"I Am the Walrus" is a 1967 song by The Beatles, written by John Lennon and credited to Lennon/McCartney. Lennon claimed he wrote the first two lines on separate acid trips. The song was in The Beatles' 1967 television film and album Magical Mystery Tour, and was the B-side to the #1 hit "Hello, Goodbye."
Lennon composed the avant-garde song by combining three songs he had been working on. When he learned that a teacher at his old primary school was having his students analyze Beatles' lyrics, he added a verse of nonsense words.
The walrus is a reference to the walrus in Lewis Carroll's "The Walrus and the Carpenter" (from the book Through the Looking-Glass). Lennon expressed dismay upon learning that the walrus was a villain in the poem.
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 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 combined them into one.
Lennon received a letter from a pupil at Quarry Bank Grammar School, which he had attended. The writer mentioned that the English master was making his class analyse Beatles lyrics. (Lennon wrote an answer, dated September 1, 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, wrote the most confusing lyric he could. Lennon's friend and former fellow member of The Quarrymen, Peter Shotton, was visiting, and Lennon asked Shotton about a playground nursery rhyme they sang as children.
"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 book on the band. Lennon remarked to Shotton, "Let the fuckers work that one out."
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 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.
Lennon explained much of the song to Playboy in 1980:
* "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 "Elementary 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 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 realised 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....'"
Some have speculated that the opening line, "I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together", is a parody of the opening line of "Marching to Pretoria", a folk song: "I'm with you and you're with me and we are all together."
The song also contains the exclamation goo goo g'joob with "koo koo g'joob" heard clearly in the second. Various hypotheses exist regarding the origin and meaning. One is that the phrase was derived from the similar "koo koo ka choo", to which it is often mondegreened, in Simon and Garfunkel's Mrs. Robinson, written in 1967. However, the film The Graduate, where "Mrs. Robinson" debuted, did not appear until December 1967, a month after "I Am the Walrus", and The Graduate Original Soundtrack (which contained only fragments of the final version of "Mrs Robinson") was not out until January 1968.
James Joyce's Finnegans Wake contains the words googoo goosth at the top of page *557, where it appears:
...like milk-juggles as if it was the wrake of the hapspurus or old Kong Gander O'Toole of the Mountains or his googoo goosth she seein, sliving off over the sawdust lobby out of the backroom, wan ter, that was everywans in turruns, in his honeymoon trim, holding up his fingerhals...
"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!", "got one, got one, everybody's got one" and making a series of shrill whooping noises.
The dramatic reading in the mix towards the end of the song is a few lines of Shakespeare's King Lear (Act IV, Scene VI), which were added to the song direct from an AM radio receiving the broadcast of the play on the BBC Home Service (or possibly the BBC Third Programme). The bulk of the audible dialogue, heard in the fade, is the death scene of the character Oswald (including the words, "O untimely Death! Death!"); this is just one additional piece of the Paul is Dead urban legend.
The original 1967 stereo mix of the record has an interesting twist: At almost exactly two minutes into the song, the mix changes from regular stereo to "fake stereo", with most of the bass on one channel, and most of the treble on the other. The mix appears to 'wander' sonically in the fadeout, from left to right. The reason for the change in mixes was that the radio broadcast was inserted during the mono mixdown. The U.S. mono single mix also includes an extra bar of music before the words "yellow matter custard" - an early, overdub-free mix of the song released on The Beatles Anthology 2 reveals John singing the lyrics "Yellow mat - " too early; this was edited out. The mono version opens with a four-beat chord while stereo mix features six beats on the initial chord.
In 2003, the first-ever stereo mix of the song (except for the intro) was included as part of the soundtrack for the DVD release of The Beatles Anthology.
In 2006, the first-ever stereo mix of the complete song (from beginning to end, including the formerly "fake stereo" second half) was issued on The Beatles' album Love.
* John Lennon: lead vocals, electric piano, mellotron and tambourine.
* Paul McCartney: bass, backing vocals.
* George Harrison: electric guitar, backing vocals.
* Ringo Starr: drums.
* Orchestrated, directed and produced by George Martin.
* Session musicians: strings, brass and woodwinds.
* Mike Sammes singers: background vocals.
* Engineered by Geoff Emerick.
* Mixed by Geoff Emerick and John Lennon.
Critical reception at the time of the track's release was 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, NME, 18 November 1967.
* "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, NME, 25 November 1967.
Despite the fact that John Lennon wrote this song as a response to his alma mater interpreting Beatles songs, "I am the Walrus" is often interpreted by the public.
Who was the walrus?
In the booklet that accompanies the Magical Mystery Tour album, "I Am the Walrus" is given the subtitle (in small print) "'No you're not!' said Little Nicola." (Nicola is a little girl in a segment of the Magical Mystery Tour film, who keeps contradicting everything the other characters say.) The 1968 Beatles song "Glass Onion", written by Lennon, and featured on the White Album, refers to earlier Beatles' compositions. Referring to "I Am the Walrus", Lennon sings, "Here's another clue for you all, the walrus was Paul."
In the 1980 Playboy interview, John responded to the confusion:
"I threw the line in — 'the Walrus was Paul' — just to confuse everybody a bit more. And I thought 'Walrus' has now become me, meaning 'I am the one.' Only it didn't mean that in this song."
Lennon also comments in The Beatles Anthology that he wrote the song at a point when the band was beginning to fall apart, and he hoped that by inserting this line in combination with "I told you 'bout the walrus and me man, you know that we're as close as can be man", he could begin to patch things up with the band.
Lennon said that the fact that McCartney was dressed as a walrus on the cover of the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour LP inspired the line. However, Lennon himself was dressed as a walrus in the music video for "I Am the Walrus", instead of Paul who is wearing a hippopotamus costume.
Paul also responded to the lyric in an interview broadcast on a Beatles' documentary on WYNY 1981:
"[John] happened to have a line go 'the walrus was Paul' and we had a great giggle to say 'yeah, let's do that,' because everybody's gonna read into it and go crackers cause they all thought that John was the walrus."
On Lennon's 1970 solo album Plastic Ono Band, the song "God" contains the lines "I was the walrus, but now I'm John."
Who was the Eggman?
Eric Burdon, lead singer of The Animals, is claimed by some to be the 'Eggman'. The reason for this is that Burdon was known as 'Eggs' to his friends, originating from his fondness for breaking eggs over naked girls. Burdon's biography mentions such an affair taking place in the presence of John Lennon, who shouted "Go on, go get it, Eggman..."
Song's role in "Paul is Dead" controversy
At the time the song appeared, and years before Lennon himself explained that the Carroll poem was the genesis of the song, there was speculation on what the walrus symbolized in The Beatles' song. During the "Paul is Dead" imbroglio, journalist John Neary, the author of the cover story "The Magical McCartney Mystery" in the November 7, 1969 issue of LIFE Magazine, incorrectly claimed that the "black walrus was a folk symbol of death." B.J. Phillips, writing in the Washington Post on October 22, 1969 ("McCartney 'Death' Rumors"), made the assertion that, "According to the hypothesis, the walrus is a symbol of death, although its origins have been attributed to such dissimilar sources as the ancient Greeks and modern Eskimos."
According to the Paul is Dead Web Site Turn Me on Dead Man, there actually are no cultural links between the walrus and death. Such "folklore" was generated by the perpetrators of the "Paul is Dead" myth.
* The Rutles' song "Piggy in the Middle" is a tongue-in-cheek parody of this song.
* Spooky Tooth recorded a version for their 1969 album The Last Puff.
* Leo Sayer covered the song for the 1976 ephemeral musical documentary All This and World War II.
* The German singer Klaus Lage released a closely translated German version of the song on his 1980 debut album Die Musikmaschine.
* The punk band Gray Matter covered the song on their 1985 album Food for Thought
* Frank Zappa performed the song at the Beacon Theater in New York City on Thursday February 4, 1988.
* Men Without Hats recorded a version for their 1991 album Sideways.
* Indie-rock band Arcwelder recorded a version and released it as a 7" single (backed with a cover of the Prince song Sign of the Times) in 1992 on the label Big Money.
* Another indie rock band Hash also recorded a version and released it as a 7" single (B-Side of their hit 'I Forgot My Blanket' which was under the Elektra record label produced by Dogmeat Ltd.(7-64625) in 1993.
* Marc Bonilla recorded an instrumental version on his 1993 album American Matador.
* Les Fradkin has an instrumental version on his 2007 release- "Guitar Revolution".
* Oasis covers the song live frequently, and released one version on the B-side to their 1994 single "Cigarettes & Alcohol". The track can also be found on their compilation album The Masterplan.
* The Punkles did a Punk cover of this song on their third album "Pistol".
* The band Oingo Boingo covered the song on their 1994 album Boingo as well as performing it live at their Farewell Tour.
* Colin's Hermits (Dave Gregory, of XTC) covered this song on the 1996 tribute album Without The Beatles .
* A performance of the song by actor and comedian Jim Carrey appears on George Martin's 1998 album In My Life. At the end of his version, he cries, "There, I did it! I've defiled a timeless piece of art! For my next trick I'll paint a clown face on the Mona Lisa, while using the Shroud of Turin as a drop cloth!"
* The German band Die Toten Hosen covered the song on their 1999 album Crash Landing.
* In 2004, the rock band Styx performed a cover of the song at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival, where the song was received so well that it was released as a single. The cover of the song received significant classic rock airplay, reaching #10 on the Mediabase Classic Rock charts. The cover also became the basis for an entire album consisting of covers, 2005's Big Bang Theory.
* Jeff Martin (of Racer X, ex-Badlands) made a heavy metal cover of "I Am The Walrus" on his solo album The Fool (2006) with guitarist Russ Parrish (of Steel Panther and Fight).
* Japanese rock band Boris collaborated with noise legend Merzbow for a cover of "I Am The Walrus". This was released on the Walrus/Groon 12" EP in 2007.
* Australian singer/songwriter Russell Morris included a version on his 2007 album "Fundamentalist".
* Bono of U2 performs a version of the song in the 2007 movie, Across the Universe. It appears on the soundtrack with the American band Secret Machines.
* Southern hard rock band Jackyl released a cover version on their 1997 best-of album Choice Cuts
* Beatles tribute band The Fab Faux performed a note-perfect version on The Late Show With David Letterman as well as The Howard Stern Show on Sirius Satellite Radio.
* Finnish comedian group Kummeli performed a version translated to their mother tongue on TV in the early 1990s. The music video was a parody of several Beatles' videos.
A-side: "Hello Goodbye"
Released: November 24, 1967 (UK), November 27, 1967 (U.S.)
Recorded: Abbey Road Studios, 5 September 1967
Genre: Psychedelic rock
Label: Parlophone (UK), Capitol Records (U.S.)
Producer: George Martin