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.

10 Surprising Facts About Wham!’s 'Last Christmas'

Michael Putland/Getty Images
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Over the course of his illustrious career, George Michael gave the world many gifts. One that keeps on giving is “Last Christmas,” the 1984 holiday classic by Wham!, Michael's pop duo with Andrew Ridgeley. “Last Christmas” is such a uniquely beloved song that it inspired a 2019 film of the same name. That’s just one interesting part of the “Last Christmas” story. Read on for 10 fascinating facts about this seasonal synth-pop favorite.

1. George Michael wrote "Last Christmas" in his childhood bedroom.

“Last Christmas” was born one day in 1984 when George Michael and Wham! bandmate Andrew Ridgeley were visiting Michael’s parents. While they were sitting around watching TV, Michael suddenly dashed upstairs to his childhood bedroom and composed the modern Xmas classic in about an hour. “George had performed musical alchemy, distilling the essence of Christmas into music,” Ridgeley said. “Adding a lyric which told the tale of betrayed love was a masterstroke and, as he did so often, he touched hearts."

2. “Last Christmas” isn’t really a Christmas song.

There’s nothing in “Last Christmas” about Santa, reindeer, trees, snow, or anything we typically associate with the holiday. Rather, the song is about a failed romance that just happens to have begun on December 25, when Michael gave someone his heart, and ended on December 26, when this ungrateful person “gave it away.”

3. George Michael wrote and produced the song—but that’s not all.

Singers George Michael (left) and Andrew Ridgeley, of the band 'Wham!', performing on stage, July 1986
Dave Hogan/Getty Images

By the time Wham! recorded “Last Christmas” in August (yes, August) 1984, Michael had taken full control of the group. In addition to writing and producing the song, Michael insisted on playing the Roland Juno-60 synth in the studio. “George wasn’t a musician,” engineer Chris Porter said. “It was a laborious process, because he was literally playing the keyboards with two or three fingers.” Michael even jangled those sweet sleigh bells himself.

4. “Last Christmas” didn’t reach #1 on the UK charts.

As the movie Love Actually reminds us, scoring a Christmas #1 in the UK is a really big deal. Unfortunately, “Last Christmas” didn’t give Wham! that honor. It stalled at #2, and to this day it has the distinction of being the highest-selling UK single of all time to not reach #1.

5. George Michael sang on the song that kept “Last Christmas” at #2.

“Last Christmas” was bested on the UK charts by Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” an all-star charity single benefiting Ethiopian famine relief. Michael sang on “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” and was so committed to the cause that he donated his profits from “Last Christmas” to helping the African nation.

6. George Michael was sued for plagiarism over “Last Christmas.”

In the mid-1980s, the publishing company Dick James Music sued George Michael on behalf of the writers of “Can’t Smile Without You,” a schmaltzy love song recorded by The Carpenters and Barry Manilow, among others. According to Chris Porter, the recording engineer on “Last Christmas,” the suit was dismissed after a musicologist presented 60-plus songs that have a similar chord progression and melody.

7. "Last Christmas" has been covered by a lot of other artists.

Andrew Ridgeley (right) and George Michael (1963-2016) of Wham! performing on stage together in Sydney, Australia during the pop duo's 1985 world tour, January 1985.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Jimmy Eat World, Hilary Duff, Good Charlotte, Ariana Grande, Carly Rae Jepsen, Gwen Stefani, and Taylor Swift are just a few of the artists who’ve covered “Last Christmas” over the years. The strangest rendition may be the 2006 dance version by the Swedish CGI character Crazy Frog, which reached #16 on the UK charts.

8. Some people make a concerted effort to avoid hearing “Last Christmas.”

While millions of people delight in hearing “Last Christmas” every year, an internet game called Whamageddon encourages players to avoid the song from December 1 to 24. The rules are simple: Once you hear the original Wham! version of “Last Christmas” (remixes and covers don’t count), you’re out. You then admit defeat on social media with the hashtag #Whamageddon and wait for your friends to suffer the same fate. Note: The rules prohibit you from “deliberately sending your friends to Whamhalla.”

9. “Last Christmas” finally charted in America following George Michael’s death in 2016.

Back in 1984, “Last Christmas” wasn’t released as a commercial single in the United States, and therefore it wasn’t eligible for the Billboard Hot 100 chart. However, Billboard changed its rules in 1998, and in the wake of George Michael’s unexpected death on Christmas Day 2016, the song finally made its Hot 100 debut. In December 2018, it reentered the charts and peaked at #25.

10. George Michael was involved in the Last Christmas movie.

November 2019 saw the release of Paul Feig's Last Christmas, a romantic comedy inspired by the song starring Game of Thrones's Emilia Clarke. Producer David Livingstone came up with the idea while George Michael was still alive, and when he pitched the pop star on the project, he was given the greenlight—with one condition: Michael stipulated that actress and author Emma Thompson write the movie. Thompson co-authored the story and the screenplay, and she even wound up playing a supporting role.

The Many Lives of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"

Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

In the late 1970s, Leonard Cohen sat down to write a song about god, sex, love, and other mysteries of human existence that bring us to our knees for one reason or another. The legendary singer-songwriter, who was in his early forties at the time, knew how to write a hit: He had penned "Suzanne," "Bird on the Wire," "Lover, Lover, Lover," and dozens of other songs for both himself and other popular artists of the time. But from the very beginning, there was something different about what would become "Hallelujah"—a song that took five years and an estimated 80 drafts for Cohen to complete.

In the 35 years since it was originally released, "Hallelujah" has been covered by more than 300 other artists in virtually every genre. Willie Nelson, k.d. lang, Justin Timberlake, Bono, Brandi Carlile, Bon Jovi, Susan Boyle, Pentatonix, and Alexandra Burke—the 2008 winner of the UK version of The X Factor—are just a few of the individuals who have attempted to put their own stamp on the song. After Burke’s soulful version was downloaded 105,000 times in its first day, setting a new European record, “Hallelujah” soon became a staple of TV singing shows.

It's an impressive feat by any standard, but even more so when you consider that "Hallelujah"—one of the most critically acclaimed and frequently covered songs of the modern era—was originally stuck on side two of 1984’s Various Positions, an album that Cohen’s American record label deemed unfit for release.

“Leonard, we know you’re great,” Cohen recalled CBS Records boss Walter Yetnikoff telling him, “but we don’t know if you’re any good.”

 

Yetnikoff wasn’t totally off-base. With its synth-heavy ’80s production, Cohen’s version of “Hallelujah” doesn’t announce itself as the chill-inducing secular hymn it’s now understood to be. (Various Positions was finally released in America on the indie label Passport in 1985.) Part of why it took Cohen five years to write the song was that he couldn’t decide how much of the Old Testament stuff to include.

“It had references to the Bible in it, although these references became more and more remote as the song went from the beginning to the end,” Cohen said. “Finally I understood that it was not necessary to refer to the Bible anymore. And I rewrote this song; this is the ‘secular’ ‘Hallelujah.’”

The first two verses introduce King David—the skilled harp player and great uniter of Israel—and the Nazarite strongman Samson. In the scriptures, both David and Samson are adulterous poets whose ill-advised romances (with Bathsheba and Delilah, respectively) lead to some big problems.

In the third verse of his 1984 studio version, Cohen grapples with the question of spirituality. When he’s accused of taking the Lord’s name in vain, Cohen responds, hilariously, “What’s it to ya?” He insists there’s “a blaze of light in every word”—every perception of the divine, perhaps—and declares there to be no difference between “the holy or the broken Hallelujah.” Both have value.

“I wanted to push the Hallelujah deep into the secular world, into the ordinary world,” Cohen once said. “The Hallelujah, the David’s Hallelujah, was still a religious song. So I wanted to indicate that Hallelujah can come out of things that have nothing to do with religion.”

 

Amazingly, Cohen's original "Hallelujah" pales in comparison to Velvet Underground founder John Cale’s five-verse rendition for the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. Cale had seen Cohen perform the song live, and when he asked the Canadian singer-songwriter to fax over the lyrics, he received 15 pages. “I went through and just picked out the cheeky verses,” Cale said.

Cale’s pared down piano-and-vocals arrangement inspired Jeff Buckley to record what is arguably the definitive “Hallelujah,” a haunting, seductive performance found on the late singer-songwriter’s one and only studio album, 1994’s Grace. Buckley’s death in 1997 only heightened the power of his recording, and within a few years, “Hallelujah” was everywhere. Cale’s version turned up in the 2001 animated film Shrek, and the soundtrack features an equally gorgeous version by Rufus Wainwright.

In 2009, after the song appeared in Zack Snyder's Watchmen, Cohen agreed with a critic who called for a moratorium on covers. “I think it’s a good song,” Cohen told The Guardian. “But too many people sing it.”

Except “Hallelujah” is a song that urges everyone to sing. That’s kind of the point. The title is from a compound Hebrew word comprising hallelu, to praise joyously, and yah, the name of god. As writer Alan Light explains in his 2013 book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah,” the word hallelujah was originally an imperative—a command to praise the Lord. In the Christian tradition, it’s less an imperative than an expression of joy: “Hallelujah!” Cohen seemingly plays on both meanings.

 

Cohen’s 1984 recording ends with a verse that begins, “I did my best / It wasn’t much.” It’s the humble shrug of a mortal man and the sly admission of an ambitious songwriter trying to capture the essence of humanity in a pop song. By the final lines, Cohen concedes “it all went wrong,” but promises to have nothing but gratitude and joy for everything he has experienced.

Putting aside all the biblical allusions and poetic language, “Hallelujah” is a pretty simple song about loving life despite—or because of—its harshness and disappointments. That message is even clearer in Cale’s five-verse rendition, the guidepost for all subsequent covers, which features the line, “Love is not a victory march.” Cale also adds in Cohen’s verse about sex, and how every breath can be a Hallelujah. Buckley, in particular, realized the carnal aspect of the song, calling his version “a Hallelujah to the orgasm.”

“Hallelujah” can be applied to virtually any situation. It’s great for weddings, funerals, TV talent shows, and cartoons about ogres. Although Cohen’s lyrics don’t exactly profess religious devotion, “Hallelujah” has become a popular Christmas song that’s sometimes rewritten with more pious lyrics. Agnostics and atheists can also find plenty to love about “Hallelujah.” It’s been covered more than 300 times because it’s a song for everyone.

When Cohen died on November 7, 2016, at the age of 82, renewed interest in “Hallelujah” vaulted Cohen's version of the song onto the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time. Despite its decades of pop culture ubiquity, it took more than 30 years and Cohen's passing for “Hallelujah”—the very essence of which is about finding beauty amid immense sadness and resolving to move forward—to officially become a hit song.

“There’s no solution to this mess,” Cohen once said, describing the human comedy at the heart of “Hallelujah. “The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say 'Look, I don't understand a f***ing thing at all—Hallelujah! That's the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.”

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