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Unlike many pop songs, whose clear chord progressions and distinct instrumentation keep the melody rather clean, "I Am the Walrus" is one big musical jumble. That jumble comes not from super-complicated keys or chord changes, though; instead, the song's sonic chaos results from the inclusion of dozens of different voices, instruments, and sound clips throughout. The mix is deliberately congested.
Otherwise, "I Am the Walrus" is a fairly simple piece of music. The song pretty much stays in the same key (A Major) throughout, and while the harmony sometimes skews into other random keys, it holds its initial melody consistently. In his very detailed and interesting musical breakdown of the song (which you should definitely check out), Allan W. Pollack says:
Many times I've told you how wherever you find the Beatles at their most far out you also find them, under the surface, operating on their most classical instincts. So don't be fooled here: no matter what else you may respond to in this wonderfully outrageous song, you should acknowledge the extent to which it ultimately weighs in as a (granted, extremely stylized and abstract) talkin' blues number. In this regard I'm thinking not just of the patter style declamation of the words, but also of the formal use of phrases in groups of three, and the prominent exposure given to the V-IV-I progression, especially in context of a song whose harmony is otherwise quite out to lunch. (Source)
The V to IV to I progression that Pollack mentions is a very common musical trick that's used by composers to make a song sound good; we'll try our best to break it down for you.
Basically, every key (ABCDEFG) has eight notes that go along with it; in the case of "Walrus," the notes go exactly in alphabetical order because they start with A. The Roman numerals denote other keys within the main key, and capitalized roman numerals signify a major key. In the key of A Major, the fifth note of the scale (V) is E, and the fifth note of any major key needs to be major itself. Same goes for the IV chord, in this case D Major. A chord progression (playing several chords together) that makes any combination of these three main chords, I, IV, and V will always always sound right to your ear…whether or not you're totally following this explanation.
In fact, that V to IV to I progression just sounds good, sounds like music that makes you smile.
When you start throwing minor or diminished or seventh chords in, however, things get a little more complicated, and "Walrus" is a good example of a song that manages to achieve both simple I-IV-V progressions as well as random additional chords to spice things up. The first line—"I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together"—follows an A-C-D-E-A pattern.
Okay, we already know A, E, and D, but what about C? C is the third note in A Major, and all third notes in major keys are played minor. So C Minor is the iii chord and throws a cog in the wheel of this nice little major chord progression, giving the song some interest right from the start. We're not going to break down every single chord the way Pollack does (like we said, you should check out his stuff in its entirety), but this happy major pattern broken by weird minor chords happens throughout the rest of the song.
And now for all the other sounds. Philip Norman, Beatles biographer, explains:
George Martin provided a wonderful score of sawing, grinding, bottom-register cellos, like sarcasm-made-melody, in which further insults, irony, and smut were hidden below the waterline. The Mike Sammes Singers, radio's coziest middle-of-the-road vocal group, were hired for the play-out chorus of 'Oompah-oompah, stick it up your jumper!' and 'Everybody's got one!' The multilayered sound effects even included a snatch of Shakespeare's King Lear lifted from a BBC Third Programme performance starring Sir John Gielgud (the scene where Oswald is fatally stabbed and cries, 'Oh untimely death!') It was clearly a song far beyond the powers of any four-piece rock group. (Source)
So, "Walrus" featured not only the voices of John Lennon and the rest of the Beatles, but also the Mike Sammes Singers and the actors in the BBC broadcast of King Lear. As far as instruments go, they had electric piano (which creates the opening sounds), guitar, bass, drums, violins, cellos, horns, and a clarinet—practically an orchestra.
The King Lear snippet just happened to be on the radio when John was flipping through stations at the famous Abbey Road Studios, where the band was recording. The scene that we hear during the "Everybody's got one" chant toward the end of "Walrus" reads as follows:
OSWALD: Slave, thou hast slain me.
Villain, take my purse.
If ever thou wilt thrive, bury my body
And give the letters which you find'st about me
To Edmund, Earl of Gloucester.
Seek him out Upon the English party.
O, untimely death! Death!
EDGAR: I know thee well: a serviceable villain,
As duteous to the vices of thy mistress
As badness would desire.
GLOUCESTER: What, is he dead?
EDGAR: Sit you down, father. Rest you.
A lot of people thought that the inclusion of these lines supported the "Paul Is Dead" conspiracy theory. Drawing on a collection of random evidence from Beatles songs (in Glass Onion John says "the walrus is Paul" and people thought, falsely, that the walrus was a death symbol), some theorists decided that Paul McCartney had been killed and replaced by a look-a-like.
Some people have seriously overactive imaginations.
All these crazy elements mixed together added up to one wild sonic mélange. "It actually was fantastic in stereo," Lennon later said, "but you never hear it all. There was too much to get on. It was too messy a mix. One track was live BBC Radio—Shakespeare or something—I just fed in whatever lines came in." (Source)
When you think of the Beatles, what springs to mind? John, Paul, George, and Ringo? The mop-topped British boys who changed music forever? The greatest rock group of all time? A shiny, winged insect?
Let's take a guess: The Beatles are the band that you probably decided you were never going to ever like when you were about eight years old, simply because your parents loved them and anything your parents loved was deathly uncool. And then, one day, you actually decided to pop in a CD—you know, see what all the hype was about—and boom, you were hooked.
Yoko Ono once said of the group, "I am sure there are people whose lives were affected because they heard Indian music or Mozart or Bach. More than anything, it was the time and the place when the Beatles came up. Something did happen there. It was a kind of chemical. It was as if several people gathered around a table and a ghost appeared. It was that kind of communication. So they were like mediums, in a way. It's not something you can force. It was the people, the time, their youth and enthusiasm." (Source)
The Beatles changed music as we know it. They and their '60s contemporaries, like Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, wanted to shake things up. The Beatles were many things: pretty boys, trendsetters, socially and politically volatile, thoughtful and profound, catchy and entertaining. They experimented with drugs, played psychedelic rock, made ladies swoon, and became perhaps the most commercially and critically successful band of all time. They sold over one billion records internationally.
After their messy breakup in 1970, all four went on to successful solo careers. To explain the entire Beatles saga would take about 800 pages, and some writers have actually done just that. Right now, though, we're going to focus more narrowly on "I Am the Walrus" and its creator, John Lennon.
John Lennon was one half of the Lennon/McCartney songwriting duo whose lyrics and music would change history. The other half, Paul McCartney, was his best friend from childhood. Paul was the go-to guy for catchy, happy lyrics and was beloved by the public. He was often called the "cutest" Beatle and had legions of adoring female fans. John, not to be outdone, also had millions of female devotees due to his intellectual good looks. He was the more philosophical, darker side of the songwriting team. The two of them made a pact back in grade school that no matter who wrote the majority of the song, both of their names would be credited. They kept that promise for the entire length of the Beatles' run. So, even though "I Am the Walrus" was completely a Lennon composition, it still lists Lennon/McCartney as the writers.
However, in 1966, after the band had already completed such hit albums as A Hard Day's Night, Help!, and Revolver, Lennon started feeling a tugging that he couldn't ignore. He was starting to drift away from his musical fraternity. He was sick of pandering to the public and producing song after song to feed the insatiable appetites of his record label and his fans, but couldn't see a way out. And then he met Yoko Ono.
Perhaps one of the most misunderstood women in history—certainly (and probably unfairly) one of the most reviled—Ono came along one night and stole John's heart, much to the dismay of his adoring fans and the other Beatles, who collectively behaved like a person bitter at their best friend for falling in love:
ONO: "Even now, I just read that Paul said, 'I understand that he wants to be with her, but why does he have to be with her all the time?'"
LENNON: "Yoko, do you still have to carry that cross? That was years ago."
ONO: "No, no, no. He said it recently. I mean, what happened with John is like, I sort of went to bed with this guy that I liked and suddenly the next morning, I see these three in-laws, standing there."
And the in-laws weren't happy. The tension eventually led to the Beatles' divorce.
Granted, Yoko was a force to be reckoned with and her no-nonsense attitude had John falling ever deeper in love while the public resented her more and more each day. When John penned "Walrus" in 1967, he was fresh off his return from a retreat to study transcendental meditation in India where he did not, as he had hoped, learn the "secret" of life. However, he soon discovered that perhaps this secret, which had eluded him for so many years, was Yoko Ono. She became his muse and his inspiration, and was ultimately the person who persuaded him to gather the courage to leave the Beatles for good to pursue other things.
First, however, he wrote some of his most brilliant songs. "Walrus" is so powerful because it was the brainchild of a man who was in the middle of a profound transition. Tensions in-between band members rose as steadily as the new couple's obsession with each other. Lennon was contemplating leaving the Beatles, the only life he knew, to jump into an unknown world with a new woman (and he also left his current wife in the process).
"Walrus" is a series of dualities: It's a mixture of angst and relief, anti-establishmentarianism and gleeful conformity, crying and laughter. And there was no turning back. In 1966, the Beatles played their last live show. In 1970, they broke up for good. On December 8th, 1980, John Lennon was shot and killed outside his New York flat by Mark David Chapman, who claimed that the novel The Catcher in the Rye made him do it.
Lennon's life, although too short, wasn't lived in vain. His lyrics continue to live on in awe-inspiring albums and songs like "I Am the Walrus." His widow, Yoko Ono, continues to spread their message, "Imagine peace." Lennon was always the kind of guy who never looked back. He refused to do a reunion tour, because to him, that era was long gone. In his last interview, conducted just months before his murder, he expresses hope and excitement for the future:
INTERVIEWER: "What is the Eighties' dream to you, John?"
LENNON: "Well, you make your own dream. That's the Beatles' story, isn't it? That's Yoko's story. That's what I'm saying now. Produce your own dream. If you want to save Peru, go save Peru. It's quite possible to do anything, but not to put it on the leaders and the parking meters. Don't expect Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan or John Lennon or Yoko Ono or Bob Dylan or Jesus Christ to come and do it for you. You have to do it yourself. That's what the great masters and mistresses have been saying ever since time began. They can point the way, leave signposts and little instructions in various books that are now called holy and worshiped for the cover of the book and not for what it says, but the instructions are all there for all to see, have always been and always will be. There's nothing new under the sun. All the roads lead to Rome. And people cannot provide it for you. I can't wake you up. You can wake you up. I can't cure you. You can cure you."
INTERVIEWER: "What is it that keeps people from accepting that message?"
LENNON: "It's fear of the unknown. The unknown is what it is. And to be frightened of it is what sends everybody scurrying around chasing dreams, illusions, wars, peace, love, hate, all that...it's all illusion. Unknown is what what it is. Accept that it's unknown and it's plain sailing. Everything is unknown... then you're ahead of the game. That's what it is. Right?"
So much of John Lennon's work resembles that of Lewis Carroll that you might just think the Beatles legend was capable of channeling the deceased writer.
Lewis Carroll, born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, became famous for his experimental writing in the 1800s. Carroll's Through the Looking Glass and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland are two of the most famous pieces of children's literature written to date. His personal life was shrouded in myth and mystery. Some theorized that he was a pedophile because of his obsession with little girls, but others dispute this evidence. Many people see Carroll's literature as being heavily influenced by drugs, like opium, but Lennon's biographer states that his profound visions came from "stimulants no stronger than weak China tea and cucumber sandwiches" (source).
Carroll was also famous for his absurd wordplay and use of portmanteaus. A portmanteau is a blend of two words to make a new word; some of the most common ones that we use today are "smog" (from smoke + fog), "blog" (from web + log), and "infomercial" (from information + commercial). Carroll also invented tons of new words in his poems. Take his famous poem "Jabberwocky," for example:
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
As you can see, even though the words are absurd, they somehow make a kind of sense. Just based on the sonic quality of the words and the similarities to real speech, it sounds to us like he's talking about the brilliant coves, the waves, and the creatures who live there. But honestly, these words can mean anything you want them to. They invite you to conjure up a variety of imaginative creatures.
Lennon's wordplay in "I Am the Walrus" clearly echoes Carroll's style (and "crabalocker fishwife" sounds a lot like "Jabberwocky" itself, we might add). A more direct influence on the song, Carroll's poem "The Walrus and the Carpenter," was recited to Alice by Tweedledee and Tweedledum. In the Disney movie version, it was put to song. The line, "see how they fly like pigs from a gun, see how they run," is a combination of two different ideas. In the poem, "The Walrus and the Carpenter," the Walrus at one point asks the oysters a number of nonsense questions:
"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings."
So, there's your flying pig imagery.
Meanwhile, the second half of the line comes from the old nursery rhyme "Three Blind Mice," which repeats "see how they run" over and over again. The entire song is laced in childhood imagery, with references to gross-out playground songs and pictures that can only be created in the imagination. As far as the rest of the lyrics go, Lennon's biographer puts it best:
John's own current lifestyle is there; too, drenched in the same contempt as everything else, from 'sitting in an English garden' to 'singing Hare Krishna' and even 'Lucy in the sky': no longer a riverbank goddess but an inciter of urban mayhem. The forces of censorship are challenged with 'stupid bloody Tuesday,' 'pornographic priestess,' and (God save us) 'you let your knickers down.' The 'expert texperts,' agog for hidden meaning, get 'sitting on a cornflake,' 'corporation t-shirts,' 'crabalocker fishwife,' 'elementary penguin,' and 'semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower,' with a recurrent lapse into pure baby-talk ('goo goo g'joob') lest they be in any doubt that 'the joker laughs at you.' Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the other insistent refrain through this aria of fury and derision is 'I'm crying.' (Source)
Like Lewis Carroll, John Lennon understood the power of words, even nonsense words, to profoundly affect people. Just one word can change the whole course of a person's life. Interestingly, when Alice meets Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass, their conversation goes:
When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean different things."
Lennon's lyrics may not always make literal sense, but this song still manages to communicate to its listeners on their own terms. It's a hodge-podge of images, scenes, moods, characters, and colors, which come together to form its unique personality.