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Who Was the Walrus? Analyzing the Strangest Beatles Song

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For almost 50 years, the Beatles have been the most popular singers and songwriters in the world. Also, coincidentally, for the past half century one of the major activities of musical "armchair quarterbacks" has been to dissect, analyze, and interpret Beatles songs.

In 1967, a student from Quarry Bank High School (Lennon's alma mater) sent John Lennon a letter telling him his teacher was conducting a class analyzing the Beatles' songs. Lennon was wryly amused. This letter served as the initial motivation for John to write a song that was beyond analysis for the simple reason that John didn't want it to make any sense at all. The whole purpose of the song, according to John, was to confuse, befuddle, and mess with the Beatles experts.

Who is the Walrus?

"Walrus is just saying a dream," recalled John more than a decade after he composed it.

"The words didn't mean a lot. People draw so many conclusions, and it's ridiculous. I've had tongue in cheek all along--all of them had tongue in cheek. Just because other people see depths of whatever in it...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."

John also wanted to make a point about fellow musical icon Bob Dylan, who, according to John, had been "getting away with murder." John said he wanted to show his fans that he "could write that crap too."

"I Am The Walrus," the song with no rhyme or reason, was written in three parts: part one was written by John during an acid trip, part two was written during another acid trip the next week, and part three was "filled in after [he] met Yoko."

Meaningless gibberish or not, many of the song's lyrics did have an inspiration.

The song's opening verse, "I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together," comes from the song "Marching to Pretoria," which contains the lyric, "I'm with you as you're with me and we are all together."

"See how they run, like pigs from a gun, see how they fly..." came the next week directly from John's second acid trip.

The song's basic rhythm was actually inspired by a police siren. John heard an oscillating siren blaring in his neighborhood, and this beat served as the basic beat for the entire tune.

"Sitting in a English garden" refers to John's garden in his Weybridge home, where he was living, frustrated and increasingly unhappy, with his first wife, Cynthia.

The lyric "Waiting for the man to come" was written by John, but was amended with "waiting for the van to come" by John's friend from his high school days, Pete Shotton, who was present during the song's composition.

The "elementary penguin" was used by John as a jab at those who "go around chanting Hare Krishna or put all their faith in one idol." John admitted he had poet Allen Ginsburg in mind when he wrote the lyric. (Could he also have wanted to get a sly dig in at his bandmate George Harrison, who was enthralled by all things Indian and Hare Krishna?)

Needing a bit for the song's middle section, John asked his old pal Pete to recall a "sick" schoolboy poem the two used to recite together. Pete dredged up the old lyrics:

"Yellow matter custard, green slop pie,
Dripping from a dead dog's eye,
Slap it on a butty, ten foot thick,
Then wash it all down with a cup of cold sick."

The constantly repeated and apparently nonsense lyrics "Goo goo gajoob" come from James Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake." (The actual term Joyce used was "Goo goo goosth.")

Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass (one of John's favorite books when he was a youth) gave Lennon the song's title and recurring lyric, "I am the walrus." In that book, Carroll included the poem "The Walrus and the Carpenter." John, always the most political Beatle, had it "dawn on" him that the poem was Carroll's comment on "the capitalist and worker system."

It wasn't until later that John realized that the walrus was "the bad guy" in the poem and that he should have called the song "I am the Carpenter."

"But that wouldn't have been the same, would it?" admitted John.

Another apparent nonsense lyric was "Semolina Pilchard." Many Beatles "experts" have interpreted this as referring to Detective Sergeant Norman Pilcher, who was becoming famous for his drug busts of famous musicians (after he had planted the drugs himself). John himself, along with his then-girlfriend Yoko, was to be arrested in a bust by Sergeant Pilcher a year later. John always insisted the marijuana found at his flat was planted. (Sergeant Pilcher later served six years in prison for his corrupt behavior.) But this "interpretation" may be entirely conjecture, as John can clearly be heard singing "Semolina Pilchard," not Pilcher. A "pilchard" is defined as one of "various small marine fishes relating to a herring." It is a commercially edible species of fish. The line may just simply be another bit of Lennon-esque gibberish and wordplay.

Who is the Egg Man?

"I am the egg man" has been interpreted as referring to Humpty Dumpty (who appears in John's beloved "Alice in Wonderland" books). Eric Burden, a popular singer/musician and a close friend of John, has claimed that he was "the egg man," and that the lyric refers to a certain sexual act Eric used to perform with women. (Eric says he would crack eggs over naked women's bodies and that John witnessed him doing it one night.)

The song's closing features a snippet from a BBC Radio broadcast of Shakespeare's King Lear, which John happened to hear when he was working on the song.

At the song's conclusion, the entire chorus (8 males and 8 females) join in. John said the guys sang "Oompah oompah, stick it in your jumper," while the girls sang "Everybody's got one." But according to Beatles expert Mark Lewisohn (a highly reliable source), the chorus was entirely random with both men and women joining in on each of the two lyrics.

"I Am The Walrus" was the first song the Beatles recorded after the death of their manager, Brian Epstein. (Brian died of a drug overdose on August 27, 1967, and the recording of "I Am The Walrus" came mostly in early September of '67.)

Engineer Geoff Emerick was never to forget "the look of emptiness on their faces when they were playing."

"I Am The Walrus" was released on November 24, 1967. It was the B-side of the Beatles single featuring Paul's "Hello Goodbye" as the A-side. John was always angered by this decision, maintaining that "Walrus" was a far superior song.

A filmed sequence of "I Am The Walrus" was to be featured in the Beatles TV movie, Magical Mystery Tour, later that year. It remains the only film of John singing the song. For this reason, Paul has said Magical Mystery Tour has "a special place in [his] heart."

"I Am The Walrus" was banned by the BBC because of the nonsense lyric "Girl, you let your knickers down."

To be fair, "Walrus" is definitely a strange song, but it may not actually be "the strangest Beatles song." That honor perhaps should go to their 1967 song "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)" or, better yet, John's 1968 "Revolution #9."

But heck, who would have wanted to read an article about "the Beatles' second (or third) strangest song"?

Eddie Deezen has appeared in over 30 motion pictures, including Grease, WarGames, 1941, and The Polar Express. He's also been featured in several TV shows, including Magnum PI, The Facts of Life, and The Gong Show. And he's done thousands of voice-overs for radio and cartoons, such as Dexter's Laboratory and Family Guy.

Read all Eddie's mental_floss stories.

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Why Do Orchestras Tune to an A Note?
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When orchestra members tune their instruments before a performance, it almost always sounds the same. That’s because across the world, most orchestras tune to the same A note, using a standard pitch of 440 hertz.

This is the result of international standards that have been in place since the 19th century, according to WQXR, a classical music radio station in New York City. Currently, standard tuning frequency is set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), an international group that makes recommendations on everything from what safety labels should look like to how big the hole in a pen cap should be. A standard called ISO 16, first recommended in 1955 and confirmed in 1975, “specifies the frequency for the note A in the treble stave and shall be 440 hertz.”

The ISO didn’t pull that frequency out of thin air. During the Industrial Revolution, a rush toward standardization and universality led to multiple international meetings that aimed to bring orchestras all over the world to the same pitch. Standardizing pitch had important ramifications for the international music scene.

Historically, the pitch that orchestras tuned to could differ wildly depending on where the musicians were playing. “In the course of the last 400 years in Europe, the point that has been considered ideal for a reference pitch has fluctuated by some 5 or 6 semitones,” musicologist Bruce Haynes explained in his book, A History of Performing Pitch: The Story of ‘A.’ In the 17th century, a French performer might tune his or her instrument a whole tone lower than their German colleagues. The standards could even change from one town to the next, affecting how music written in one location might sound when played in another.

As a writer for London's The Spectator observed in 1859, “It is well known that when we are performing Handel's music (for example) from the very notes in which he wrote it, we are really performing it nearly a whole tone higher than he intended;—the sound associated in his ear with the note A, being nearly the same sound which, in our ear, is associated with the note G.”

In the 19th century, a commission established by the French government tried to analyze pitch across Europe by looking at the frequencies of the tuning forks musicians used as their reference while tuning their instruments. The commission gathered tuning forks from different cities, finding that most were pitched somewhere around 445 hertz. Over the years, due to bigger concert halls and more advanced instruments, pitch was rising across most orchestras, and instruments and voices were being strained as a result. So the commission recommended lowering the standard to what was known as “the compromise pitch.”

In 1859, the French commission legally established diapason normal, the standard pitch for the A above middle C, at 435 hertz. (The music world would still be debating whether or not pitch had risen too much more than a century later.) Later, 435 hertz became enshrined as a standard elsewhere, too. In 1885, government representatives from Italy, Austria, Hungary, Prussia, Russia, Saxony, Sweden, and Württemberg met to establish their own international standard, agreeing on 435 hertz. The agreement was eventually written into the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

But not everyone was on board with 435 hertz. The Royal Philharmonic Society in London believed the French pitch standard was pegged to a specific temperature—59°F—and decided to adjust their pitch upward to compensate for their concert halls being warmer than that, settling on 439 hertz. Meanwhile, in 1917, the American Federation of Musicians declared 440 hertz to be the standard pitch in the U.S.

In 1939, the International Standardizing Organization met in London to agree on a standard for concert pitch to be used across the world. A Dutch study of European pitch that year had found that while pitch varied across orchestras and countries, the average of those varied pitches was around 440 hertz. So it made sense for the ISO to choose A 440. Furthermore, radio broadcasters and technicians like the BBC preferred A 440 to the English A 439 because 439 was a prime number and thus harder to reproduce in a laboratory.

World War II delayed the official launch of the 1939 ISO agreement, but the organization issued its A 440 decision in 1955, then again two decades later. A 440 was here to stay. That said, even now, pitch does vary a little depending on the musicians in question. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra notably tunes to 443 hertz rather than the standard 440 hertz, for instance. While A 440 may be the official “concert pitch” across the world, in practice, there is still a little wiggle room.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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10 Facts About Louis Armstrong
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With his infectious smile and raspy voice, Louis Armstrong (who actually pronounced his own name "Lewis") won over fans worldwide. To untold millions, every note that he let loose made the world feel a bit more wonderful, and his music is still being discovered by new generations of fans. Here are 10 facts about the life of one of the 20th century's most important jazz musicians.

1. ARMSTRONG SPENT HIS ADULT LIFE CELEBRATING THE WRONG BIRTHDAY.

Armstrong used to say that he’d been born on July 4, 1900. Turns out, he was 13 months off. In 1988, music historian Thaddeus “Tad” Jones located a baptismal record at New Orleans’s Sacred Heart of Jesus Church. According to this document, the performer’s actual birth date was August 4, 1901.

No one’s quite sure why Armstrong lied about his age, but the most popular theories maintain he wanted to join a military band or that he figured he'd have a better shot at landing gigs if he was over 18 years old.

2. AS AN ADULT, HE WORE A STAR OF DAVID PENDANT TO HONOR THE JEWISH FAMILY WHO HAD EMPLOYED HIM.

While growing up, Armstrong did assorted jobs for the Karnofskys, a family of Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants. “They were always kind to me,” Armstrong once reflected, “[I] was just a little kid who could use a little word of kindness.” Apart from monetary compensation, Armstrong was given a hot meal every evening and regular invitations to Karnofsky Shabbat dinners. One day, they even advanced him the $5 he used to buy his very first horn.

3. SOMETIMES, ARMSTRONG WOULD USED A FOOD-BASED SIGN-OFF.

Pops” had a special place in his heart for both Chinese and Italian food. But, as a Bayou State native, Armstrong’s favorite dish was always rice and beans. In fact, before marrying his fourth wife, he made sure that she could cook a satisfactory plateful. To grasp how much the man adored this entrée, one need only check out his letters, which were often signed “Red Beans and Ricely Yours.”

4. DURING A FAMOUS RECORDING, HE ALLEGEDLY DROPPED HIS SHEET MUSIC AND IMPROVISED.

At one point in “Heebie Jeebies”—a 1926 song released by Armstrong and his "Hot Five” band—the singer vocalizes a series of nonsensical, horn-like sounds. Music historians recognize this as the first popular, mass-market scat ever recorded. Ironically, Armstrong later wrote the whole thing off as a big blunder on his part. In a 1951 interview with Esquire, Armstrong claimed to have come prepared with printed lyrics that day. Midway through the recording session, he accidentally dropped them and scatted to fill the ensuing silence. “Sure enough,” he explained, “they … [published] ‘Heebie Jeebies’ the same way it was mistakenly recorded.” However, most biographers believe that Armstrong made up this anecdote and had planned on scatting all along. It's also worth noting that even though he brought it into popularity, Armstrong in no way invented the technique, which dates back to at least 1906.

5. HE USED TO GIVE AWAY LAXATIVES AS GIFTS.

Between 1952 and 1955, Armstrong shed 100 pounds. Losing weight proved difficult at first, but his luck changed once he learned of an herbal laxative called “Swiss Kriss.” The artist promptly went out, bought a box, and became a lifelong spokesman. After trying it, he said that defecation sounded like “Applause.” Enamored, the musician began handing out packets to admirers, loved ones, and band members. Though he was the product's biggest cheerleader, Armstrong neither requested nor received any payment from its manufacturers.

6. SEGREGATION LAWS DROVE HIM TO BOYCOTT HIS OWN HOME STATE.

The year 1956 saw Louisiana prohibit integrated bands. Outraged, Armstrong refused to stage another concert within the state's borders. “They treat me better all over the world than they do in my hometown,” he said. “Ain’t that stupid? Jazz was born there and I remember when it was no crime for cats of any color to get together and blow.” Nine years later—after this ban had finally lifted—he again took the stage in New Orleans on October 31, 1965.

7. WHILE PLAYING BEFORE THE ROYAL FAMILY, ARMSTRONG GAVE KING GEORGE V A NEW NICKNAME.

At His Majesty’s command, several of the biggest names in jazz took their talents to Buckingham Palace, and in 1932, Armstrong was requested for a royal performance. Evidently, the show went well. According to Armstrong, that night’s “biggest laugh” came right before his group started playing “You Rascal, You.” Without warning, he looked straight up at the monarch and hollered, “This one’s for you, Rex!”

8. HE WENT ON SEVERAL GOODWILL TOURS DURING THE COLD WAR.

Fresh off the wild success of his “Hello, Dolly!” cover, Armstrong made a trip to communist East Berlin in 1965, where he gave a two-hour concert that earned a standing ovation. While not officially government-sponsored, there are some who believe the concert was arranged by the CIA, which would make this just one of the many taxpayer-funded appearances he’d make abroad during the Cold War in an effort to strengthen diplomatic relations overseas. Previously, Armstrong had performed throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa—though he famously canceled a planned 1957 Soviet Union tour, citing the recent Little Rock crisis. “The way they are treating my people in the South,” declared Armstrong, “the government can go to hell.”

9. “WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD" WAS ORIGINALLY PITCHED TO TONY BENNETT.

The song for which Pops is most widely remembered, “What a Wonderful World,” was almost never his song at all. After completing the optimistic anthem, songwriters Bob Thiele and George David Weiss thought that Tony Bennett would eat it right up. He subsequently passed, so the duo contacted Armstrong in August 1967.

10. "WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD" DIDN'T MAKE A SPLASH IN THE U.S. UNTIL WELL AFTER ARMSTRONG'S DEATH.

The first recording of “What a Wonderful World” was produced by ABC Records, which made no attempt to advertise it domestically. Although the ballad topped the 1968 charts in Great Britain, American sales were abysmal. When Pops (who adored Thiele and Weiss’ masterwork) passed away on July 6, 1971, “What a Wonderful World” seemed destined for stateside obscurity.

Then along came a bare-knuckled comedy called Good Morning, Vietnam (1987). The joyous tune perfectly and ironically clashed with the wartime horrors depicted in one montage, so director Barry Levinson added it to his film’s soundtrack. “What a Wonderful World” struck a chord with moviegoers and was re-released that year, becoming an oft-requested radio hit.

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