Q. What was John Lennon talking about in the song “I Am The Walrus”?
answered by Alex Johnston, Bass & guitar, BA Hons in music theory, tech and musicology
Aha! I Am The Walrus, one of my favourite Beatles songs!
‘I Am The Walrus’ is fascinating for lots of reasons. There’s the idiosyncratic harmonic structure, with all the chords being either major or sevenths, and all of them landing on the letters of the alphabet, musically speaking: there are no sharp or flat chords.
But if you want to read my musical analysis of the song, that’s an answer to another question. This question is about what the song is talking about, not an attempt to account for its overall meaning. And for that, I think we need some background, and some commentary.
Let me tell you a story.
The Beatles’ longest-serving manager, Brian Epstein, is the man who’s most often credited as the unofficial ‘Fifth Beatle’.
Epstein was born in 1934 into a middle-class Jewish family in Liverpool.
His grandfather Isaac, an immigrant from Lithuania, had founded a successful furniture business which he later expanded into a number of stores selling other things, including musical instruments. Brian’s father Harry inherited the business, and ran it with his wife Malka, known to everyone as Queenie (Malka in Hebrew means ‘queen’.)
Young Brian had a difficult childhood. He adored his mother but was intimidated by his father. He was expelled from one school for laziness. He told his father he wanted to be a dress designer, but Harry Epstein refused and got him a job in one of their stores.
Brian did his National Service in 1952, serving as a clerk in the army. After he got out he got a place studying acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, but he dropped out after only three terms, feeling like he didn’t belong. He loved showbusiness, but he knew deep down that he wasn’t a born performer.
On returning to Liverpool, his father put him in charge of the record department of North End Music Stores.
At last, he found something he was good at. He was a hard-working store manager and he built up the store’s reputation. If you wanted an obscure record that they didn’t have, he’d order a copy. In fact, Epstein reasoned that if somebody wanted an obscure record, someone else would want one too, so he’d order five, and he’d be proven right: they would all sell. He quickly developed an uncanny ability to predict when a new record would be a hit, and when it would flop.
Epstein was gay. This was a period in Britain when male-male homosexuality was illegal. Reform was in the air, thanks to the publication in 1957 of the Wolfenden Report, which had recommended that homosexuality be decriminalised. But it hadn’t happened yet.
Epstein’s sex life was, therefore, furtive and not very happy. He had a tendency to pick up, or try to pick up, the wrong kind of guy, and get the crap beaten out of him.
He liked working in the record shop, and made it into one of the biggest record retailers in northern England, but he still had the feeling that he was made for bigger things.
The NEMS shops carried issues of a local music magazine, Mersey Beat, which regularly featured articles about a local band called the Beatles. Epstein was intrigued by the look of them, and in 9 November 1961 he went with his assistant Alistair Taylor to see a lunchtime Beatles gig at the Cavern club.
He was smitten. After the gig, he went for lunch with Taylor and asked him what he thought of the band. Taylor replied that he thought they were awful, but there was something nevertheless remarkable about them.
Epstein sat in silence for a long time, smiling to himself, and then burst out ‘I think they’re tremendous!’
To cut a long story short, Epstein met the Beatles and offered to be their manager. They signed a management contract with him in January 1962.
Epstein worked as hard for the Beatles as he’d done for his parents’ business. He got them to stop wearing grubby leather and bought them matching suits, and persuaded them to smarten up their stage act, bowing at the end of songs instead of just ending them, and not smoking or eating onstage like they’d used to do.
People who don’t understand what Epstein did for the band think that he toned them down. But he didn’t change their music. He recognised that they had enough charisma and talent that they could grab attention. But it would only work if they came across as professional, so he showed them how to act professional, while still remaining themselves.
I won’t go into the entire history of how they got a record contract, but in Epstein, the Beatles recognised that they had a manager who was also a fan, and a friend. He was a tireless worker, and he always encouraged them. He looked after them, spending his own money on their needs when they were broke.
He became particularly close to John Lennon. Lennon liked Epstein personally and Epstein almost certainly had a crush, or more, on Lennon, although he never openly admitted it. Part of his may have had to do with Lennon’s fascination with outsiders: he was intrigued by Epstein’s sexuality, and it took the form of mercilessly teasing him about it. Nobody else was allowed to do so, however: an art school friend of Lennon’s, Ian Sharp, once joked to the band about Epstein ‘Which one of you does he fancy?’ A couple of days later he got a letter from Epstein’s office demanding an apology. Sharp apologised, but then got a letter from McCartney telling him not to contact the Beatles ever again.
Lennon and Epstein went on a four-day holiday together to Barcelona in 1963, where, according to Lennon’s friend Pete Shotton, Lennon offered to have sex with Epstein, and Epstein politely declined. (There’s a fictionalised movie about this holiday, The Hours and Times.)
For all the teasing, the Beatles were loyal to Epstein as their protector and the guy who took care of their business. When the four of them were awarded the MBE, Harrison joked that it stood for ‘Mr Brian Epstein’.
Epstein steered the Beatles’ career up to the end of their touring, in 1966. Then he suddenly had less to do.
He took a lot of pills: stimulants to keep him going, sedatives to help him sleep. He had a gambling problem. His personal life was messy.
In July 1967, the British government decriminalised consensual sex between men (as long as it took place in private and they were over 21.)
On 27 August 1967, Brian Epstein was found dead in his flat, from an overdose of sedatives. The Beatles, on a spiritual retreat at the time with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, were stunned. Lennon was interviewed by the press, looking shell-shocked: ‘He was our friend,’ he said helplessly.
A few years later, he claimed that Epstein’s death had been the thing that suddenly made him realise that, now that there was no-one to look after them, the band’s days were numbered:
I thought, ‘We’ve had it now.’
On 5 September 1967, the Beatles went into the studio to record ‘I Am The Walrus’.
This is not a song that makes literal sense, nor is it supposed to. If Lennon had wanted it to be a song with a clear meaning, he would have written one.
I don’t want to try to tie it down to meaning This and nothing else. Instead I want to suggest things that it could be ‘getting at’, as it were.
I am he
As you are he
As you are me
And we are all together
Who’s ‘he’? What’s the tone, here? Is this a parody of hippy mumbo-jumbo? Maybe, but it could also be Lennon asserting what it says on the face of it: We’re all (in this) together. If so, it’s the last time in this song that he’ll be so accommodating.
See how they run
Like pigs from a gun
See how they fly
‘See how they run’ is of course from the nursery rhyme ‘Three blind mice’. ‘Pigs’ used to be slang for ‘police’, and perhaps it is here. ‘See how they fly’—an image of people escaping, maybe? Escaping what? Or who?
‘I’m crying’ recurs again and again. The singer is not happy.
Sitting on a cornflake
Waiting for the van to come
Images here of ordinary life: cornflakes, a van, suburban stuff. The Beatles had toured in a van in their early years. The Epstein’s family’s furniture business had also involved vans.
Corporation tee shirt
Stupid bloody Tuesday
Man, you been a naughty boy
You let your face grow long
The ‘corporation’ in this context refers, I think, to municipal corporations that are part of local government. Liverpool City Council is the one for Lennon’s home town, but from 1835 to 1974 it was referred to as the Corporation of Liverpool. Here it’s standing in for the establishment: officialdom.
‘Man, you been a naughty boy / You let your face grow long’: what’s with the long face? Turn that frown upside down!
I am the eggman (Ooh)
They are the eggmen, (Ooh)
I am the walrus
Goo goo g’ joob
The ‘eggman’ is widely understood to be a reference to Eric Burdon of the Animals, who had a reputation for breaking eggs on the bodies of groupies. The ‘walrus’ is the Walrus from Lewis Carroll’s poem ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’; Lennon was under the mistaken impression that the Walrus in the poem was the ‘good guy’.
‘Goo goo g’joob’: sometimes words run out and you have to resort to baby talk.
Edit: A comment by Edward Sisson reminds me that Lennon read and was greatly impressed at least part of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and the Eggman may also be a reference to the nursery rhyme character Humpty Dumpty, who appears both in Lewis Carroll’s work and in the Wake itself, a book whose punning approach to wordplay struck Lennon as being very like his own.
Joyce is on the cover of Sgt Pepper, barely visible, the top of his head lurking behind T.E. Lawrence, below Bob Dylan, top right.
Mister city p’liceman sitting pretty
Little p’licemen in a row
Rows of policemen used to be the only thing standing between the Beatles and crowds of screaming fans:
But in early 1967, the police had been targeting rock stars like the Rolling Stones and, to a lesser extent, the Beatles, and busting them for illegal drug use. This did not make the police popular with musicians. Already, they were increasingly associated with The Man: they were the hated authorities, always out to get ya.
See how they fly
Like Lucy in the sky
See how they run
An allusion to his own song ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, and I think there’s a bit of wish-fulfilment here, as Lennon imagines the ‘p’licemen’ running (for cover?)
I’m crying, I’m crying, I’m crying
He’s not happy at all.
Yellow matter custard
Dripping from a dead dog’s eye
This is an allusion to an old kids’ rhyme that was one of the things that inspired Lennon to write the song: Yellow matter custard, snot and bogey pie, dead dog’s giblets, green cat’s eye. Spread it on bread, spread it on thick and wash it all down with a cup of cold sick. US readers may not be aware that matter here means pus, and sick means vomit.
That’s the version I learned as a kid, anyway, before I ever heard this song. The singer is revelling in disgust.
Crabalocker fishwife pornographic priestess
Boy you been a naughty girl
You let your knickers down
‘Crabalocker’ is one of Lennon’s own coinages, and it’s mixed up here with the image of the ‘fishwife’, a woman who sells fish, traditionally thought of as loud-mouthed and coarse, and ‘pornographic priestess’, which suggests sexual obsession. The next two lines, with their sexual ambiguity, are I’m sure written with Epstein in mind.
Crabalocker has ‘crab’ in it, meaning the shellfish, but also ‘crabby’ as in bad-tempered, and the ghosts of ‘block’ and ‘locker’: crabalocker fishwife next to pornographic priestess are two very different images of femininity up against each other.
Sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun
If the sun don’t come you get a tan from standing in the English rain
Lennon loved gardens, English ones in particular; he once talked about how he needed the feeling of grass under his feet. Unlike Harrison he wasn’t an actual gardener, but I think in its sour way, this is an ironic little idyll, a break from the ranting—as well as Lennon actively trolling us, which is one of the things he’s doing in this song, making up weird-sounding shit just to taunt us.
Expert texpert choking smokers
Don’t you think the joker laughs at you?
‘Expert texpert’ suggests to me all those official dudes with their reports and commissions and statistics, choking on smoke as they sit in rooms making decisions about people, back in a time when everybody smoked in public. Don’t you think the joker laughs at you?: You all laugh at us, you old farts, but we’ll have the last laugh.
See how they smile
Like pigs in a sty, see how they snied
It’s not so much about the meaning, here. more about the contempt dripping from the lines: ‘snied’ isn’t even a word, although ‘snide’ means ‘mocking in an indirect way’. Lennon was always obsessed with being looked down on, and here I think his grief about Epstein (even more of an outsider on account of his sexuality) is all mixed up with his hatred of being condescended to.
Climbing up the Eiffel Tower
We’re getting into pure nonsense poetry here, but semolina (cooked with milk into a kind of gruel) and pilchards (tinned fish) were part of the everyday British diet in the mid-20th century.
Element’ry penguin singing Hare Krishna
‘Penguin’ used to be a mocking term for nuns, on account of their outdoor clothing: I think maybe Lennon’s having another anti-Establishment dig at the church and religion and education.
Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe
Poe is on the cover of Sgt Pepper. Another tormented outsider figure.
‘I Am The Walrus’ is, I think, Lennon pouring out his anger about, well, stuff generally, and his grief about Epstein in particular, and making a point of not trying to carve it into coherent sense. It’s a giant, splenetic Fuck you, not just to the authorities and the cops and the government and the patriarchy, but to rational meaning as well. (I owe this insight to the commentary on the song by the late Ian MacDonald.)
All of this is underlined and made more complex by Martin’s brilliant string arrangement in the outro, with the chords endlessly descending while the top line endlessly ascends, and the inclusion of random scraps of a BBC broadcast of Shakespeare’s King Lear, of which only odd, serendipitous lines are audible: ‘O, untimely Death’, ‘A serviceable villain,’ ‘What, is he dead?’, ‘Sit you down, father, rest you.’ The ultimate symbol of official British culture is enlisted to take part in an attack on that culture.
The final touch is that Lennon sang so loudly, and so close to the mic, that his entire vocal track repeatedly goes into peak distortion.
‘I Am The Walrus’ may be part nonsense, but make no mistake: it’s one of the angriest songs they ever recorded.