I Am the Walrus” is a 1967 song by the Beatles, written by John Lennon and credited to Lennon–McCartney. The song was featured in the Beatles’ 1967 television film, as a track on the associated double EP Magical Mystery Tour and its American counterpart LP, and was the b-side to the number 1 hit single “Hello, Goodbye.” Since the single and the double EP held at one time in December 1967 the top two slots on the British singles chart, the song had the distinction of being at number 1 and number 2 simultaneously.
Lennon received a letter from a pupil at Quarry Bank High School, which he had attended. The writer mentioned that the English master was making his class analyse Beatles’ lyrics (Lennon wrote an answer, dated 1 September 1967, which was auctioned by Christie’s of London in 1992). Lennon, amused that a teacher was putting so much effort into understanding the Beatles’ lyrics, wrote the most confusing lyrics he could.
The genesis of the lyrics is found in three song ideas that Lennon was working on, the first of which was inspired by hearing a police siren at his home in Weybridge; Lennon wrote the lines “Mis-ter cit-y police-man” to the rhythm and melody of the siren. The second idea was a short rhyme about Lennon sitting in his garden, while the third was a nonsense lyric about sitting on a corn flake. Unable to finish the ideas as three different songs, he eventually combined them into one.
The walrus is a reference to the walrus in Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter” (from the book Through the Looking-Glass). Lennon later expressed dismay upon belatedly realising that the walrus was a villain in the poem.
The final catalyst of the song occurred when Lennon’s friend and former fellow member of The Quarrymen, Peter Shotton, visited and Lennon asked Shotton about a playground nursery rhyme they sang as children. Shotton remembered:
“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 borrowed a couple of words, added the three unfinished ideas and the result was “I Am the Walrus”. The Beatles’ official biographer Hunter Davies was present while the song was being written and wrote an account in his 1968 biography of the Beatles. Lennon remarked to Shotton, “Let the fuckers work that one out.” Shotton was also responsible for suggesting to Lennon to change the lyric “waiting for the man to come” to “waiting for the van to come”.
Lennon claimed he wrote the first two lines on separate acid trips; he explained much of the song to Playboy in 1980:
“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… I’d seen Allen Ginsberg and some other people who liked Dylan and Jesus going on about Hare Krishna. It was Ginsberg, in particular, I was referring to. The words ‘Element’ry penguin’ meant that it’s naïve to just go around chanting Hare Krishna or putting all your faith in one idol. In those days I was writing obscurely, à la Dylan.”
“It never dawned on me that Lewis Carroll was commenting on the capitalist 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, shit, I picked the wrong guy. I should have said, ‘I am the carpenter.’ But that wouldn’t have been the same, would it? [Sings, laughing] ‘I am the carpenter….'”