This November marks the 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus.” Written primarily by John for the TV movie Magical Mystery Tour, “I Am The Walrus” features a cryptic Lennon lyric with a bizarre chorus, an innovative arrangement from producer George Martin,studio trickery from engineers Geoff Emerick and Ken Scott, and an excerpt from Shakespeare’s King Lear. All of this adds up to create The Beatles’ psychedelic masterpiece. Here are ten things about “I Am The Walrus”:
John wrote the bulk of the song during several LSD trips. During one trip, he heard the two-note pattern of a police siren passing by. The sound morphed into the opening notes of “I Am The Walrus.” They are even mimicked in the two note motif in the verse (“Mis-ter ci-ty p’lice-man…”).
“He has too many of the wrong ambitions and his energy is too often misplaced.” That was a description of John Lennon written by the headmaster of Quarry Bank High School in 1956. Just ten years later, a student at Quarry Bank wrote Lennon to tell him that they were analyzing Beatles lyrics in class. Lennon decided to give the students (along with music critics) something a little more difficult to analyze. So, he turned an old playground nursery rhyme that he sang as a child (“yellow matter custard/green slop pie/all mixed together with a dead dog’s eye”) into the line “yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye.”
The title of the song was based on the poem “The Walrus and The Carpenter” by one of Lennon’s favorite authors, Lewis Carroll. It wasn’t until later that John realized that the walrus was the bad guy in the poem! There is no “egg man” in the poem, although Humpty Dumpty does make an appearance in Through the Looking Glass. Surprisingly, Eric Burdon, lead singer of The Animals, stepped forward to claim that he was the egg man referenced by Lennon. Burdon was known as “Eggs” to his friends, due to his strange fetish of breaking eggs over naked women.
John, one of rock’s best vocalists, was always frustrated by the sound of his voice. For “I Am The Walrus,” he asked engineer Geoff Emerick to make his voice sound like it was coming from the moon. As always, Emerick turned John’s strange request into the perfect effect. Emerick had John record his vocals using a low-fidelity talkback microphone (typically used by an engineer in the control room to “talk back” to musicians in the recording studio). This helped create one of rock music’s first distorted lead vocals.
The recording of “I Am The Walrus” was incredibly complex, ultimately taking 25 takes to complete. When Lennon first performed “I Am The Walrus” for George Martin, he asked Martin for the producer’s opinion. “Well, John, to be honest, I have only one question,” Martin said. “What the hell do you expect me to do with that?!?” Luckily, the always inventive Martin came up with an innovative orchestral arrangement that fit the song perfectly. It features eight violins and four cellos, three French horns, and a contrabass clarinet — a rare member of the clarinet family that was a favorite of Frank Zappa. In fact, Zappa loved “I Am The Walrus,” and played it often in his concerts.
George Martin’s arrangement didn’t stop with the orchestral instruments. He clearly felt that John’s song needed something more.
So, he hired the Mike Sammes singers, known for their work on Disney films and TV themes. Rather than create a standard vocal arrangement, Martin took advantage of the singers’ excellent score reading skills and created a sprechgesang arrangement. Sprechgesang, which means “spoken singing”, is a vocal technique halfway between singing and speaking. In his score to “I Am The Walrus,” Martin had the Mike Sammes singers make whooping sounds, laugh, snort, and shout phrases like “Oompah, oompah, stick it up your jumper!” Nothing like this had ever been heard on a popular music recording.
At the end of the very complicated mixing sessions for “I Am The Walrus”, John had an idea: mixing a live radio broadcast into the recording. It took some engineering work from Geoff Emerick (plus some paperwork to get permission from his bosses at EMI) to patch an AM radio into the console. During the mix, Ringo manned the radio while John instructed him when to turn the knobs. Coincidentally, Ringo stumbled on the BBC production of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Lear. The broadcast was at the point of Act IV, Scene VI, where the steward “Oswald” is killed.