I Am the Walrus
"I Am the Walrus" is a 1967 song by the Beatles, written by John Lennon and credited to Lennon–McCartney. The song was featured in the Beatles' 1967 television film, as a track on the associated double EP Magical Mystery Tour and its American counterpart LP, and was the B-side to the number 1 hit single "Hello, Goodbye". 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.
- 2 Musical structure
- 3 Recording
- 4 Different versions
- 5 Personnel
- 6 Reception
- 7 Interpretation
- 8 Other recordings
- 9 Notes
- 10 References
- 11 External links
Lennon received a letter from a pupil at Quarry Bank High School, which he had attended. The writer mentioned that the English master was making his class analyse Beatles' lyrics (Lennon wrote an answer, dated 1 September 1967, which was auctioned by Christie's of London in 1992). 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.
The genesis of the lyrics is found in three song ideas that Lennon was working on, the first of which was inspired by hearing a police siren at his home in Weybridge; Lennon wrote the lines "Mis-ter cit-y police-man" to the rhythm and melody of the siren. The second idea was a short rhyme about Lennon sitting in his garden, while the third was a nonsense lyric about sitting on a corn flake. Unable to finish the ideas as three different songs, he eventually combined them into one. The lyrics also included the phrase "Lucy in the sky" from "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band earlier in the year.
The walrus is a reference to the walrus in Lewis Carroll's poem "The Walrus and the Carpenter" (from the book Through the Looking-Glass). Lennon later expressed dismay upon belatedly realising that the walrus was a villain in the poem.
The final catalyst of the song occurred when Lennon's friend and former fellow member of the Quarrymen, Peter Shotton, visited and Lennon asked Shotton about a playground nursery rhyme they sang as children. Shotton remembered:
- "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."
Lennon borrowed a couple of words, added the three unfinished ideas and the result was "I Am the Walrus". 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 guys work that one out." Shotton was also responsible for suggesting to Lennon to change the lyric "waiting for the man to come" to "waiting for the van to come".
- "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."
- "It never dawned on me that Lewis Carroll was commenting on the capitalist 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. I should have said, 'I am the carpenter.' But that wouldn't have been the same, would it? [Sings, laughing] 'I am the carpenter....'"
All the chords are major chords or seventh chords, and all the musical letters of the alphabet (A, B, C, D, E, F and G) are used. The song ends using a Shepard tone, with a chord progression built on ascending and descending lines in the bass and strings, repeated over and over as the song fades. Musicologist Alan W. Pollack analyses: "The chord progression of the outro itself is a harmonic Moebius strip with scales in bassline and top voice that move in contrary motion." The bassline descends stepwise A, G, F, E, D, C, and B, while the strings' part rises A, B, C, D, E, F#, G: this sequence repeats as the song fades, with the strings rising higher on each iteration. Pollack also notes that the repeated cell is seven bars long, which means that a different chord begins each four-bar phrase. The fade is described by Walter Everett as a "false ending", in the form of an "unrelated coda" consisting of the orchestral chord progression, chorus and sampling of the radio play.
The song is in the key of A and the instrumental introduction starts in the Lydian mode of B major. Verse 1 begins with a I-♭III-IV-I rock pattern: "I am he" (A chord)..."you are me" (C chord) "and we are all toge..." (D chord) "...ther" (A chord). Verse 2, however, involves a ♭VI-♭VII-I Aeolian ascent: "waiting" (F chord) "for the van" (G chord) "to come" (A chord). The chorus uses a ♭III-IV-I pattern: "I am the egg-man (C chord) "they are the egg-men (D chord). "I am the walrus (E chord), "goo goo g'joob" hanging as an imperfect cadence until resolved with the I (A chord) on "Mr City Policeman". At the line "Sitting in an English garden" the D# melody note (as in the instrumental introduction) establishes a Lydian mode (sharp 4th note in the scale) and this mode is emphasised more strongly with the addition of a D# note to the B chord on "If the sun don'tcome."
"I Am the Walrus" was the first studio recording made after the death of the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein in August 1967. The basic backing track featuring the Beatles was released in 1996 on Anthology 2. George Martin arranged and added orchestral accompaniment that included violins, cellos, horns, clarinet and a 16-piece choir. Paul McCartney said that Lennon gave instructions to Martin as to how he wished the orchestration to be scored, including singing most of the parts as a guide. A large group of professional studio vocalists named the Mike Sammes Singers, took part in the recording as well, variously singing "Ho-ho-ho, hee-hee-hee, ha-ha-ha", "oompah, oompah, stick it up your jumper!", "everybody's got one" and making a series of shrill whooping noises.
The dramatic reading in the mix is Shakespeare's King Lear (Act IV, Scene 6), lines 219–222 and 249–262, added to the song on 29 September 1967 direct from an AM radio Lennon was fiddling with that happened to be receiving the broadcast of the play on the BBC Third Programme.
The first excerpt (ll. 219–222) moves in and out of the text, containing fragments of lines only. It begins where the disguised Edgar talks to his estranged and maliciously blinded father the Earl of Gloucester (timings given):
Gloucester: (2:25) Now, good sir, wh-- (Lennon appears to change the channel away from the station here) Edgar: (2:28) -- poor man, made tame by fortune -- (2:34) good pity --
In the play Edgar then kills Oswald, Goneril's steward. During the fade of the song the second main extract (ll. 249–262), this time of continuous text, is heard (timings given):
Oswald: (3:52) Slave, thou hast slain me. Villain, take my purse. If ever thou wilt thrive,(4:02) bury my body, And give the (4:05) letters which thou find'st about me To (4:08) Edmund, Earl of Gloucester; (4:10)seek him out Upon the English party. O, (4:14) untimely Death! Edgar: (4:23) I know thee well: a (4:25) serviceable villain; As duteous to the (4:27) vices of thy mistress As badness would desire. Gloucester: What, is he dead? Edgar: (4:31) Sit you down father, rest you.
On the radio broadcast the roles were read by Mark Dignam (Gloucester), Philip Guard (Edgar) and John Bryning (Oswald). (The dramatic extracts may be clearly heard on a YouTube upload of "Beatles: I Am the Walrus and King Lear", with the spoken text isolated and presented after the Beatles recording concludes, at 4:40.)
In the original (1967) stereo release, at around two minutes through the song, the mix changes from true stereo to "fake stereo". This came about because the radio broadcast had been added 'live', off-air, into the mono mix-down and so was unavailable for inclusion in the stereo mix; hence, fake stereo from the mono mix was created for this portion of the song.
The mono version opens with a four-beat chord while the stereo mix features six beats on the initial chord. The four-beat-only-intro is also included on a different stereo mix (overseen by George Martin) for the previous MPI Home Video version of Magical Mystery Tour, especially the US Magical Mystery Tour album. The US mono single mix includes an extra bar of music before the words "yellow matter custard"; an early, overdub-free mix of the song released on Anthology 2 reveals John singing the lyrics "Yellow mat -" too early—this was edited out. A hybrid version prepared for the 1980 US Rarities LP combines the six-beat opening with the extra bar of music that precedes the words "yellow matter custard" (from the aforementioned US mono single mix). An entirely new full stereo remix was done in 2012 for Apple's DVD and BD release of the restored version of MMT.
A full stereo digital remix was done for the Cirque du Soleil show Love and album of the same name, released in 2006. Producers George and Giles Martin were allowed access to early generations of the original master tapes. Musical parts that had previously been mixed were now available as separate elements. Additionally a copy of the BBC broadcast of King Lear was acquired. Now, with all the sound sources used in the original mono mix present, a proper stereo remix could be accomplished. These tracks were transferred digitally and lined up to create a new multi-track master from which a new mix would be made.
In addition to the stereo remixes prepared for the Love show and the 2012 Apple reissue referenced above, the DVDs that were released for those same projects contain a 5.1 surround sound mix of the song. There is also a 5.1 surround sound remix of the song on the DVD release of Anthology, on disc 7, making three distinct 5.1 remixes of the same song.
- John Lennon – lead vocal, electric piano, mellotron
- Paul McCartney – bass, tambourine, backing vocal
- George Harrison – electric guitar, backing vocal
- Ringo Starr – drums
- Orchestrated, directed and produced by George Martin.
- Session musicians – strings, brass and woodwinds
- Mike Sammes singers – backing vocals
- Engineered by Geoff Emerick and Ken Scott
- Mixed by Geoff Emerick and John Lennon
Critical reception at the time of the track's release was largely positive:
- "John growls the nonsense (and sometimes suggestive) lyric, backed by a complex scoring incorporating violins and cellos. You need to hear it a few times before you can absorb it" — Derek Johnson.
- "Into the world of Alice in Wonderland now and you can almost visualise John crouching on a deserted shore singing 'I am the walrus' to some beautiful strings from far away on the horizon and a whole bagful of Beatle sounds, like a ringing doorbell and someone sawing a plank of wood. A fantastic track which you will need to live with for a while to fully appreciate" — Nick Logan.
Seen in the Magical Mystery Tour film singing the song, Lennon, apparently, is the walrus; on the track-list of the accompanying soundtrack EP/LP however, underneath "I Am the Walrus" are printed the words ' "No you're not!" said Little Nicola' (in the film, Nicola is a little girl who keeps contradicting everything the other characters say). Lennon returned to the subject in the lyrics of three of his subsequent songs: in the 1968 Beatles song "Glass Onion" he sings "now here's another clue for you all—the walrus was Paul"; in the third verse of "Come Together" he sings the line "he bag production, he got walrus gumboot"; and in his 1970 solo song "God", admits "I was the walrus, but now I'm John."
Eric Burdon, lead singer of the Animals, claims to be the 'Eggman' mentioned in the song's lyric. Burdon was known as 'Eggs' to his friends, the nickname originating from his fondness for breaking eggs over naked women's bodies. Burdon's biography mentions such an affair taking place in the presence of John Lennon, who shouted "Go on, go get it, Eggman..."
- In 2004, Styx performed the song at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival and released the live version a single. It reached #10 on the Mediabase Classic Rock charts. They also perform the song live on their One With Everything concert DVD.
- Oasis released a live recording of their interpretation of the song in 1994, as a B-side of their single "Cigarettes & Alcohol" and also in their Japanese EP of "Whatever". The live version that was included on these records was played at the Glasgow Cathouse in the same year. Later, in 1998, a live version at a conference of Sony executives was included on their B-sides compilation album The Masterplan. According to the liner notes of this album, Oasis played the song live in Manchester before they were well known.
- Oingo Boingo also recorded a version in 1994, released on their album Boingo.
- The opening line, "I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together" is quoted in the song "South California Purples", written by Robert Lamm of Chicago and released on their debut album, The Chicago Transit Authority (1969).
- Men Without Hats covered it on their 1991 album Sideways, listing the track as "I Am The Walrus ("No you're not", Said Little Nicola)".
- Genesis sampled this song for their track "Looking for Someone".
- Danny! recorded "I Ain't The Walrus" in reference to this song; the lyrics were later used in a 2012 ad campaign for Sonos.
- Das Racist referenced the song in "Selena" on their album Relax.
- The Rutles' song "Piggy in the Middle" is a pastiche of this song.
- Bono (of the band U2) performs a version of this song while playing the character "Dr. Robert" in the 2007 Beatles-inspired musical film Across the Universe while several of the protagonists appear to be under the influence of psychoactive substances at a New York club and, later, on Dr. Robert's tour bus.
- Southern rock band Jackyl released a cover of "I Am the Walrus" as one of three new songs on their greatest hits album Choice Cuts in 1998, released by Geffen Records.
- George Martin released an album of Beatles cover songs in 1998 titled In My Life. The album features a re-recording of "I Am the Walrus" with actor and comedian Jim Carrey providing the vocals and keyboards. As might be expected, Carrey injected some of his own comic flair into the inflection of the lyrics.
- Russell Brand performed the song dressed as Willy Wonka at the 2012 Summer Olympics closing ceremony.
- Crack the Sky recorded it live for their Live Sky album in 1978. This (and five other songs) were remixed and remastered for inclusion on Alive and Kickin' Ass, a 2006 live CD compiled from the same '78 shows asLive Sky, recorded at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and the Agora in Cleveland, Ohio.
- Al Di Meola covered the song on his 2013 CD All Your Life.
- Spooky Tooth covered the song on the 1970 album The Last Puff.