“I Am the Walrus” is a song by the Beatles released in November 1967. It was featured in the Beatles’ television film Magical Mystery Tour (MMT) in December of that year, as a track on the associated British double EP of the same name 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.
John 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.
According to author Ian MacDonald, the “model” for “I Am the Walrus” was most likely Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, which was a hit single during the summer of 1967 and Lennon’s favourite song of the period. The lyrics came from three song ideas that Lennon had been 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 amidst his garden, while the third was a nonsense lyric about sitting on a corn flake. Unable to finish the three different songs, he combined them into one. The lyrics also included the phrase “Lucy in the sky”, a reference to the Beatles’ earlier song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.
The walrus refers to 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 piece of the song came together when Lennon’s friend and former fellow member of the Quarrymen, Peter Shotton visited, and Lennon asked him about a playground nursery rhyme they sang as children. Shotton recalled the rhyme as follows:
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 images from the first two lines. Shotton was also responsible for suggesting that Lennon change the lyric “waiting for the man to come” to “waiting for the van to come”. 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. According to this biography, Lennon remarked to Shotton, “Let the fuckers work that one out.”
Lennon claimed he wrote the first two lines on separate acid trips; he 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 … 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 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–V pattern: “I am the eggman (C chord) “they are the eggmen (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’t come”.
“I Am the Walrus” was the first studio recording made by the Beatles after the death of their 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, and clarinet. 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 16-voice choir 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 “stick it up your jumper” refrain originated with the 1930s novelty song “Umpa, Umpa (Stick It Up Your Jumper)” by The Two Leslies.
In 2015, founding Moody Blues member Ray Thomas said in an interview that he and fellow band member Mike Pinder contributed backing vocals to the song, as well as harmonicas to “The Fool on the Hill”.
Incorporation of text from King Lear
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 7:30 pm to 11 pm 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: (2:35) Now, good sir, wh— (Lennon appears to change the channel away from the station here)
Edgar: (2:38) — poor man, made tame by fortune — (2:44) 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 British 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).
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” 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”. This is actually the original uncut version of the mono mix called RM23. 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 Blu-ray release of the restored version of Magical Mystery Tour.
The Jean Beaudin psychedelic 1969 short subject Vertige uses as the entirety of its soundtrack the song slowed down to 1/8 speed.[dubious – discuss]
A 5.1 surround sound full stereo remix of the song appeared on the DVD release of Anthology in 2003, on disc 4. A full stereo digital remix was also 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, making three distinct 5.1 remixes of the same song.
In Spring/Summer 1988 a Dutch radio station aired a no-overdub version that was acquired through dubious raids on the Apple vaults and titled Beatles unlimited. (Private copy, used by owner only, is noted here.)
John Lennon – lead vocals, electric piano, Mellotron
Paul McCartney – bass guitar, tambourine, 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 – backing vocals
Ray Thomas – backing vocals
Mike Pinder – 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.
In the 21st century, professional Beatleologist Scott Freiman called the song “the Beatles’ last psychedelic masterpiece”.
The song was banned by the BBC for the use of the word “knickers” in the line “You’ve been a naughty girl, you’ve let your knickers down”.
Although it has been reported that Lennon wrote “I Am the Walrus” to confuse those who tried to interpret his songs, there have nevertheless been many attempts to analyse the meaning of the lyrics.
Seen in the Magical Mystery Tour film singing the song, Lennon, apparently, is the walrus; on the track-list of the accompanying soundtrack album, however, underneath “I Am the Walrus” are printed the words ” ‘No you’re not!’ said Little Nicola” (in the film, Nicola Hale 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, “I told you ’bout the walrus and me, man / You know that we’re as close as can be, man / Well 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…”
The 1968 Simon & Garfunkel song “Mrs. Robinson” includes the line “coo-coo-ca-choo”.