Who Was the Walrus? Analyzing the Strangest Beatles Song

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

Los Angeles Philharmonic to Perform a Piece of Music that Involves Dropping Melons on the Ground

iStock/VinokurovYury
iStock/VinokurovYury

This weekend, the Los Angeles Philharmonic will perform a piece of music that involves dropping melons from a great height and listening to the sound they make.

That’s nearly a word-for-word description of the performance instructions for Ken Friedman’s 1966 piece, Sonata for Melons and Gravity, which will be performed on Saturday, November 17. The instructions simply say: “Drop melons / from a great height. / Listen to the sound.” [PDF]

The performance is part of the L.A. Philharmonic’s Fluxus Festival. Staged in collaboration with the Getty Research Institute, the melon-fueled Fluxconcert will be “one of the largest Fluxus events ever to be put on by a major symphony orchestra,” according to a press release.

Fluxus defies definition. The progeny of Dada—the anti-art bad boy of the early 20th century—Fluxus was a rebellious experimental art movement that took pleasure in mocking the idea of “high art.” Generally, it employs mixed media and absurd humor to challenge ideas of what is, and isn’t, art. (Case and point: Fluxus co-founder George Maciunas once composed a piece entitled Solo for Balloons.) More than make you giggle, these irreverent works aim to break down the stuffy boundaries between everyday life and the concert hall.

With that spirit in mind, the L.A. Philharmonic is the perfect place for a Fluxus concert. The Philharmonic is an institution known for breaking the barriers of what an orchestra can and should be doing. For the past few years, the group has been defying the stereotype that an orchestra is a domain dedicated to the desiccated works of dead men: This season, the L.A. Philharmonic will feature works by 61 living composers—including more than 50 entirely new pieces—plus 22 works by women.

(For comparison, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's current season is programmed to include pieces by just four living composers and a total of zero women. Brian Lauritzen of Classical KUSC points out that, in 2017, the L.A. Phil programmed more compositions by women than the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Houston Symphony, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra combined.)

In addition to the melon drop, there will be a performance of Alison Knowles’s Wounded Furniture, Shoes of Your Choice, and Nivea Cream Piece as well as George Maciuna’s Solo for Conductor. And while there’s no word what kind of fruit will be used for Sonata for Melons and Gravity, we’re placing bets on honeydew.

When David Bowie Launched His Own Internet Service Provider

Scott Barbour, Getty Images
Scott Barbour, Getty Images

There was a surprise waiting for Canadian buyers of The Best of David Bowie 1974/1979, a greatest hits collection by the musician that was released in the summer of 1998. Inside the package was a notice announcing the arrival of BowieNet, a major undertaking spearheaded by the legendary musician that promised a unique portal to the internet. For $19.95 a month, users could access BowieNet in the same way that they logged on to America Online, signing on via a dial-up connection to gain access to the web, email, and a variety of perks for devoted Bowie fans.

The news was a little premature. The Canadian version of the album had been released too early, and BowieNet wasn’t yet up and running when fans first read the news. But by September 1 of that year, Bowie had launched a pioneering effort in the intersection between music, the internet, and fandom. In many ways, BowieNet anticipated the concept of social networking five years before MySpace debuted and six years before Facebook came into existence. It was a fitting accomplishment for an artist who spent his entire career looking for revolutionary ways to share his work.

A screen shot from BowieNet, David Bowie's internet portal
Laurence Campling, YouTube

Bowie, who first rose to fame during the 1970s glam rock era, had long been fascinated by the promise of digital connectivity. He was reportedly using email as early as 1993. In 1994, he released a CD-ROM of his single, “Jump, They Say,” that allowed users to edit their own music video for the song. In 1996, he released one of the first digital singles, "Telling Lies," and sold 375,000 downloads in just two months. In 1997, Bowie presented a “cybercast” of a Boston concert, which ultimately proved to be too ambitious for the technology of the era (viewers of the live stream were confronted with error messages and frozen feeds).

Clearly excited by the unexplored possibilities these cutting-edge efforts offered, Bowie decided to stake out more digital real estate right around the same time he released "Telling Lies." In 1996, two internet marketers named Robert Goodale and Ron Roy approached Bowie with the idea of building an online fan club that would double as an internet service provider (ISP). In essence, Bowie would be offering online access via a dial-up number using a turnkey web design system from a company called Concentric Network Corporation. The site was developed by Nettmedia, which had worked on web content for the women-centric Lilith Fair music festival that had caught Bowie’s attention.

While users would be free to access any part of the internet, their default landing page would be DavidBowie.com, a place to access exclusive Bowie photos and videos, as well as a unique @davidbowie.com email address and 5 MB of storage space so that they could create their own content. If they wanted to remain with their current internet service provider, they’d pay $5.95 a month for membership.

Bowie liked the idea and became the first investor in UltraStar, Goodale and Roy’s company. More than a figurehead, Bowie actively helped to conceive of BowieNet as having a unique identity. Whereas America Online was a little sterile, Bowie’s aesthetic was more experimental. There were 3D-rendered environments and Flash animation sequences. The CD-ROM sent to subscribers included a customized Internet Explorer browser and music and video tracks, including encrypted material that could only be unlocked online.

More significantly, Bowie used his branded portal to interact with fans. Posting as “Sailor” on the BowieNet message boards, Bowie regularly logged on to answer questions, debunk news reports, or comment on ongoing conversations. He also hosted online chats in real time. In 2017, Newsweek shared excerpts of one 2000 session:

gates asks: "do you gamble in casinos Dave?"
David Bowie answers: No, I only do cartwheels—and don't call me Dave!

queenjanine asks: "Is there anyone you haven't worked with (either dead or alive) that you wish you could?"
David Bowie answers: I love working with dead people. They're so compliant, they never argue back. And I'm always a better singer than they are. Although they can look very impressive on the packaging.

A screen shot from BowieNet, David Bowie's internet portal
Laurence Campling, YouTube

In his loose interactions with fans, Bowie and BowieNet anticipated the explosion of social media. It was an area that interested Bowie, as he often spoke of the idea of art being unfinished until an audience provided their reaction.

“Artists like Duchamp were so prescient here—the idea that the piece of work is not finished until the audience comes to it and adds their own interpretation, and what the piece of art is about is the gray space in the middle,” Bowie told the BBC in 1999. “That gray space in the middle is what the 21st century is going to be all about.”

With BowieNet, the artist was helping to facilitate that response, in one instance even soliciting a co-creator relationship. In 1999, Bowie took lyrics from an online songwriting contest to help create “What’s Really Happening,” which he put on an album released that same year. He also planned on having a working webcam that peered into his recording studio (though it’s not quite clear whether he achieved it). Ultimately, it was the advancement of internet technology that led to BowieNet's downfall.

With the dissolution of dial-up, BowieNet went from a high of 100,000 subscribers to becoming largely irrelevant in the early 2000s. In 2006, UltraStar’s assets were sold to Live Nation and BowieNet was quietly shut down—though it would take another six years for Bowie to actually announce that fact, via his Facebook page of all places.

But for the 10 years it lasted, BowieNet was the artist's strange, revolutionary predictor of the growing importance of fandom online.

“At the moment,” Bowie told CNN in 1999, the internet "seems to have no parameters whatsoever. It's chaos out there—which I thrive on.”

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