Friday, October 9, 2009

I Am the Walrus

Hey, kids, it's October 9th, 2009! The 69th birthday of John Lennon! Oh, John, it's hard to even imagine you at 69. But when I do, I try to imagine you a bit edgier than Double Fantasy. I like to think that album was just a phase you were going through, and that there was even more amazing stuff on the way... kind of like how Paul's 2009 Fireman album was his coolest in maybe 20 years. Not like we'll get to find out, though, no matter how many games of Chrononauts we play.

In case you haven't figured this out by frequent reading of this blog, John is hands down my favorite Beatle. We live in a world in which hetero-female Beatles fans get asked whom their favorite Beatle is, so it seems fair to be open about mine-- it was always John. It began when I was, like, 13, simply because I found him the most attractive. In fact, when I was in high school, I fell in love with a guy who resembled John circa Help!-- and, long story short, I eventually married him. So there's the physical thing. But at some point I noticed that my favorite songs were John's, and not just my favorite songs, but the songs that I found myself passionately defending against the haters-- songs like "Good Morning Good Morning" and "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" and all those songs that John wrote that are sort of generally agreed to be minor but totally made my gut hurt they were so good. Paul wrote these kinds of minor songs too, but I can't passionately advocate for "I'll Follow the Sun" or "Mother Nature's Song" the way that some people can. This is how you can pick your favorite Beatle: which of the weaker Beatles songs do you find yourself moved by? That's how you know. For me, it's the ones John wrote, in general.

But this is all idle Meg-centric talk, when we need to be discussing "I Am the Walrus," which, okay, we're so close to the end of this year-of-songs that I was relieved to discover the other day I've still got it left. Because even if my love for the minor songs knows no bounds, John deserves to be remembered with a masterpiece. And we've got a particularly excellent one today.

Could the "I Am the Walrus" video be the best video the Beatles ever did, even though it's really more like a clip from a movie? I say it's at least in the top three. And, parenthetically, isn't John dreamy in this video? I say, God yes. (John: call me!)

And, more to the point, could "I Am the Walrus" be the best song the Beatles ever put out? This is tricky territory here, to name a number-one best-of-them-all sort of song, but there's a case to be made. It is so damned original that it surely must be a serious contender, and it's as much a timeless work of art as, say, "Yesterday" in its completely different way. "I Am the Walrus" is one of those songs that's scary for an amateur like me to write about, because it's so complex and rad, and because so many smarter people have commented on it that one wonders what else one might say. Anyway, I'll just try to get on with it, and to be relatively brief.

"I Am the Walrus" was written as a happy amalgamation of several small doodles John had come up with on separate acid trips. The tune was invented when a police siren went by outside his window as John sat at his piano-- he started playing the piano along with the siren, and thought it would be cool to write a whole song based on a siren; he might have actually also written the "mister city policeman sitting, pretty little policemen in a row" here too. It was later acid trips that gave him lines like "I am he as you are he as you are me" and "sitting on a cornflake waiting for the van to come." And then some lines were appropriated from a children's gross-out playground song that he and his friend Pete Shotton used to sing about yellow matter custard and dead dogs' eyes. In fact, all these nonsense lyrics ended up being fused together because Pete happened to remark to John that back in Liverpool, a teacher at the school they had both gone to as boys was now teaching Beatles lyrics as texts in English class. Though this amused John, it also irritated him, as the teacher (it seems) had been a particularly discouraging one to John himself (who was not much of a student), and for him to realize that John was a genius now struck John as almost insulting. John sat down with Pete and pieced together "I Am the Walrus" mostly in the name of fucking with people-- "Let's see them try and work that one out!" he sneered.

Of course, John loved nonsense anyway, and the two books of poems and stories he'd published at this point proved that his brain was already plenty absurd without any help from psychedelics. In many ways "I Am the Walrus" is a natural extension of the nonsense poetry he'd been writing since he was young-- and really the clearest transposition of that poetry into any of his pop songs. But I'm not going to fall into John's trap and try to analyze the lyrics any more than this, though others have. He seems to think it'd be a waste of my time. I'll only say that for all gorgeous insanity, for all the thickness of the images popping out at you willy-nilly in a way that, yes, is sort of like pigs from a gun, the tone of the lyrics hints at the sardonic darkness that you see in a lot of songs by John. It's all pretty grim, and sometimes gruesome, what with people being senselessly violent to a great American author, and what with the joker laughing at you, and people letting their knickers down in what sounds like a vaguely humiliating way. And let's not forget that John keeps crying.

Musically, George Martin rightly gets a ton of credit here for coming up with the amazing orchestration-- amazing for its complexity, and also for how right the whole things syncs up with the deranged little siren melody that John has come up with. Note that what the band is playing is crazy simple, basically. For most of the song, Ringo pounds on the beat pretty regularly, while Paul plays a bunch of what's basically walking bass lines. It's Martin who arranged the strings that really make John's rant feel so rich and full. That said, though, John was no slouch in terms of sophistication either. I don't know who but John would write such a simple, almost talky melody and then lay the whole thing on top of such a twisted harmonic structure as this-- it's so ingenious and odd that it could only be John. The big ol' weird thing the song does is make you wonder whether it's in A major or E major. The "I am the walrus" chorus lands on an E, but in the verses you're always being led toward A, and it's all very strange.

The other weird thing, which has been widely commented on, happens in the long coda, where Martin's string parts are moving up and up the scale while the bass part moves down the scale pretty much exactly against it. It's all happening in a mechanically percussive way that heightens the already creepy effect of the natural dissonance this is creating-- it always sounds to me like an army of robots is slowly advancing to kill you. Whose idea was this, John's or George Martin's? Don't know for sure, but it's my opinion that John came up with this, because even though I used the word "scale" above, there's no true diatonic scale really anywhere in sight. In fact, the reason I'm giving this to John is because it shows clear signs of being composed on a piano-- as if John basically just played up and down the white keys at the same time. Kind of like playing "Chopsticks," but to more interesting effect. Speaking of creepy, John also threw in a chorus chanting "everybody's got one!" in a manner that makes me think they're a mob of clearly insane people who will take up their pitchforks against you at any minute, and then, for the hell of it, fiddled with the radio. The radio bit was improvised-- they just recorded whatever was on, and as it happened, it was a BBC production of King Lear, which thanks to this moment of cosmic perfection sounds completely right for "I Am the Walrus."

Wow, this song is creepy, now that I actually start to write about it. It's as if John took all the most bizarre crud from his brain that he could find and arranged it into the tight constraints of a three-minute pop song, which keeps the chaos enough in check that it becomes something more than chaos. When he pushed these chaotic impulses TOO far, the results weren't always good. (I'm looking at you, "Revolution #9.") But "I Am the Walrus" is creepier and more affecting and also, strangely, more accessible than it almost has any right to be. It's no wonder a song like this got pushed to a B-side (of the "Hello Goodbye" single, a pairing that I imagine made John just seethe), but it's also no wonder that it's thought of as one of the songs that made the Beatles so special.

Gad, have I talked your ear off yet? Go have a happy October 9th, or a happy evening of October 9th, anyway! And spend the weekend doing things John would have approved of, like sleeping until the late afternoon, or sitting in a bag, or taking naked photos of yourself, or writing poems. Oh, John, you ARE the walrus, I guess, but you are also so much more...

"I Am the Walrus," released in the U.K. as the B-side of the "Hello Goodbye" single, November 24, 1967; in the U.S., November 27, 1967.


  1. Let's not forget the Smokey Robinson influence ("I'm Crying", from "Ooh, Baby, Baby" ). . . and the three different edits of "Walrus"(regular, tiny extra intro, tiny extra middle bit) . . .

  2. John definitely loved to fuck with people and loved nonsense. I have sat in an English garden, and in England you do wait for the sun (and it's all right, to quote another song).

    As far as music making you happy, I know that "A Hard Day's Night" the film makes me happy, and hardly anything ever does. Rediscovering the band through Rock Band is a little, well, weird.

  3. I was just reading in Geoff Emerick's book that this song was the first one they recorded after Brian Epstein died, and it was a very difficult session with all of them out of sorts, and Paul (not surprisingly) kept them going. So maybe that helps explain the underlying somber and moving tone of the whole song. (I'm a different anon from the first one.)

  4. This is true, Anon, about the session. This was, in fact, mere days after Brian Epstein had died-- I think Paul just figured heading into the studio right away would be good for them.

    Quite right about Smokey Robinson, other Anon. John couldn't give up Smokey even when he was being a off his rocker. The sheer talkiness the vocal also makes me think of the talkier Chuck Berry songs.

    Jean, we should talk about Rock Band. I'm digging your blog about it.

  5. Hi Megan

    I am the Walrus is my all-time favourite song [#2 is Hendrix All Along the Watchtower]. I was 16 when Love Me Do came out, and I've written about it in

    Looking at your list of songs on the right reminded me that I didn't mention the live at the Beeb tracks. I used to rush home from school for that [listening on an old valve radio].