Enjoy 'I am the Walrus'
John Lennon, circa the 'Rubber Soul' album
The Most Complex of Lennon Songs
Are you a bit befuddled by John Lennon’s multi-layered wordplay in this Beatles classic? Want to be able to really appreciate and enjoy this ground-breaking psychedelic tune from 1967? Well then, just fire up the music and follow along with this guide.
To begin your enjoyment of this song, first read what John Lennon himself had to say about it: “ ’I Am the Walrus’ is . . . one of my favorite tracks . . . because it’s one of those that has enough little bitties going to keep you interested even a hundred years later.” He was, in fact, encouraged to incorporate all those little bitties as a lark. He and an old friend had a good laugh over hearing that students in John’s old Liverpool school were being assigned Beatles song lyrics to analyze; so he thought it would be great fun to write a song that was as dense, complicated and yet meaningless as possible to confound any such future analysis.
Imagine the two-note sound of a typical British police siren going by his Weybridge home and you’ll have Lennon’s first inspiration — chant along with the rising/falling see-saw pitch of “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together”. The circular logic of that first line both unites and invites all of us, making the coming message seem universal. Next come the running pigs from a gun, flying. One can imagine Lennon, with this offhand phrase and it’s later refrains, perhaps castigating police and their weaponry? And, as so often in his other songs (‘A Day in the Life’, ‘Working Class Hero’, ‘Mother’, ‘Help!’), he’s literally or figuratively crying — presumably for the sad state of human affairs.
Breakfast: A Good Beginning
John was often “sitting on a cornflake”; he liked to start his days slow and lazy, and he was fond of eating corn flakes for breakfast. His song "Good Morning Good Morning" on Sgt. Pepper’s was in fact inspired by the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes commercial jingle — with a crowing rooster, no less. He also often sat "waiting for the van to come", as, early in their career, none of the Beatles drove, but were instead run about in Neil Aspinall’s van. And, as a rebel and a rocker, he disdained the lifestyle of the “corporation t-shirt stupid bloody Tuesday man”, even after he let his face grow long (by growing a beard? by being saddened by conventional life?).
Next comes another snippet of Lennon’s best gobbledygook: something meaningless that almost means something, but also perfectly suits the music, the tempo and the overall mood. “I am the eggman! They are the eggmen! I am the walrus! Goo goo goo joob!” As he himself wondered, “What does it really mean I am the Eggman? It could have been the pudding basin, for all I care. It’s not that serious.” The walrus arrived by way of the works of Lewis Carroll. “It’s from The Walrus and The Carpenter; Alice in Wonderland,” John confirmed, but he got it wrong way around, for he thought the walrus was the sympathetic character in Carroll’s work, and adopted him on that basis.
A Litter of Alliteration
“Mister city policeman sitting pretty little policemen in a row” is another precise stretch of alliterative wordplay riding the see-saw notes of the siren-like background. It is capped by a reprise of the running, flying pigs, with a dash of Lucy in the Sky thrown in. And then, more crying. Lennon might again be summoning up images of conventional, proper London showing its fault lines, with rows of pretty city policeman soon running about as flying pigs.
The next verse’s lead-in lines of "yellow matter custard" are Lennon’s appropriation and modification of a Liverpudlian childhood rhyme to serve his purpose. He then coins a new word and strings it with more alliterative wordplay to create the "crabalocker fishwife pornographic priestess" who serves as the female counterpoint to the "stupid bloody Tuesday man" of the previous verse. He now has both men and women caught up in his surreal tale.
Song Within a Song
At the song’s break, relish the inserted snippet of a more pastoral song-to-be John was crafting — “sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun” — which he caps with a sardonic joke. Then return to more see-saw chanting and tightly rhyming alliteration: “expert texpert choking smokers" and "jokers” before revisiting the pigs and the crying.
Making an appearance at this point is Semolina Pilchard, possibly(?) a drag version of Sergeant Pilcher, a British bobby who made a brief career of harassing and arresting pot-smoking rockers, including several of the Beatles. John then puts down those who too readily follow false gurus with “element’ry penguin singing Hare Krishna”. And he preempts the music critics by suggesting that even Edgar Allan Poe was misunderstood in his day, too.
An Asymmetrical Walrus?
Embellishing the Mix
The Beatles’ long-time producer, George Martin, crafted the strings arrangement for the song and assisted the group in creating the rich sound collage that weaves behind and through the lyrics. Singers were hired to chant seemingly random phrases. While John sat at the mixing console, Ringo tuned in waves of BBC radio programs, including an identifiable presentation of a production of King Lear. The resulting aural fabric sounds like all the surrounding chaos of modern life, with the walrus rising above us as some sort of all-seeing, all-knowing god.
To add to the surreal joy of the Walrus, watch its ‘music video’: that portion of The Beatles’ movie, Magical Mystery Tour, in which the Fab Four perform the song — outdoors, in costume and with extras. (You can find it on YouTube, as well.)
Peace, from John Lennon
Straight From the Source
But before you take this song too seriously, tune in once again to John Lennon’s own words: “Walrus is just saying a dream — the words don’t mean a lot . . . . In those days I was writing obscurely . . . . never saying what you mean but giving the impression of something, where more or less can be read into it . . . . They get away with this artsy-fartsy crap. I thought, I can write this crap, too . . . . People draw so many conclusions and it’s ridiculous . . . You just stick a few images together, thread them together, and you call it poetry.”