Before we fling ourselves down the never-ending pit of clocks, bookshelves, and empty jars of orange marmalade to look for that dapper lagomorph, I want you to picture the following scene in your eye’s mind:
It’s August 1967, the ‘Summer of Love’, and a period of revolution and progress*. The Beatles are riding high on an obscene tsunami of acclaim from their album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – a keystone of music history that has been applauded almost unanimously for its genre-defying range, lyrical depth, earth-shattering experimental studio effects, and sheer ambition alone. The band had achieved heights of critical praise that were simply unheard of for a band who were largely known, just a few years earlier, for making cute, catchy pop-rock songs for screaming teenaged girls. No musical act had managed to produce work that could simultaneously please stuffy music critics and gawking teens, whilst also maintaining a universal musical appeal. As a founding member of the revolutionary band in question, you’d be forgiven for thinking that John Lennon couldn’t be chirpier. As history has proved ad nauseam, things are never as clean cut.
The Beatles had been herded back into the studio in June of that year by an ever eager Paul McCartney, just days after completing the herculean task of Sgt. Pepper in order to start work on Magical Mystery Tour. Encroaching overconfidence (and drug-based sluggishness) had convinced the band to seek spiritual guidance in the form of then popular Transcendental Meditation guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The timing of this urge for counsel became eerily prescient as their manager, leader, and friend Brian Epstein was found dead in his London home from an overdose of barbiturates barely three days after meeting Maharishi for the first time. Just over a week later, the band decided to start production on Lennon’s surrealist masterpiece, ‘I Am The Walrus’.
But for over half a century, there has been one question that keeps rearing its moustached and tusked head: what on earth is ‘I Am The Walrus’ about? In short, it’s an epic psychedelic satire on the establishment, commercialism, censorship, sexual repression, hypocrisy, moral grandstanding, elitism, prejudice, faith, pretentiousness, the class system, and the act of songwriting itself. Given the cataclysmic few weeks leading up to the recording session, Lennon’s disposition at the time was predictably unpredictable.
* 1967, as Ian MacDonald noted, is also the year that contraception became regulated by the Family Planning act, as well as when homosexuality and abortion were legalised.
In 1967, John Lennon was drowning in an endless supply of Lysergic acid diethylamide – or LSD as it’s known in the hip and happening world of acronyms. The effects of the drug had a profound influence on the creative output of artists, writers, and musicians at the time. With musical artists, LSD brought about a lyrical zeitgeist of utilising introspective imagery and themes, conveying a sincere, optimistic naivety, viewed through a surrealistic lens. These simplistic childlike lyrics, combined with the prevalent psychedelic instrumentation at the time, naturally evoked themes of past innocence, happiness, oneness with nature, love and, axiomatically, a nostalgic desire to return to simpler times; this desire being sated somewhat by ingestible, chemically-induced infantilism in the form of acid. Late 60s examples of this sort of thing include Pink Floyd’s ‘See Emily Play’, July’s ‘Dandelion Seeds’, and The Pretty Things’ ‘Talkin’ About the Good Times’. The idea of John Lennon regularly consuming this drug that compels you to rummage through your memory vault, however, is a rather worrisome prospect when one considers his background. Having been brought up by a strict aunt due to an absent father and mother, repeatedly disregarded by teachers and authority figures as being nothing more than a talentless troublemaker, having to cope with the deaths of his uncle, mother, and best friend within a few years of each other, and then encountering the jarring juxtaposition of suddenly gaining fame and fortune – you’ll be astoundaghast to find – didn’t always result in Lennon having the most balanced state of mind.
Whilst not a perpetually reliable failsafe, Lennon’s trademark witty cynicism, brought about due to his tumultuous upbringing, acted as an anchor to reality throughout his whole career. This meant that whilst LSD often conjured lyrically Disneyesque innocence in many songwriters and musicians, in the sardonic psyche of Lennon, fandom of Lewis Carroll, Ronald Searle, and James Thurber, mutated into psychedelic Edward Learian grotesqueries to emphasise the grand absurdities of culture and society as a whole.
Inspired by the sound of a passing police siren whilst sat in his Kenwood home in Weybridge, Lennon noodled on his piano the repeating two-note phrase and wrote down some off-the-cuff accompanying lyrics. After several acid trips over consecutive weekends, the initial musical idea had unfurled into, what critic Ian MacDonald in Revolution in the Head referred to as: “an obsessive musical structure built around a perpetually ascending/descending MC Escher staircase of all the natural major chords“.
The opening lyrics, “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together,” (which seem to bear a coincidental similarity to British folk song ‘Marching to Pretoria’), in terms of message, are seemingly typical – not syntactically – for the Summer of Love and its modus operandi of oneness, togetherness, peace, and love. Do not be fooled, as this soon becomes somewhat of a scarlet kipper when the listener realises the line’s message belies the lyrical thrust of the rest of the song. There is also the other detail that 43.75% of the line is composed entirely of pronouns. This is extremely important to point out as we are talking about a song that concerns identity – albeit that of a walrus. I also believe that this theme is not only explored within the song, but has been a subject that The Beatles revisited throughout their whole career. But I’ll get to all that pavlova in a little while ago.
In the next lines, “See how they run like pigs from a gun/see how they fly/I’m crying,” we find a myriad of literary references deliberately obfuscated by abstract imagery. A possible nod to Three Blind Mice (“See how they run*“) glides into the image of flying pigs; an image that appears within Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass poem The Walrus and The Carpenter†. Whilst the Three Blind Mice reference is arguable (as is nearly everything in this damned glorious puzzle-box of a song), the Carroll reference is certain, as it not only becomes the only consistent well from which the song’s lyrical content repeatedly draws its LSD-spiked water, but Lennon himself stated in a 1980 Playboy interview that the poem is where the song’s genesis came from. Years later, however, he admitted within the same interview that he realised he had mistakenly picked the walrus in the poem, quote: “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? (singing) ‘I am the carpenter…‘”
* This phrase is also repeated in the McCartney boogie-woogie romp ‘Lady Madonna’
† “The time has come’, the Walrus said, ‘To talk of many things: Of shoes and ships and sealing wax – Of cabbages and kings – And why the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings”
The following line, “sitting on a cornflake/waiting for the van to come*“, could possibly be a reference to the early Beatles years when they would travel up and down the country in a van to play gigs. One imagines a yawning Lennon waiting to be picked up in the early hours having just had breakfast. Whilst the image of the cornflake is somewhat reminiscent of the Lennon-penned Sgt. Pepper song ‘Good Morning Good Morning,’ which directly references a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes advert that intrigued Lennon at the time, the theme of Lennon’s predilection for sleep and relaxation – and therefore his dislike of disturbed slumber – echoes Lennon’s dream-like Revolver track ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ from the year prior in 1966, as well as his languorous White Album tune ‘I’m So Tired’ from the following year in 1968.
The proceeding line, “Corporation t-shirt/Stupid bloody Tuesday/Man you’ve been a naughty boy/You let your face grow long” seems to cover a lot of ground like the clappers thematically. Lennon begins by poking fun at the irony and hypocrisy of people wearing clothing emblazoned with anti-capitalistic/revolutionary slogans despite often being manufactured by the very oppressive corporations they’re condemning. There’s also the possibility that Lennon is commenting bitterly on the commodification of The Beatles in their early years (The Beatles’ sombre expressions on the cover of their fourth album Beatles For Sale, and its rather cynical title, speaks volumes†).
Quite briskly (“moderato, foxtrot“), Lennon then possibly references ‘Bloody Tuesday’; a peaceful Civil Rights protest against segregated drinking fountains in the county courthouse that took place on June 9th, 1964 – just three years prior to the creation of the song – in Tuscaloosa, Alabama when police officers and counter-protestors bludgeoned, tear-gassed, and arrested the participants of the march. This support of the Civil Rights movement from Lennon is consistent with the attitudes he, and The Beatles as a whole, conveyed throughout their career; The Beatles being one of the few bands at the time who, when touring, refused to perform at venues that segregated their audience.
“Man you’ve been a naughty boy, you let your face grow long” is Lennon sarcastically echoing the stiff-upper-lip “Why the long face?” sentiment frequently given to boys when they show signs of sensitivity. Yoko Ono in 1980 commented in the David Sheff book All We Are Saying: “Because (men) never have the chance to cry because they are always told not to cry or to scream or show emotion like that.” This is supported further by the repeated phrase “I’m crying” which appears four times in the third verse; the emotional significance of which becomes highlighted when one considers Lennon’s decision in 1970 to go into a type of psychotherapy championed by Arthur Janov called “Primal Therapy”. Janov theorised that repressed childhood trauma, and the neurosis it later causes, can be alleviated by revisiting those traumatic events and expressing the emotion that was previously bottled up, often resulting in screaming or crying. This concept later became the muse for Lennon’s first solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.
When we arrive at “I am the Eggman/They are the Eggmen/I am the Walrus/Goo Goo Goo Joob,” not only do we hear the first of many instances where this line is exclaimed by Lennon’s wonderfully distorted vocals, but we also begin to realise the task of analysing this song is hilariously absurd. Whilst the Eggman/men is probably a Lewis Carroll nod to Humpty Dumpty (H.D being a character in Through the Looking-Glass who demonstrates to Alice a cocky but playful mastery of semantics and language; perhaps too on-the-nose for Lennon to proclaim about himself?), I personally prefer the story that “the Eggman” is an in-joke for The Animals lead singer Eric Burdon who Lennon heard had a fetish for cracking raw eggs over women in bed. Allegedly, Lennon told an intoxicated Burdon at a party – who had just noticed a bevy of attractive women – to “go get it, Eggman“‡.
The “Goo Goo Goo Joob” I personally believe to be nothing more than just silly baby sounds. However, online, there are theories ranging from it being a reference to Betty Boop’s catchphrase “Boop Oop-a-Doop,” through to suggestions that Lennon was referencing the gibberish found in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (“googoo goosth“), all the way to yet another absurd ‘Paul is Dead’ hoax theory that “Goo Goo Goo Joob” is Inuit for the ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ lyric, “Living is easy with eyes closed,” and that the walrus is an Inuit symbol for death. This brand of blatant clutching at hay sticks is rife within the Beatles conspiracy theory community – from the mild suggestion that ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ was about heroin (it was actually based on a headline for a gun magazine called The American Rifleman which Lennon saw) to the outright potty claims of a 14th Beatles album called Everyday Chemistry acquired from a parallel universe in which The Beatles hadn’t broken up in 1970.
* Beatles biographer Hunter Davies, who was present during the song’s construction, misheard “man to come” for “van to come”. Lennon preferred Davies’ mondegreen and changed it to “van”.
† Lennon, 1970 Jann Wenner interview: “The most humiliating experiences were like sitting with the Mayor of the Bahamas when we were making ‘Help!’ and being insulted by these fuckin’ junked up middle-class bitches and bastards who would be commenting on our work and commenting on our manners. I was always drunk, insulting them. I couldn’t take it. It would hurt me. I would go insane, swearing at them. I would do something. I couldn’t take it. All that business was awful, it was a fuckin’ humiliation. One has to completely humiliate oneself to be what the Beatles were”
‡ According to Eric Burdon’s autobiography, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, Burdon states that whilst the rumour was false, it had originated from a sexual encounter he had with a Jamaican ex-girlfriend called Sylvia.
Verse three begins with, “Mister city Policeman sitting/Pretty little policemen in a row/See how they fly like Lucy in the Sky/See how they run/I’m crying“. Despite the rather interesting self-referential mention of the Beatles song ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ whereby Lennon is playing with the double entendre of the verb “fly” when used in conjunction with the falsehood of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ being code for LSD*, the apparent flattery present in the description of the policemen becomes scathingly sarcastic when contextualised with Lennon’s tragic past. When he was 17, an off-duty policeman, without a driving license, ran over Lennon’s mother, Julia, killing her instantly. The mammoth-sized chip on his shoulder caused by this incident can be heard throughout Lennon’s entire discography. The derogatory use of the word “pigs” – later repeated by Lennon in the song with, “See how they smile like pigs in a sty/See how they snide” – in addition to the repeated phrase “I’m crying”, combined with the image of policemen, and the imitated siren at the beginning of the song seems to make Lennon’s intention here rather obvious.
Childhood friend Pete Shotton was visiting Lennon while he was writing ‘I Am The Walrus’ when Lennon showed him a letter he’d received from a student of their old school (Quarry Bank Grammar School), telling him that teachers were getting the students to analyse Beatles lyrics. The irony tickled Lennon as the teachers, when he was a student there, perpetually disregarded his intelligence and talent. For example, a school report card from 1956 included a comment from a maths teacher on the then 15-year-old Lennon: “He is certainly on the road to failure.” At one point, teachers confiscated a hand-made edition of Lennon’s own satirical newspaper, The Daily Howl; a scrappy periodical filled with Lennon’s now historically celebrated literary nonsense in the form of poems, stories, and Thurberesque drawings, which eventually made it into two published books by Lennon in the form of In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works. This perpetual rejection, as can be heard in a Rolling Stone interview with Lennon in 1970, left deep scars: “People like me are aware of their so-called genius at ten, eight, nine . . . I always wondered, “why has nobody discovered me?”. In school, didn’t they see that I’m cleverer than anybody in this school? That the teachers are stupid, too? That all they had was information that I didn’t need. It was obvious to me. Why didn’t they put me in art school? Why didn’t they train me? Why would they keep forcing me to be a fuckin’ cowboy like the rest of them? I was different, I was always different. Why didn’t anybody notice me?”
Asking Shotton to remind him of an old Liverpudlian playground rhyme†, Lennon incorporated this into verse four’s lyrics, “Yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye”. According to Shotton, once Lennon penned the lyric, he smugly said, “Let the fuckers work that one out”.
The lyric “Pornographic Priestess”, while introducing oxymoronic ideas of erotica and the clergy, transforms into a commentary about sexual repression and hypocrisy with the line, “Boy you’ve been a naughty girl, you let your knickers down” as it not only toys with the idiom ‘caught with your trousers down’ but possibly refers to occasions when those in religious positions of power, who act as moral arbiters, are sometimes caught indulging in the very sexual deviance they regularly condemn. This contextually makes sense considering Lennon’s less-than-perfect history with the Catholic Church due to his infamous ‘Bigger Than Jesus’ scandal the previous year. The knickers line also acts as a clever parallelistic bookend to its twin in verse two with the first example addressing gendered double standards regarding men being unable to show emotion like women, and the latter addressing women being unable to be promiscuous like men.
Lennon doubles down on the theme of sexual repression in the coda of the song where The Mike Sammes Singers – a 16-piece choir (8 female, 8 male) – were encouraged by an ever-cheeky Lennon to chant sexually suggestive phrases on a loop like, “Everybody’s got one” and “Oompah oompah, stick it up your jumper” with the latter being a direct reference to 1936 novelty song ‘Umpa, Umpa (Stick It Up Your Jumper)’ by The Two Leslies; a comedic musical duo famed rather fittingly for their risqué humour and British wordplay. With an irony Lennon would have relished, ‘I Am The Walrus’ was quickly banned by the BBC for its use of the words ‘knickers’ and ‘pornographic’ – despite being a song that mocks the establishment’s obsession with censoring displays of sexuality. As George Harrison said in the Hunter Davies Beatles biography, “Why can’t you have people fucking as well? It’s going on everywhere in the world, all the time. So why can’t you mention it? It’s just a word“.
The bridge is welcomed into the song with a cacophony of doorbells ringing, muffled singing, and radio tuning which are then interrupted by luscious violins and cellos. Lennon’s initially dry, fuzzy, peaking, V72A preamp voice is suddenly altered here with a spaced-out, otherworldly, delay effect, thereby emulating the halcyon mood of the bridge’s lyrics. The vocal effect used throughout the initial verses of the song is credited to legendary Beatles sound engineer Geoff Emerick after he was given, by Lennon, the aptly baffling request to make his voice appear as though it were “coming from the moon,” explaining in his book, Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles: “After a little bit of thought, I ended up overloading the console’s mic preamps so as to get a smooth, round kind of distortion – something that was, once again, in clear violation of EMI’s strict rules. To make his voice sound even edgier, I used a cheap low-fidelity talkback microphone”. As Lennon sound requests go, asking the engineers to add a lunar dimension to his voice wasn’t that unusual. The seemingly impenetrable nonsense in ‘I Am The Walrus’, as well as Lennon’s psychedelic leanings in general, were mirrored in his abstract demands to producer George Martin and the engineers; Martin saying in Mark Lewisohn’s book, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions: “He’d make whooshing noises and try to describe what only he could hear in his head, saying he wanted a song ‘to sound like an orange’. When we first worked on ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!’ John said he wanted to ‘smell the sawdust on the floor’.”
The bridge’s lyrics, “Sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun/If the sun don’t come you get a tan from standing in the English rain,” playfully references the perennially English tendency to optimistically anticipate sunshine despite the likelihood of cloud and showers. Britain’s paradoxical relationship with the weather is a concept that clearly amused Lennon – having visited it a year prior in the delightfully hazy B-side ‘Rain’. “Sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun” also bears a strong similarity with the “Sitting on a cornflake waiting for the van to come” line from verse two; both in terms of syntax and in evoking Lennon’s favourite pastime of lounging around‡. Lyrically and aurally, the bridge provides a soothing respite from the growling, vehement chaos of the first few verses; the ringing introduction somewhat giving the listener the impression of Lennon waking up, catching himself in the midst of an impassioned tirade, and taking a few deep breaths to daydream about unwinding in his idyllic Kenwood home garden.
The third chorus is complemented by a live BBC radio broadcast of the Shakespeare play The Tragedy Of King Lear – specifically Act 4, Scene 6 – that happened to be playing during a remixing session at Abbey Road. Lennon, feeling the same urge for Cageian indeterminacy that helped to create ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ from Revolver, decided to fiddle with the radio dial and feed the subsequent audio into the track’s mix. This Lennon motif involving tuning into a frequency of some description has occurred in a plethora of Beatles tracks, either lyrically or sonically, such as the high-frequency 15 kilohertz sound in ‘A Day In The Life’, the lines, “That is you can’t, you/know, tune in/But it’s all right” (an early version of the song had the lyric, “No one I think is on my wavelength“ which eventually turned into, “No one I think is in my tree/I mean it must be high or low“) from ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, and in ‘Revolution 9’ at 6:58 where we hear radio tuning followed by the voice of Yoko Ono (“You become naked“). With ‘I Am The Walrus’, the listener has to try and tune into the labyrinthine rabbit-hole of Lennon’s mind, much like trying to find some cosmic radio station using an overly sensitive dial – flitting between neighbouring stations and hearing a torrent of disconnected phrases being spat out in return.
This whole concept ties into Lennon’s childhood issues with his own “genius” and people’s inability to “tune in” to his “wavelength” where people repeatedly underestimated him. Lennon’s fondness for the surreal, therefore, not only acted as some form of sanctuary for him, but seemed to confirm that he was different from everybody else – later explaining in his 1970 Rolling Stone interview: “When I was about twelve. I used to think, ‘I must be a genius, but nobody’s noticed’ [laughs]. Either I’m a genius or I’m mad, which is it? ‘No,’ I said, ‘I can’t be mad, because nobody’s put me away; therefore, I’m a genius.’ Genius is a form of madness and we’re all that way“. A decade later, Lennon expanded on this in his 1980 Playboy interview: “Surrealism had a great effect on me because then I realized that my imagery and my mind wasn’t insanity; that if it was insane, I belong in an exclusive club that sees the world in those terms. Surrealism to me is reality…Even as a child. When I looked at myself in the mirror when I was 12, 13, I literally used to trance out into alpha…I would find myself seeing hallucinatory images of my face changing and becoming cosmic and complete. This thing gave me a chip on the shoulder; but, on the other hand, I wanted to be loved and accepted. Part of me would like to be accepted by all facets of society and not be this loudmouthed lunatic musician. But I cannot be what I am not.”
The theory behind this motif is furthered in the penultimate verse, “Expert texpert, choking smokers/Don’t you think the joker laughs at you?.” The “choking smokers” line could be yet another example of Lennon’s classic gallows humour where Lennon – a lifelong smoker – is laughing at the absurdity of habitually consuming a product for pleasure despite the fact it’s killing you. Lennon references this irony later in the White Album song ‘I’m So Tired’ with the lines, “Although I’m so tired, I’ll have another cigarette/And curse Sir Walter Raleigh/He was such a stupid git.”
The rest of the verse, many fans believe, consists of Lennon openly mocking the elitist intelligentsia who take themselves too seriously by overanalysing song lyrics (oh, the irony) and critiquing Lennon’s work. The idea that condescending bookish elitists, who initially didn’t take Lennon and his work seriously, were now trying their hardest to tune in and decode his calculated nonsense surely pleased Lennon to no end. In this sense, the “Joker” character is most probably Lennon laughing at the so-called “expert texperts” for being outsmarted by a “Joker.” Alternative comedian Stewart Lee, in his book, How I Escaped My Certain Fate, describes how, in the rural villages of the south of France, there’s a traditional one-night festival known as Bouffinades en Circulades where the social outcasts are allowed to frolic through the cobbled streets and mock, as Lee says, “the core values of their superiors”. The role of the Joker/Jester/Fool/Mad Man in European culture is to show that the Emperor has no clothes, and Lennon does this like some mischievous trickster throughout the song (cue The Mike Sammes Singers giggling demonically in unison after “Don’t you think the Joker laughs at you?” with “Ho ho ho, hee hee hee, ha ha ha!“) whilst gleefully adorned in the accompanying music video with a white, 18th-century madman’s cap – perversely revelling in, and taking ownership of, his role as the recalcitrant Mad Hatter that the naysayers of his life had derogatorily dismissed him as.
* The origin of the title and inspiration of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is actually quite wholesome. It was the name given by Lennon’s son, Julian, to a drawing he had done at nursery school of fellow classmate Lucy O’Donnell, which Lennon found instantly inspiring.
† “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”. Some variants of this 1950s gross-out schoolyard song refer to a “green snot pie”, “yellow belly custard”, “scab and matter custard”, “dead dog giblets”, “giblet pies”, and even a “caterpillar sandwich”.
‡ In Maureen Lee’s 1966 London Evening Standard newspaper article on Lennon: “He can sleep almost indefinitely, is probably the laziest person in England. ‘Physically lazy,’ he said. ‘I don’t mind writing or reading or watching or speaking, but sex is the only physical thing I can be bothered with any more.’”
The opening line of the final verse, “Semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower,” as has been mentioned in the sordid depths of the internet’s Beatle nerd forums, is possibly a reference to Detective Sergeant Norman Pilcher whose claim to fame in the late 60s was going to great lengths (or climbing Eiffel Tower heights) to bust as many A-list musicians for drug possession as possible. However, it was widely believed that Pilcher would frame his famous victims in order to get publicity. Artists such as Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, and Donovan to name a few were all arrested by Pilcher after drug raids. The reference to Pilcher in ‘I Am The Walrus’ might have ruffled his bird fur as just a year later, John and Yoko’s flat on Montagu Square in London was raided by Pilcher’s drug squad. Ironically, though Lennon was infamous for his drug use within the band, Pilcher attempted the drug raid during a three-week period of the couple going cold turkey (“Temperature’s rising/Fever is high“). Pilcher reportedly planted 219 grains of cannabis resin and threatened Lennon to cop a plea or Yoko would get deported. Though innocent, the choice of paying a small fine or losing his soulmate was easy for Lennon, although this decision led to issues later on with his American visa under the Nixon administration who targetted Lennon for being a “dangerous political leader” of the counter-culture. Ultimately, Lennon was proved right as Pilcher was eventually sentenced to four years in prison for perjury and attempt to pervert the course of justice.
Lastly, “Elementary penguin singing Hare Krishna/Man you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe” contains the song’s second religious reference. This time Lennon’s cross-hair is honed in on the Hare Krishna movement craze of the late 60s, particularly how figures, such as Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, had suddenly gotten swept up in what Lennon perceived to be little more than a superficial fad. In a 1980 Playboy interview, Lennon said, “It was Ginsberg, in particular, I was referring to. The words ‘Elementary penguin’ meant that it’s naive to go around chanting Hare Krishna or putting your faith in one idol.” Whilst Lennon and Ginsberg both shared an appreciation for the work of Edgar Allan Poe (Ginsberg by referencing him in his essays and poetry, and Lennon in adding Poe’s face to the famous cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), Lennon perhaps felt that Ginsberg and his work went against what Poe’s work stood for, hence the metaphorical “kicking” mentioned in the lyric. One reason why Lennon felt so disdainful was probably due to him being perpetually disappointed by potential “answers” to the void created by his absent father and the death of his mother. Temporarily suspending his cynicism, he explored a multitude of philosophies, religions, and spiritual movements throughout his life and, every time, found naught but empty promises and hidden agendas, proving once again that his initial instinct was correct*. His bitterness can be heard in the snarling vocal of this song; not too dissimilar in delivery to his disparaging critique on politicians’ BS on his 1971 solo track ‘Gimme Some Truth’.
If we return to the motif of Lennon’s own madness and/or genius and how it interplays with the subject of people doubting Lennon’s competency as a child and as an adult, we find that it’s reflected not only within the lyrics of the song, but also in its instrumentation. ‘I Am The Walrus’ could be dismissed as nothing but nonsense sung over a bed of whimsical Hohner pianet played in odd measures were it not for those components being deftly shepherded by Starr’s inventive but steady drumming, Harrison’s rousing electric guitar, McCartney’s calculated bass, and George Martin’s majestic orchestral accompaniment. By this, I don’t mean that the band in some way “rescued” the song from mediocrity. Quite the opposite in fact. The contrast between insanity and control in this way was entirely intentional on Lennon and the band’s part. These elements so cleverly provide a level of maturity and composure to something that’s brazenly eccentric; a muchly needed depth, texture, balance, and body to the song, while wisely quenching and tempering the white-hot blade of Lennon’s scathing psychedelic polemic.
With the literary nonsense of a Lewis Carroll poem, the zaniness of ‘Rock Lobster’ by the B-52s, the upbeat bounciness of ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ by ELO, and the sociopolitical angst of ‘Bulls on Parade’ by Rage Against the Machine, ‘I Am The Walrus’ is an edgy sequel to Lennon’s magnum opus ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’; an anarchic cocktail of ingredients that come together (“He got walrus gumboot”) to create a Lennonian psychedelic manifesto à la Dylan’s† ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’.
One final mystery that needs to be explored though is the ubiquitous Beatles query: Who on earth is the walrus?
If you would be so kind as to cast your mind all the way back to the beginning of this lore-saturated filibuster, I mentioned that The Beatles, and Lennon specifically, were fascinated with the themes of identity, their “true selves”, and their public perception. This makes complete sense considering the level of international fame The Beatles reached, let alone the fact that Brian Epstein transformed the originally leather-clad, red-light district, pill-popping rock band into a tidy, suit-wearing pop group who the old and young could love in equal measure. For example, the concept for their album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was conjured by McCartney on a flight from Kenya to London on Saturday, 19th of November, 1966. Fed up with being labelled mop-top boys and not grown-up artists, McCartney said in the Barry Miles book, Many Years From Now: “Then suddenly on the plane, I got this idea. I thought, Let’s not be ourselves. Let’s develop alter egos so we’re not having to project an image which we know. It would be much more free“. To emphasise this point, on the album’s cover, beside The Beatles dressed in their brightly coloured Sgt. Pepper marching band clothes is a plastic-looking, wax-work collection of the four Beatles from their mop-top days.
In interviews, during the Beatlemania years, aware and amused by the absurd level of fame that surrounded them, the group would joke around with the formalities of the media; making fun of the mythos that was quickly manifesting about them. In one very amusing interview backstage at the Johanneshovs Isstadion in Stockholm on Wednesday 29th, July 1964, prior to promoting his book In His Own Write with a reading of his nonsense poem, ‘Good Dog Nigel’, Lennon introduces the rest of The Beatles (sitting off-camera) to the Swedish TV host as George Parasol, Ringo Stone, and Paul McCharmley.
An on-going joke between the four, both during The Beatles years and after, would consist of them facetiously commenting about The Beatles as though they were a separate, exaggerated version of themselves. In the behind-the-scenes documentary Gimme Some Truth which shows the creation of Lennon’s 1971 solo album Imagine, Lennon and George Harrison are seen joking around having breakfast in front of the camera. Harrison, noticing the camera, wryly asks Lennon, “Have you seen much of The Beatles these days?,” to which Lennon, joining in on the frivolities, replies, “The Beatles? No. I did see Beatle Ed though recently. He’s doing quite well in Sweden, I believe. Number five!”. Harrison chuckles on his baked beans, glances at a toast-eating Phil Spector across the table, and says, “Do you see Beatle Phil making a pig of himself?”.
As you can see, The Beatles consistently played with their identity, their fame, and what people were reading into about them – either through their iconic interviews, the many pseudonyms they employed, or in the lyrics of their songs. ‘I Am The Walrus’ – and the mystery of who the walrus was – is a prime example of this.
The most obvious walrus suspect is John Lennon, of course. Not only is Lennon the one repeatedly singing the phrase, “I Am The Walrus” but he’s also the one wearing the walrus costume in the music video. John also states in his similarly polemical song ‘God’ from his 1970 debut solo album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band: “I was the Walrus, but now I’m John“. Conversely, next to ‘I Am The Walrus’ on the back of the Magical Mystery Tour album is a printed handwritten note by Little Nicola that says, “No you’re not!” said Little Nicola’ – Little Nicola being a little girl in the Magical Mystery Tour film who would constantly disagree with everything anyone said.
The second suspect (besides Professor Plum, of course) is Paul McCartney. Lennon, in his self-referential song from The White Album called ‘Glass Onion’ states, ‘Well here’s another clue for you all/The Walrus was Paul.’ Throughout the years between 1968 and 1980, Lennon made multiple claims about his intent regarding its meaning. In his 1970 Rolling Stone interview, he claimed it was to thank McCartney for keeping the group together after Brian’s death. In David Sheff’s book, All We Are Saying, he claimed it was a metaphorical “goodbye” to McCartney due to Lennon’s intent to leave the band. In the same book, he also gave the more solid explanation that his intent was to simply “confuse the fans.”At any rate, the ‘Paul McCartney was the Walrus’ theory is somewhat furthered by McCartney’s claim in a 1995 interview for an issue of Record Collector that he was the one who wore the walrus costume during the filming of Magical Mystery Tour because the costume apparently fit him better. However, set photos of that shoot show that Paul definitely wore the hippo costume. This means he is either lying, misremembers wearing the walrus costume, or John and Paul both wore it in different scenes. George Harrison also contributed to this theory by having a left-handed bass-player, who he claimed in a 1988 radio interview to be a “camera shy” Paul McCartney wearing a walrus mask, in the music video for his 1987 throwback Beatles song ‘When We Was Fab.’ McCartney, however, conceded in that same 1995 interview that, whilst George wanted him in the music video, he couldn’t make it, saying, “I suggested that he put someone else in the walrus (mask) and tell everyone that it was me.”
It wasn’t the first time Harrison joined in on the walrus meme. In his Wednesday 8th October 1969 interview with David Wigg for the Scene And Heard show, he ended the interview by saying, “if you’re listening, I’m the Walrus too!.”
*Lennon lost faith with Maharishi in 1968 after finding out that he was allegedly taking advantage of his female students. This was followed up in 1970 when Lennon fully committed to Arthur Janov’s ‘Primal Therapy’ only to be betrayed once again after he reportedly found Janov trying to bring a camera crew to film Lennon’s private sessions.
†Whilst the subject of Dylan’s and Lennon’s relationship is worthy of an essay on its own, the ever-present tension between the two (which can be felt in a rather revealing clip of them sharing a stoned limousine ride together in 1966 for the 1972 documentary Eat the Document) was based on Lennon’s paranoia about how Dylan regarded Lennon and Lennon’s perpetual struggle with self-confidence over the artistic merit of his own writing in comparison to Dylan’s (reassuring himself in a 1980 interview with David Sheff: “There has been more said about Dylan’s wonderful lyrics than was ever in the lyrics at all” and “Dylan got away with murder. I thought, Well, I can write this crap too”). His feelings surrounding his relationship with Dylan is somewhat of a microcosmic example of the overarching theme in ‘I Am The Walrus’ as a whole; Lennon confronting and mocking those that belittled his intelligence or talent, as well as grappling with the idea of shedding his lyrical armour of irony and surrealism in exchange for limpid, vulnerable sincerity – a shift he eventually makes as a solo artist in 1970.
As you have no doubt noticed, much can be written about ‘I Am The Walrus’. In fact, much has been written about it. When it comes to songs like ‘I Am The Walrus’ though, what initially becomes an honest effort at concise exegesis slowly devolves, through the weeks and months of poring over texts and articles, into loquacious eisegesis, and then, inevitably, the brain-worm period of rambling apophenia. Therefore, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the walrus in the room: that all this analysis I have conducted is just me falling for Lennon’s prank like so many others before me – caught in an impossible loop where if you analyse the poem, you’re the buttock of the joke, but if you assume it’s all gibberish, you’re a mouth-breather who is missing the joke in the first place. But over the years, Lennon has explained the meanings behind some of the song’s lyrics too frequently for it to be all gobbledegook. All we know is that some of the lyrics have meaning, and some don’t. But exactly how much of the song has meaning?
Only Winston Leg-Thigh knows.
If we return to the sauce of ‘I Am The Walrus’ i.e. Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter, we find that it comes full circle when one considers the overarching argument surrounding the song as to what constitutes symbolism and what constitutes pure nonsense. In the incredibly detailed book by Martin Gardner and Mark Burstein – the world’s foremost authorities on Lewis Carroll – called The Annotated Alice are the printed editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass as well as the original illustrations from John Tenniel. The margins are filled to the brimmed hat with annotations and footnotes featuring notes and diary entries from Carroll, history regarding the books’ creation, dissections of lines, and every possible thing a Lewis Carroll or Alice fan could possibly want or need from a book. When you get to the section about The Walrus and The Carpenter, you’ll find an annotation in the margin which says:
‘As a check against the tendency to find too much-intended symbolism in the Alice books, it is well to remember a note Carroll wrote to Harry Furniss (September 27, 1889) about a picture for Chapter 12 in Sylvie and Bruno: “As to ‘Albatross’; If any other trisyllable will suit you better, please let me know…I made the very same offer to Mr. Tenniel when he remonstrated against ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ as a hopeless combination and begged to have ‘carpenter’ abolished. I remember offering ‘baronet’ and ‘butterfly’…but he finally chose carpenter.“‘ It is fair to assume, therefore, that whilst there’s plenty of intended symbolism within the lyrics of ‘I Am The Walrus’, Lennon – like Carroll – most probably on occasion favoured certain words or expressions based more on sound, implied rhyme, rhythm, and/or pure imagery rather than any actual meaning. For example, throughout my haphazard, tea-gulping, insomnia-inducing research, I found nary a walrus whisker on the symbolic analysis written about the phrase “Crabalocker fishwife” from verse four – speculative or otherwise.
Echoing the same dismissal of intended meaning behind some of the lyrics, Lennon, possibly in yet another effort to throw Beatles obsessives – or ‘Apple Scruffs’ as they were called – off the scent, said in a December 6th, 1980 Andy Peebles BBC Radio interview: “Walrus’ is just saying a dream – the words don’t mean a lot. People draw so many conclusions and it’s ridiculous… What does it really mean, ‘I am the Eggman’? It could have been a pudding basin for all I care. It’s just tongue in cheek.”
There are thousands of stories behind each Beatles song, and there are obsessives – like myself – who are all too eager to slurp every nugget of information we can get our brains on. Luckily, for Beatles junkies eager for their next fresh dose, Peter Jackson’s delayed but upcoming Beatles documentary, The Beatles: Get Back, will tide us Beatles nerds over for a good while. At least until we start stamping our feet for the release of Carnival of Light again.
I will leave you with the following quote by John Lennon who said, as co-host, in a WNEW-FM 102.7 radio interview on September 28th, 1974: “And now we’re gonna play a track from Magical Mystery Tour, which is one of my favourite albums because it was so weird…and it’s ‘I Am The Walrus’ which is one of my favourite tracks because I did it of course but it’s also because it’s one of those that has enough little bitties going to keep you interested even a hundred years later“.
Well, whilst it isn’t necessarily certain I’ll be around in 2067, I’m warmed by the thought that there’ll be enough “little bitties” left in this enigmatic tour-de-force of a song to keep people interested for hundreds of years to come.