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.

Dolly Parton, They Might Be Giants, and More Featured on New Album Inspired By the 27 Amendments

Valerie Macon, Getty Images
Valerie Macon, Getty Images

Since 2016, Radiolab's More Perfect podcast has taken what is typically viewed as a dry subject, the Supreme Court, and turned it into an engrossing podcast. Now, fans of the show have a whole new way to learn about the parts of U.S. history which textbooks tend to gloss over. 27, The Most Perfect Album, a new music compilation from Radiolab, features more than two dozen songs inspired by each of the 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, from freedom of religion to rules regulating changes to Congressional salaries.

More Perfect assembled an impressive roster of musical talents to compose and perform the tracklist. They Might Be Giants wrote the song for the Third Amendment, which prohibited the forced quartering of soldiers in people's homes. It goes, "But the presence of so many friendly strangers makes me nervous, and it does not mean that I'm not truly thankful for your service."

For the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, Dolly Parton sings, "We carried signs, we cursed the times, marched up and down the street. We had to fight for women's rights with blisters on our feet." Less sexy amendments, like the 12th Amendment, which revised presidential election procedures, and the 20th Amendment, which set commencement terms for congress and the president, are also featured. Torres, Caroline Shaw, Kash Doll, and Cherry Glazerr are just a handful of the other artists who contributed to the album.

The release of the compilation coincides with the premiere of More Perfect's third season, which will focus on the 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. You can check out the first episode of the new season today and download the companion album for free through WNYC.

Highway Fidelity: When Cars Came With Record Players

Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

In the winter of 1956, Chrysler unveiled a series of improvements to their lineup of automobiles. There was LifeGuard, a latch that prevented doors from flinging open in the event of an accident. New windshield wipers promised to clean 10 percent more of the glass surface than the previous year’s model. And for those consumers willing to spend an extra $200—the equivalent of about $1700 today—there was the Highway Hi-Fi, a factory-installed record player mounted under the car's dashboard.

Using an “elastic three-point suspension,” the unit played “non-breakable” 7-inch records. In advertising copy, Chrysler touted that the discs would never skip, not even during sharp turns or while crossing railroad tracks. “It’s almost impossible to jar the arm off the record,” the company promised, anticipating the dubious looks of dealers and buyers alike.

As it turned out, attempting to spin a record while in a moving vehicle was every bit as problematic as it might sound. But before 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, and satellite radio, the Highway Hi-Fi represented the first opportunity for drivers to have some control over what they were listening to. They had autonomy—freedom to deviate from radio programmers, invasive ads, and boring talk shows.

Naturally, radio stations hated the idea.

A Chrysler car record player mounted under the dashboard
Courtesy FCA US

This bizarre automotive alteration was the result of an engineering genius who wanted to get his kid to shut up. Peter Goldmark was head of CBS Labs, a position which afforded him the resources to pursue other innovations. (He’s widely credited with ushering in the modern system of broadcasting color television.) He was the inventor of long-play (LP) records, which played vinyl at 33 and one-third revolutions per minute (RPM) instead of 78. Introduced in 1948, LPs revolutionized the music industry, packing more information onto the 12-inch discs by etching microgrooves into the vinyl and allowing producers to place up to 60 minutes of music on a side.

In the 1950s, Goldmark’s son observed that drivers had no influence over what was being broadcast via the transistor radios that had become standard in vehicles. While you could switch stations, you were still at the mercy of programming directors and their tastes in music.

As inventors tend to do, Goldmark identified the problem and then sought out a way to remedy it. His own creation, the LP, was far too big to have any practical application in a vehicle: The turntable would hang over a passenger’s knees. The 45 RPM record was much smaller but could only hold about five minutes of music on each side. Forcing someone to try and change records with such frequency while driving would likely result in accidents.

Goldmark devised a new option. Using a 7-inch record, he created a surface with ultra-microgrooves that played at 16 and two-thirds RPM. Each side could hold 45 minutes of music, a far more practical solution for people who couldn’t tend to the turntable easily. It also fit snugly under the dash, projecting out at the push of a button so the user could load a record and set the needle before pushing it back underneath and out of the way.

Goldmark made other adjustments. The vinyl records were thicker than standard LPs so they would be more heat-resistant during the summer months. He also developed a spring enclosure to absorb shocks and a counterweighted needle arm to make sure it wouldn’t leap off the record while traveling over bumps.

Goldmark tested it in a CBS executive’s Thunderbird. It worked flawlessly. He loved it.

CBS CEO William Paley hated it.

Paley equated the innovation to a form of self-sabotage. CBS had radio affiliates all around the country beaming their signals into millions of cars; those stations sold advertising spots to generate revenue. If drivers began listening to their own records instead of the radio, they were effectively diluting their own audiences. Paley thought sponsors would have a tantrum. He dismissed the idea entirely.

Perhaps feeling slightly petulant, Goldmark instead went directly to his potential customer: a car manufacturer. Visiting with Chrysler executive Lynn Townsend, Goldmark sold the company on the dashboard record player as a factory option. He rode along during a test drive, with Chrysler employees driving over bumps, railroad tracks, and other obstacles to see if the record skipped. It didn’t. The company ordered 18,000 Highway Hi-Fi units, a sizable investment that Paley couldn’t ignore.

CBS Labs mass-produced the devices, and Chrysler began instructing their dealers to pitch the add-on to prospective buyers. Each unit would come with six records, with the option to buy more through CBS-Columbia, a record label that manufactured the unique discs. Owing to Paley’s influence—he detested rock music—the choices were extremely placid. Car owners got the soundtrack to the Pajama Game Broadway musical, some Tchaikovsky, a jazz record, a dramatic reading of a George Bernard Shaw play, and songs from Disney’s Davy Crockett television series. (The latter was advertised to “help keep [kids] quiet.”) The catalog offered spoken-word reenactments of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Owing to their smaller grooves, the records couldn’t be played on conventional turntables. Given the selection, that was probably a blessing.

A print ad for a Chrysler car record player
Courtesy FCA US

The limited selection was one problem. The functionality of the Highway Hi-Fi was another. Goldmark had tested the device in a Thunderbird and in high-end Chrysler vehicles, but the company offered the machine in their economical Dodge and Plymouth models, which both had modest shock absorption. The records could and did skip, and the models were the source of several claims against the car’s warranty coverage. Local mechanics weren’t audiophiles and didn’t have the knowledge to make simple repairs. As word spread, Chrysler went from selling 3685 Hi-Fi units in 1956 to just 675 in 1957.

The option was discontinued shortly thereafter, but that wasn’t quite the end for car-mounted records. In 1960, RCA thought they had resolved some of the outstanding issues with their Victrola, which played 45s and overcame the short running time problem by constructing a 14-disc changer. When one record was finished, the unit would automatically drop another in its place. Similar to a jukebox, the needle was upside down and the record lowered on top of it to reduce skipping. Records slid into a slot in a manner similar to the CD players that were decades away.

The Victrola was picked up by Chrysler. It performed better than the Highway Hi-Fi, was cheaper ($51.75), and didn’t force users to limit themselves to the paltry selection of CBS’s custom discs. But it didn’t last long either; it was discontinued in 1961. (Another option, the UK’s Auto-Mignon, played 45s with manual switching: Each of the four Beatles was said to own one.) Before anyone could think to improve upon it further, 8-tracks arrived and soon became the portable car sound source of choice. CBS never followed through on plans to equip taxis, airplanes, buses, and other forms of transportation with their devices. In the evolution of on-demand music and auto transportation products, the Highway Hi-Fi was one step best skipped.

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