon recounted it, I Am The Walrus was something of a collage of incomplete thoughts, random experiences, his own mischievous sense of humor, a heaping of nonsense, and really just the way things fell together:
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. 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. I was writing obscurely, a la Dylan, in those days. 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. Later, I went back and looked at it and realized 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.
- John Lennon, 1980
John enjoyed clever, often nonsensical wordplay, and I Am The Walrus is replete with strange lyrical images. The title is an allusion to works by Lewis Carroll, perhaps England's most famous wordplay genius, who wrote the well-known poem, "The Walrus and the Carpenter" from Through the Looking-Glass. In spite of John's protestations that he wrote the lyrics with the express purpose of not meaning to say anything at all, fans and critics have spent much time trying to parse the words and make sense of the phrases. Some other references that can be parsed from the song include:
A random sample from a BBC broadcast of King Lear that just happened to be on the radio. From Act Four, Scene 6:
Slave, thou hast slain me. Villain, take my purse, I know thee well: a serviceable villain, As duteous to the vices of thy mistress As badness would desire. What, is he dead? Sit you down, father. Rest you.
A choir during the song's outro chant
Oompah, oompah, stick it in your jumper and
Everybody's got one, everybody's got one.
A reference to the song Marching To Pretoria which includes the lines
I'm with you and you're with me and we are all together.
A reference in which
googoo goosth from the novel Finnegans Wake by James Joyce became
goo goo ga joob, the call of the Walrus.
It’s even been suggested that the Egg Man was actually Eric Burdon of the Animals who earned that moniker after detailing to Lennon a sexual experience he had in which an egg made a prominent appearance.
Music critics particularly enjoy I Am The Walrus because of its harmonic complexity. It uses all seven natural major chords (A-G) with no sevenths, minors or accidentals. The long outro ascends through all seven, even as the bass goes down through the same sequence backwards.
Parlophone released I Am The Walrus on the b-side of a single on November 24, 1967 (Nov 27 in the US). Hello, Goodbye was on the a-side. Lennon thought McCartney's Hello, Goodbye was a stupid song and resented that I Am The Walrus had been relegated to the b-side of the release. It can also be heard on Magical Mystery Tour, among others.
The group recorded I Am The Walrus in various sessions during November of 1967, shortly after the death of Beatles' manager Brian Epstein. The production turned out to be elaborate, with several overdubs: Lennon on lead vocals with electric piano, Paul and George on harmonies, and Ringo on drums. George plays tambourine only (no lead guitar). The orchestra included 8 violins, four cellos, two horns and a clarinet. The Mike Sammes singers provided background vocals. It is said that John arranged the orchestral instruments, and George Martin arranged the background vocals, which include a cacophonous chatter as a lead-in to the bridge. The final touch was an overdub from a BBC radio broadcast of King Lear (from Act Four, Scene 6). Several fragments are faded in and out from the 2:25 mark forward.