When was it recorded? Sept. 5-6 & 27-29, 1967
When was it first released, and on which album? Nov. 24, 1967 on the “Hello, Goodbye” single (later on “Magical Mystery Tour”)
Who wrote it? Lennon
Have I heard this song before? Goo goo g’joob
What my research dug up:
Like “Happiness is a Warm Gun” (Day 82), “I Am the Walrus” is kind of three song ideas stitched into one quilt. Quoth the Beatles Bible, “The song was written in August 1967, at the peak of the Summer of Love and shortly after the release of ‘Sgt. Pepper.’”
“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.”– John Lennon (Playboy, 1980)
Let’s break it down. The first part came about when John was sitting at his piano at home and heard a police siren outside. He played along with it and “wrote the lines ‘Mister city police-man’ to the rhythm and melody of the siren” (Wikipedia)
A second part – a rhyme about John sitting in his English country garden – came about because, according to the Beatles Bible, that was something John “was fond of doing for hours at a time. Lennon repeated the phrase to himself until a melody came.”
A third song segment “was a nonsense lyric about sitting on a corn flake” (Wikipedia).
A letter from a Quarry Bank High School student spurred John to piece together “I Am the Walrus.” Quoth Wikipedia, “The writer mentioned that the English master was making his class analyze Beatles’ lyrics… Lennon, amused that a teacher was putting so much effort into understanding the Beatles’ lyrics, decided to write in his next song the most confusing lyrics that he could.”
Around the time he received this letter, Pete Shotton met with John, who asked the former about a playground rhyme they sang growing up.
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.
(I can’t say that’s one we have America.) John swapped “green slop pie” for “[dripping from] a dead dog’s eye,” which makes the image all the more terrifying.
Other lyrical oddities…
- The words “crabalocker,” “texpert,” and “goo goo g’joob” were coined by John in his earlier works, In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works
- “Goo goo g’joob” is similar to “googoo goosth” from James Joyce’s 1939 experimental novel Finnegan’s Wake, which John reportedly read – that said, there’s no evidence John had that phrase in mind while writing “Walrus”
- “Semolina pilchard” refers to Detective Sergeant Norman Pilcher of Scotland Yard, “notorious in the late Sixties for busting rock stars on trumped-up drug charges” (About.com)
- “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together” apes the opening line of British folk song “Marching To Pretoria” (“I’m with you and you’re with me and so we are all together”)
- “See how they fly like Lucy in the sky” is a direct reference to earlier Beatles tune “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (duh)
- The eggman is either Humpty Dumpty (and as such a Lewis Carroll reference) or Eric Burdon, the lead singer of British bad The Animals for reasons I feel really gross explaining (you can look it up)
According to Wikipedia, “The Beatles’ official biographer Hunter Davies was present while the song was being written and wrote an account in his 1968 biography of the Beatles. Lennon remarked to Shotton, ‘Let the fuckers work that one out.’” Based on my investigation, I’d say lyric analysts had a field day with “Walrus.”
So we know who the eggman is, but who is the walrus? Simple.
Kidding aside, the walrus is a direct reference lifted from Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” According to About.com, “It has no meaning in itself, though many Carroll critics have ascribed various social, political and/or religious meanings to the poem.”
“It never dawned on me that Lewis Carroll was commenting on the capitalist and social system. … 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. I should have said, ‘I am the carpenter.’’ But that wouldn’t have been the same, would it?” – John Lennon (Playboy, 1980)
I tried getting into the serious scholarly debate on whether John or Paul was really the walrus, but I couldn’t do it with a straight face.
To suit its complex lyrics, “Walrus” boasts a complex instrumental arrangement. According to Alan Pollack, “no matter what else you may respond to in this wonderfully outrageous song, you should acknowledge the extent to which it ultimately weighs in as a (granted, extremely stylized and abstract) talkin’ blues number.” Pollack also points out, “The overlay of orchestra and chorus underscores various details of imagery in the words and music with exaggerated gestures suggestive of some crazy cartoon soundtrack; e.g. stumbling triplets after “see how they run,” the glissandi behind “crying,” the laughing at the choking smokers, and the “sneiding” pigs.”
About.com notes “Walrus” “contains all seven major ‘natural’ chords (no sharps, flats or minors), and rises through all seven in the song’s extended outro, while the bass line descends through the same chords backwards.” “Walrus” according to Ian MacDonald is “the most unorthodox and tonally ambiguous sequence [John] ever devised” with “an obsessive musical structure built round a perpetually ascending/descending MC Escher staircase of all the natural major chords.”
The Beatles began recording “Walrus” Sept. 5, 1967, nine days after Brian Epstein’s death. It was the first song they recorded after his death. The original backing track plus the Beatles’ vocals was released on “Anthology 2.”
On Sept. 29, a performance of Act IV, Scene 6 from Shakespeare’s tragedy “King Lear” was edited into the song “direct from an AM radio Lennon was fiddling with that happened to be receiving the broadcast of the play on the BBC Third Programme” (Wikipedia). Wikipedia also told me of this version of “Walrus,” which features the “King Lear” excerpts isolated and unedited at the end of the song. Be warned – the monologue comes in louder than the song ends.
“That was John’s baby, great one, a really good one.” — Paul McCartney (Barry Miles, Many Years From Now)
Here’s the final version.
For reasons unbeknown to me, the US mono release of “Walrus” featured an extra measure before “yellow matter custard.” Most mono versions also opened “with a four-beat chord while stereo mix features six beats on the initial chord” (About the Beatles).
John wanted “Walrus” to be the Beatles’ return single but got outvoted in favor of “Hello, Goodbye.” Naturally, the BBC banned “Walrus” for the lines “pornographic priestess” and “let your knickers down.” Regardless, “Since the single and the double EP held at one time in December 1967 the top two slots on the British singles chart, the song had the distinction of being at number 1 and number 2 simultaneously” (Wikipedia). Across the pond, the song peaked at #58 on the US music charts.
“Walrus” appears in the “Magical Mystery Tour” film, with the performance filmed in West Malling, Kent.
Most critics I read advised listening to “Walrus” multiple times to truly appreciate its density. I think definitely got that right. The more I listened to “Walrus,” the more I noticed and the more I liked. It’s elegant and intelligent in its insanity.