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I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together
Many have noted that the first line of "I Am the Walrus" bears a striking resemblance to the British folk song, "Marching to Pretoria." However, John Lennon himself always insisted that the lyrics came from "nothing."
"Marching to Pretoria" begins, "I'm with you are you're with me and so we are all together."
The song traces its origins back to the South African Boer Wars of the 19th century, which pitted the British Empire against the Boers (Dutch colonists who had themselves colonized South Africa 200 years earlier). The British troops sang "Marching to Pretoria" as they (you guessed it) marched toward Pretoria, the Boer capital city.
The Beatles themselves always said any link between their song and "Marching to Pretoria" was bogus. Still, the two lyrics are remarkably similar. Perhaps John Lennon had heard the folk song as a child, and one of his later acid trips subconsciously brought it all back to him. Who knows, really?
Lennon also mentioned in an interview that he once penned a few lyrics while listening to police sirens outside his London flat. He said, "I had this idea of doing a song that was a police siren, but it didn't work in the end (sings like a siren) 'I-am-he-as-you-are-he-as...' You couldn't really sing the police siren." (Source)
Meanwhile, fellow Beatle George Harrison questioned any attempt to find deep meanings or profound references in the lyrics, saying, "People don't understand. In John's song, 'I Am the Walrus' he says: 'I am he as you are he as you are me.' People look for all sorts of hidden meanings. It's serious, but it's also not serious. It's true, but it's also a joke." (Source)
See you in Pretoria, then?
See how they run like pigs from a gun, see how they fly
In an interview with Playboy magazine, John Lennon said that this line and the one before it were inspired by two different acid trips.
Lennon said, "The first line was written on one acid trip one weekend. The second line was written on the next acid trip the next weekend, and it was filled in after I met Yoko." (Source)
Just as the Beatles were the defining music group of the 1960s, acid (LCD) was the defining drug. The drug induces an altered state of perception in its users, causing distortions in physical, sensory, visual, audio, and thought processes. People sometimes feel colors and hear shapes, becoming almost synesthetic. Fixed objects seem to move or ripple, looking around causes sights to blur or leave a trail (tracers), and dull objects sparkle and shine.
Some users claim to have intense religious experiences while tripping on acid. Others say that they enter other dimensions or relive their own birth.
LSD was invented accidentally by a Swedish chemist looking for a blood stimulant. It has since been used experimentally in psychotherapy to bring out repressed memories. The drug has also been used by doctors to elevate patients to a new level of self-awareness, allowing them to recognize problems that they previously denied, such as alcoholism. Although LSD was at first legal for use, it has now been banned in the U.S. and other countries.
Of course, that didn't stop the Beatles and many other young people in the '60s and '70s from experimenting with the drug for recreational purposes. The Beatles openly admit that many of their songs were written at least in part while under the influence of LSD.
Sitting on a cornflake, waiting for the van to come
This was one of the three separate lyrical ideas around which Lennon constructed the song.
Lennon once described to an interviewer the fractured songwriting process that produced "I Am the Walrus." He said:
I write lyrics that you don't realize what they mean 'til after. Especially some of the better songs or some of the more flowing ones, like 'Walrus.' The whole first verse was written without any knowledge. With 'I Am the Walrus,' I had 'I am he as you are he as we are all together.' I had just these two lines on the typewriter, and then about two weeks later I ran through and wrote another two lines and then, when I saw something, after about four lines, I just knocked the rest of it off. Then I had the whole verse or verse and a half and then sang it. (Source)
The first part of the line seems to be a reference to mass marketing and consumerism, a facet of society that Lennon often singled out for criticism.
When John Lennon met Yoko Ono, his entire life changed. At that point in 1966, he was fully immersed in the Beatles machine. He stated in later interviews that the Beatles were in danger of becoming "craftsmen," meaning artists who had perfected a certain kind of craft and were repeating it over and over without any innovation.
"When the Beatles played in America for the first time," Lennon later recalled, "they played pure craftsmanship. Meaning they were already old hands. The jism had gone out of the performances a long time ago. In the same respect, the songwriting creativity had left Paul and me in the mid-Sixties. When we wrote together in the early days, it was like the beginning of a relationship. Lots of energy. In the 'Sgt. Pepper'-'Abbey Road' period, the relationship had matured. Maybe had we gone on together, more interesting things would have come, but it couldn't have been the same." (Source)
I am the eggman
Fans and critics have long argued about what, if anything, this line means. Some people claim that it's a reference to Humpty Dumpty, the famous opinionated egg of nursery-rhyme fame, the one who took an unfortunate tumble from a wall.
Others think the eggman is the lead singer of the Animals, Eric Burdon, who had a bizarre sexual fetish with eggs.
Some sources maintain that the eggman was Humpty Dumpty. If you need a refresher, it's a nursery rhyme: "Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, And all the king's horses and all the king's men, Could never put Humpty together again."
The Humpty Dumpty character also appears in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, the story upon which this entire song is arguably based. In Carroll's telling, Alice encounters Humpty and the two have a conversation about how dreary it is to blend in with the crowd.
If you're on the other side of the debate, lead singer Eric Burdon of the Animals (best known for their hits "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" and "House of the Rising Sun") said in his autobiography that he got turned on from breaking raw eggs over naked girls.
Anyway, John Lennon was reportedly present in the room during one of these egg-breaking incidents and forever after called Burdon "Eggman."
I am the walrus
Lennon based his song on one of the title characters from Lewis Carroll's poem "The Walrus and the Carpenter," which appears in his novel Through The Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There. Lennon has admitted that although he thought it was a beautiful poem, he got the characters mixed up.
In his 1980 Playboy interview with Yoko Ono, Lennon said of the song's title:
It's from 'The Walrus and the Carpenter.' 'Alice in Wonderland.' To me, it was a beautiful poem. It never dawned on me that Lewis Carroll was commenting on the capitalist and social system. I never went into that bit about what he really meant, like people are doing with the Beatles' work. Later, I went back and looked at it and realized that the walrus was the bad guy in the story and the carpenter was the good guy. I thought, Oh, s--t, I picked the wrong guy. I should have said, 'I am the carpenter.' But that wouldn't have been the same, would it? (singing) 'I am the carpenter...' (Source)
Wait a minute, what do capitalism and socialism have to do with walruses and carpenters? Well, the poem is about a pair of hungry tricksters, the Walrus and the Carpenter, who seduce a group of oysters ashore and then devour the tasty little creatures. The Walrus is the mastermind of the whole scheme. He probably represents the top of the capitalistic, bureaucratic food chain (he carries a gold watch and smokes cigars the whole time).
The Carpenter, on the other hand, probably represents socialism. He just sits there powerlessly, morally objecting to what the Walrus is doing. Of course, the Carpenter is hungry nonetheless and does ask for more bread. Perhaps, Carroll is pointing out that neither extreme capitalism nor radical socialism really work out very well in reality.
In the end, the common folk—the oysters—still get screwed.
Goo goo ga joob
Some people speculate that Lennon got these lines from James Joyce's long poem, Finnegans Wake, while others see them as pure gibberish.
James Joyce was a modernist Irish writer who was famous for his works A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Dubliners. Some Joyce and Beatles fans have suggested—rather dubiously in our view—that "goo goo ga job" comes from part 557.7 of Finnegans Wake.
Here's the excerpt from Finnegans Wake—watch out for that famous "googoo goosth" or you'll miss it:
cramp for Hemself and Co, Esquara, or them four hoarsemen on
their apolkaloops, Norreys, Soothbys, Yates and Welks, and,
galorybit of the sanes in hevel, there was a crick up the stirkiss
and when she ruz the cankle to see, galohery, downand she went
on her knees to blessersef that were knogging together like milk-
juggles as if it was the wrake of the hapspurus or old Kong
Gander O'Toole of the Mountains or his googoo goosth she
seein, sliving off over the sawdust lobby out ofthe backroom, wan
ter, that was everywans in turruns, in his honeymoon trim, holding
up his fingerhals, with the clookey in his fisstball, tocher of davy's,
tocher of ivileagh, for her to whisht, you sowbelly, and the
whites of his pious eyebulbs swering her to silence and coort;
In our view, the odds that John Lennon actually intended his line as a shout-out to these two obscure words in the middle of this one very long sentence in the middle of a very long and challenging experimental novel are somewhere between slim and none.
But it would be cool, if true.
Mister City Policeman sitting
Lennon said that he was inspired to begin writing the song's first line by the sounds of police sirens wailing in the night; it seems likely that this line shared that inspiration.
In his biography of John Lennon, Philip Norman writes, "At Kenwood one day, the distant sound of a police-car siren stoked up his anger over the recent persecutions [for drug possession] of good friends like Mick and Keith [from the Rolling Stones] and the boys at International Times." (Source)
When Lennon heard the sirens outside his window, he began tapping out a rhythm as well as creating a melody for the song on his electric piano. At first, he was trying to mimic the sound of the police sirens, and the trochaic beat of this line is the same as the first line of the song.
See how they fly like Lucy in the Sky
This is, of course, a nod to another Beatles hit, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," from the groundbreaking album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, released a few months before "I Am the Walrus" in 1967.
"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is among the most famous of all Beatles songs. Although many fans claim that it's a song about acid (the initials spell out LSD), Lennon told an interviewer that the song is actually inspired by a drawing his son Julian brought home from grammar school:
LENNON: "My son Julian came in one day with a picture he painted about a school friend of his named Lucy. He had sketched in some stars in the sky and called it 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.' Simple."
INTERVIEWER: "The other images in the song weren't drug-inspired?"
LENNON: "The images were from 'Alice in Wonderland.' It was Alice in the boat. She is buying an egg and it turns into Humpty Dumpty. The woman serving in the shop turns into a sheep and the next minute they are rowing in a rowing boat somewhere and I was visualizing that. There was also the image of the female who would someday come save me—a 'girl with kaleidoscope eyes' who would come out of the sky. It turned out to be Yoko, though I hadn't met Yoko yet. So maybe it should be 'Yoko in the Sky with Diamonds.'"
The two Lewis Carroll classics (Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass) were John Lennon's favorite books of all time. It's really not surprising that imagery from both books pops up constantly in his songs. Both "I Am the Walrus" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" draw heavily from Carroll's writings. Even more interesting is that Lennon repeats the Humpty Dumpty/eggman imagery in both songs.
Drug-inspired or not, it certainly seems that Lewis Carroll was very much on Lennon's mind when he penned these lyrics.
The real Lucy who inspired the song, Lucy Richardson, came out to the press 40 years after the song was written explaining that she was, in fact, the girl behind the immortal ballad. Evidently, Julian Lennon had a crush on her in grammar school and actually dedicated several art pieces to her, including the famous picture of the girl surrounded by a starry sky.
Yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog's eye
Crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess
When Lennon found out that a British teacher was requiring his students to analyze Beatles lyrics, he decided to throw in some random verses of nonsense to confuse his readers.
This line actually comes from an old British schoolchildren's playground rhyme.
According to biographer Philip Norman, Lennon's childhood friend, Peter Shotton, "happened to mention that at their old school, Quarry Bank, senior English students were now made to dissect and analyze the lyrics of 'Strawberry Fields Forever' and 'Tomorrow Never Knows,' just as they themselves once had analyzed the poems of Wordsworth and Shelley." (Source)
Lennon was highly amused by this and decided to stick a bit of nonsense into the song to throw the students—and teachers—off. He wrote Shotton asking for a bizarre playground song that he could incorporate into his piece and this was the result:
Yellow matter custard, green slop pie, all mixed together with a dead dog's eye
Slap it on a butty, ten foot thick, then wash it all down with a cup of cold sick.
Lennon said, "Let the little f-----s work that one out." (Source)
Boy, you been a naughty girl, you let your knickers down
This line got the song banned from BBC radio and from many stations in the U.S. as well.
"Knickers" is Brit-speak for underpants. Many radio stations at the time thought that this line was too risqué for the public—knickers, the horror—and banned the tune from the airwaves.
Certainly, by today's cultural standards, the idea of a song being banned for such a relatively inoffensive reference seems pretty over the top; the Beatles felt the same way at the time.
"Everyone keeps preaching that the best way is to be 'open' when writing for teenagers," said Paul McCartney. "Then when we do we get criticized. Surely the word 'knickers' can't offend anyone. Shakespeare wrote words a lot more naughtier than knickers!" Lennon added, "We chose the word (knickers) because it is a lovely expressive word. It rolls off the tongue. It could 'mean' anything. (Source)
Expert texpert choking smokers
Don't you think the joker laughs at you?
These lines could be a reference to the intellectual hippies of Lennon's day.
Lennon appears to be poking fun at the academic elite. These are the "expert texperts" who sit around in coffee shops, reading old Russian novels and Nietzsche, smoking unfiltered cigarettes, "choking smokers" and deciding that all of their ideas are ridiculously profound. Perhaps it's no accident that this line follows fast on the heels of the previous gibberish, deliberately intended to confuse the academics who tried so hard to decode Beatles lyrics.
Traditionally, in European culture, the joker (or jester or fool), appears to be a bumbling idiot but acutally makes very insightful social commentary. It's almost like Lennon has cast himself as this figure and is just laughing at those who sought to read great significance into his lines.
This is a reference to Detective Sergeant Norman Pilcher, head of the Scotland Yard Drugs Unit. He was the most-feared drug agent in Britain in the 1960s and had an obsessive craving for the spotlight. Arresting a Beatle on pot charges is a quick way to get your name in many, many newspapers.
Sergeant Norman Pilcher was the head of one of Britain's police drug squads in the late '60s. Pilcher wanted to be famous, so he hatched a plan to go after the members of the Beatles one by one.
He started with the man he suspected did the most drugs, John Lennon. Lennon and Yoko Ono were tipped off that John was on Pilcher's hit list, but it was too late. Their flat was stormed by officer and canine units. They were arrested for possession of cannabis resin and obstructing the search warrant. John was told that Yoko, who was pregnant, would be let off the hook if he pleaded guilty. So, he did and they were released.
Tragically, Yoko had to be immediately rushed to the hospital, where she had a miscarriage. John later told the press that the whole thing was set up by Pilcher as a media ploy for good photo ops. The news stations were at the flat before the police even got there. When John pleaded guilty, Pilcher told him, ''Well, we've got it now. So it's nothing personal...'' (Source)
The picture on the back of the jacket of the album Unfinished Music No. 2—Life with the Lions is of John and Yoko as they were being dragged out of the police station. Lennon also explained that Jimi Hendrix, who'd owned the same flat before them, had left piles of drugs when he moved out. John had tried to clean up the drugs when he found out about the raid. Apparently, he wasn't quite thorough enough, hence the incriminating resin.
Climbing up the Eiffel Tower
The famous tower, located in Paris, France, was built for the 1889 World's Fair and has since become the most visited paid monument in the world and the iconic image of France.
Named after its designer, engineer Gustave Eiffel, the tower was originally intended for the World's Fair in Barcelona, Spain, but Barcelona, already filled to the brim with architecture by Gaudi, rejected the design saying it didn't fit in with the city. Offended but still determined, Eiffel sent his design to Paris, who accepted it even though it looked daringly strange by the standards of the day.
It ended up being the best decision Paris ever made.
The tower is constructed entirely of puddled iron, a strong form of structural iron. It was a risky building project—the tallest building in the world at the time—but Eiffel took great precautions and only one worker out of three hundred died building it. You can walk all the 1,665 steps to the top or take the elevators if you're lazy. The view from the top is spectacular.
The Eiffel Tower has figured prominently in countless movies, novels, poems, and artwork ever since it was built. It remains a timeless symbol of romance and beauty that defines Paris.
Elementary penguin singing Hare Krishna
Here Lennon gently mocks the people who went around singing the Hare Krishna mantra in the '60s.
In 1980, Lennon explained the line, saying, "Part of it was putting down Hare Krishna. All these people were going on about Hare Krishna, Allen Ginsberg in particular. The reference to 'Element'ry penguin' is the elementary, naive attitude of going around chanting, 'Hare Krishna,' or putting all your faith in any one idol. I was writing obscurely, a la Dylan, in those days." (Source)
Hare Krishna is a 16-line verse from the sacred Hindu texts, the Upanishads, that is meant to be chanted or sung in order to bring the singer closer to the god Krishna, the most supreme Hindu diety. The chant is literally the three words "hare," "Krishna," and "rama" repeated over and over again and in different orders.
In this verse, Lennon was making fun of his contemporaries—Allen Ginsberg was the famous Beat poet of the '50s and '60s—who got swept up in the meditative Hare Krishna craze in an attempt to bring themselves closer to the divine. Ironically, in 1968, a year after "I Am the Walrus," Lennon and the rest of the Beatles did some chanting of their own.
The guys spent months in India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the famous guru of transcendental meditation. They spent a lot of time meditating in hopes of finding the secret of life. Like so many before them, they never quite figured it out. This experience probably just reinforced Lennon's skepticism of organized religion. He later recalled:
Maharishi was a father figure, Elvis Presley might have been a father figure. I don't know. Robert Mitchum. Any male image is a father figure. There's nothing wrong with it until you give them the right to give you sort of a recipe for your life. What happens is somebody comes along with a good piece of truth. Instead of the truth's being looked at, the person who brought it is looked at. The messenger is worshiped, instead of the message. So there would be Christianity, Mohammedanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Marxism, Maoism—everything—it is always about a person and never about what he says. (Source)
Seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe was a very famous American writer of short stories and poetry who lived during the 1800s. He was well-known for his dark, penetratingly creepy tales.
Oompa, oompa, stick it up your jumper
This line, along with the backup vocals throughout the song, was sung by the Mike Sammes Singers, a popular and utterly inoffensive British vocal group.
Despite the polished image of the singers, however, the lines sound kind of dirty. And they are. The phrase "stick it up your jumper" literally means "stick it up your sweater," but it was often used as slang for "stick it up your you-know-what."
So, it was pretty funny to hear this squeaky-clean choir of male and female voices singing those lines. The Mike Sammes Singers are also the ones responsible for the "ho ho ho, he he he, ha ha ha" that sounds a bit like demonic Oompa Loompas or Munchkins.
In his book, The Beatles Complete Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn quotes Beatles producer George Martin, who said, "We got in the the Mike Sammes Singers, very commercial people and so alien to John that it wasn't true. But in the score I simply orchestrated the laughs and noises, the whooooooah kind of thing. John was delighted with it." (Source)
Everybody's got one, everybody's got one, everybody's got one!
The vocal delivery of this line is so muddled up (drowned out by the voices of dozens of singers and a full orchestra) that many, many people have heard the line as, "Everybody smoke pot, everybody smoke pot!"
"Everybody smoke pot" at the end of "I Am the Walrus" is one of the greatest mondegreens in all of modern pop music. Lennon himself sought to quash the rumor in a 1980 interview with Playboy, but it lives on to this day.
INTERVIEWER: "What about the chant at the end of the song: Smoke pot, smoke pot, everybody smoke pot'?"
LENNON: "No, no, no. I had this whole choir saying, 'Everybody's got one, everybody's got one.' But when you get 30 people, male and female, on top of 30 cellos and on top of the Beatles' rock 'n roll rhythm section, you can't hear what they're saying."
INTERVIEWER: "What does 'everybody got'?"
LENNON: "Anything. You name it. One penis, one vagina, one a--hole—you name it."