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.

15 Convenient Products That Are Perfect for Summer

First Colonial/Lunatec/Safe Touch
First Colonial/Lunatec/Safe Touch

The Fourth of July is the epitome of summer—and after several months spent indoors, you need some outdoor fun more than anything. Check out these 15 summer must-haves while they’re on sale and save an extra 15 percent when you spend $50 or more with the code JULYFOURTH15.

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Carsule tent from Mogics.
Mogics

This tent connects to your hatchback car like a tailgate mobile living room. The installation takes just a few minutes and the entire thing stands 6.5 feet tall so you can enjoy the outdoors from the comfort of your car.

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Mosquito-killing lamp.
Kinkoo

If you just so happen to be one of those unlucky souls who attracts a suspicious amount of mosquitos the second you step outside, you need this repellent lamp to help keep your arms and legs bite-free. It uses a non-toxic combination of LED lights, air turbulence, and other methods to keep the pests at bay.

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Mosquito repeller watch.
Safe Touch

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First Colonial cooler.
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Trident underwater scooter.
Geneinno

If you’ve ever dreamed of better mobility while exploring the water, you’re not alone. The Trident underwater scooter, which raised over $82,000 on Indiegogo, can propel you through the water at up to nearly 6 feet per second, which isn't that far off from how fast Michael Phelps swam in his prime. The battery on it will last 45 minutes, allowing you to traverse with ease.

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Headlamp from One80Light
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Bladeless fan
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18 Cool Facts About Beavis and Butt-head

MTV
MTV

On March 8, 1993, Beavis and Butt-head made its debut on MTV—to the delight of young viewers, and the annoyance of their parents. While some people considered it the end of the civilized world, TIME Magazine critic Kurt Andersen lauded its irreverence, writing that it “may be the bravest show ever run on national television.”

From its original 200-episode run to the books (yes, plural), movie, and soundtrack it inspired—plus its brief return in 2011—Beavis and Butt-head has not lost any of its original charm. With the recent announcement that the series is coming back for two new seasons on Comedy Central, here are some things you might not have known about Mike Judge's animated headbangers.

1. Beavis and Butt-head got their start on Liquid Television.

Mike Judge went from teaching himself animation and playing bass for Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets to having one of his cartoons played on MTV’s animation showcase program Liquid Television in one year’s time. Cartoon short Milton, the origin of the character from his live-action cult classic Office Space, appeared in a 1991 episode. In 1992, Beavis and Butt-head made their loud, violent first impression in his short Frog Baseball. MTV then paid Judge for the rights to the two characters and ordered 65 four-minute cartoons.

2. MTV pulled Beavis and Butt-head from the air shortly after it premiered.

Shortly after greenlighting Beavis and Butt-head, MTV had to halt production. Not because of any controversy, but because Judge and his animation staff couldn’t keep up with the demand for new material, forcing MTV to stop airing the show entirely two weeks after it premiered. It made its return more than six weeks later on May 17th with “Scientific Stuff” and “Good Credit.”

3. Mike Judge improvised most of the dialogue during the music videos.


Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Judge voiced virtually all of the characters on the show and was one of just a handful of people who made up the writing staff. He opted to add to his workload by winging it when it came to Beavis and Butt-head's taste-making opinions on music. Time was saved on the animation for the music video commentaries by having an editor take footage from earlier episodes and sync it up with new mouth positions.

4. Beavis and Butt-head were named after kids that lived in Mike Judge's neighborhood.

Bobby Beavis was “kind of an athletic kid” that lived three blocks from Judge while he was in college, and not similar to the character with the Metallica shirt christened with his surname. There was also a 12-year-old who called himself “Iron Butt” (because he claimed to never get injured from a kick to the posterior) who had a friend called “Butt-head.”

5. All references to fire were permanently removed from Beavis and Butt-head after the show was blamed for a child's death.

In October 1993, a 5-year-old boy set fire to his Ohio home, which killed his 2-year-old sister. Their mother claimed Beavis’s fire-making and blatant spoken love of arson were responsible. MTV’s quick response was to only air the show after 10:30 p.m. and to wipe all fire references from all of the previous episodes—only fans who taped the offending episodes on their VCRs have proof that the word was ever uttered. “Fire” was banned for the rest of the series’ original run, but it was allowed again in 2011.

6. A senator referred to Beavis and Butt-head as "Buffcoat and Beaver."

Soon after the fatal fire accident, Senator Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, a Democrat from South Carolina, spoke at a Senate hearing as chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Hollings attempted to argue that TV broadcasters needed to be forced to clamp down on their offensive programming and used the most controversial show at the time as a specific example ... or at least he tried to.

7. Prison officials in Oklahoma banned Beavis and Butt-head.

There were also documented reports of South Dakota schools outlawing Beavis and Butt-head-related clothing.

8. Marlon Brando was a Beavis and Butt-head fan.

According to Mike Judge, Johnny Depp told him that Depp and Marlon Brando would imitate Beavis and Butt-head, with Depp as Beavis and Brando as Butt-head. This occurred when the two worked together during 1994’s Don Juan DeMarco.

9. Matt Groening was a fan of Beavis and Butt-head, too.

The creator of The Simpsons claimed that he liked the show because it took “the heat off Bart Simpson being responsible for the downfall of western civilization.”

10. David Letterman was the voice of the Mötley Crüe roadie who might be Butt-head's father in Beavis and Butt-head Do America.

David Letterman was credited as Earl Hofert, which is actually the name of Letterman's uncle. Letterman was a fan of the show and had the Highland teens on The Late Show in 1996 to promote their movie.

11. Beavis almost said something too clever once.

In 1993, Judge told The New York Times that one of the big challenges of the show was to keep the two in character and, therefore, dumb. An original line had Beavis telling his classmates that they had “Beavis envy” because he received a school pass. It was cut because it almost made the 14-year-old with the underbite too smart. In 2011, Judge admitted to “cheating” and probably making them smarter than they are during the music video commentaries.

12. Daria was created with Janeane Garofalo and Darlene Connor in mind.

The character of Daria was created after then-MTV president Judy McGrath expressed concern about the show’s lack of smart or female characters. Garofalo and Sara Gilbert’s Roseanne character were the models for Daria Morgendorffer. Morgendorffer was the maiden name of the show writer David Felton's mother, and was deemed perfect for the new character.

13. It's Butt-head's house that you're usually seeing.


MTV

While it isn’t officially canon, Judge responded to a reporter’s assumption that the two were always at Butt-head’s abode by saying he “always imagined” that to be the case.

14. Beavis and Butt-head were featured on the cover of Rolling Stone—three times.

Their first appearance in 1993 ended up being the best-selling issue of the magazine that year.

15. Beavis and Butt-head starred in their own live-action Thanksgiving special with Kurt Loder.

The night before their (first) series finale, “Beavis and Butt-head Are Dead," MTV put Beavis and Butt-head in charge of broadcasting the Thanksgiving Day Parade, then later put them at a dinner table with the veteran MTV News broadcaster. The one-hour special only aired on television once.

16. Beavis and Butt-head ended due to creative burnout.

Toward the end of the show's original run, Judge was running on empty. "I actually wanted to stop a little sooner," Judge told the Los Angeles Times in 1997. "We've done over 200 episodes [since 1993]. After the second season, I thought, 'How are we gonna do this anymore?' I was completely burnt out. I got a second wind in season three, and again in season five. But I don't know, you do it as fast as you can, get it on the air as fast as you can, and there's never a break. I felt, like, why not retire before it gets too stale or whatever?"

17. Kanye West wanted to be on Beavis and Butt-head.

In contrast to the more innocent 1990s, Judge and his team had to get authorization from all of the parties involved in a music video to have it appear on Beavis and Butt-head when it returned in 2011. Kanye West wanted to have one of his videos featured on the show, but another credited songwriter on the undisclosed track declined immortality.

18. Beavis and Butt-head is coming back for today's generation.

In July 2020, The Hollywood Reporter announced that Beavis and Butt-head is coming back for two all-new seasons, this time to Comedy Central. Mike Judge will oversee the series yet again, but this time it will be geared toward a "whole new Gen Z world."

"We are thrilled to be working with Mike Judge and the great team at 3 Arts again as we double down on adult animation at Comedy Central," Chris McCarthy, president of ViacomCBS' entertainment and youth group, said. "Beavis and Butt-Head were a defining voice of a generation, and we can’t wait to watch as they navigate the treacherous waters of a world light-years from their own."

This story has been updated for 2020.