On 5 September 1967, the Beatles went into the studio to record ‘I Am The Walrus’.
I don’t want to try to tie it down to meaning This and nothing else. Instead I want to suggest things that it could be ‘getting at’, as it were.
I am he
As you are he
As you are me
And we are all together
Who’s ‘he’? What’s the tone, here? Is this a parody of hippy mumbo-jumbo? Maybe, but it could also be Lennon asserting what it says on the face of it: We’re all (in this) together. If so, it’s the last time in this song that he’ll be so accommodating.
See how they run
Like pigs from a gun
See how they fly
‘See how they run’ is of course from the nursery rhyme ‘Three blind mice’. ‘Pigs’ used to be slang for ‘police’, and perhaps it is here. ‘See how they fly’—an image of people escaping, maybe? Escaping what? Or who?
‘I’m crying’ recurs again and again. The singer is not happy.
Sitting on a cornflake
Waiting for the van to come
Images here of ordinary life: cornflakes, a van, suburban stuff. The Beatles had toured in a van in their early years. The Epstein’s family’s furniture business had also involved vans.
Corporation tee shirt
Stupid bloody Tuesday
Man, you been a naughty boy
You let your face grow long
The ‘corporation’ in this context refers, I think, to municipal corporations that are part of local government. Liverpool City Council is the one for Lennon’s home town, but from 1835 to 1974 it was referred to as the Corporation of Liverpool. Here it’s standing in for the establishment: officialdom.
‘Man, you been a naughty boy / You let your face grow long’: what’s with the long face? Turn that frown upside down!
I am the eggman (Ooh)
They are the eggmen, (Ooh)
I am the walrus
Goo goo g’ joob
The ‘eggman’ is widely understood to be a reference to Eric Burdon of the Animals, who had a reputation for breaking eggs on the bodies of groupies. The ‘walrus’ is the Walrus from Lewis Carroll’s poem ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’; Lennon was under the mistaken impression that the Walrus in the poem was the ‘good guy’.
‘Goo goo g’joob’: sometimes words run out and you have to resort to baby talk.
Edit: A comment by Edward Sisson reminds me that Lennon read and was greatly impressed at least part of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and the Eggman may also be a reference to the nursery rhyme character Humpty Dumpty, who appears both in Lewis Carroll’s work and in the Wake itself, a book whose punning approach to wordplay struck Lennon as being very like his own.
Joyce is on the cover of Sgt Pepper, barely visible, the top of his head lurking behind T.E. Lawrence, below Bob Dylan, top right.
Mister city p’liceman sitting pretty
Little p’licemen in a row
Rows of policemen used to be the only thing standing between the Beatles and crowds of screaming fans:
(Beatle fans outside Buckingham Palace, the day the band got their MBEs.)
But in early 1967, the police had been targeting rock stars like the Rolling Stones and, to a lesser extent, the Beatles, and busting them for illegal drug use. This did not make the police popular with musicians. Already, they were increasingly associated with The Man: they were the hated authorities, always out to get ya.
See how they fly
Like Lucy in the sky
See how they run
An allusion to his own song ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, and I think there’s a bit of wish-fulfilment here, as Lennon imagines the ‘p’licemen’ running (for cover?)
I’m crying, I’m crying, I’m crying
He’s not happy at all.
Yellow matter custard
Dripping from a dead dog’s eye
This is an allusion to an old kids’ rhyme that was one of the things that inspired Lennon to write the song: Yellow matter custard, snot and bogey pie, dead dog’s giblets, green cat’s eye. Spread it on bread, spread it on thick and wash it all down with a cup of cold sick. US readers may not be aware that matter here means pus, and sick means vomit.
That’s the version I learned as a kid, anyway, before I ever heard this song. The singer is revelling in disgust.
Crabalocker fishwife pornographic priestess
Boy you been a naughty girl
You let your knickers down
‘Crabalocker’ is one of Lennon’s own coinages, and it’s mixed up here with the image of the ‘fishwife’, a woman who sells fish, traditionally thought of as loud-mouthed and coarse, and ‘pornographic priestess’, which suggests sexual obsession. The next two lines, with their sexual ambiguity, are I’m sure written with Epstein in mind.
Crabalocker has ‘crab’ in it, meaning the shellfish, but also ‘crabby’ as in bad-tempered, and the ghosts of ‘block’ and ‘locker’: crabalocker fishwife next to pornographic priestess are two very different images of femininity up against each other.
Sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun
If the sun don’t come you get a tan from standing in the English rain
Lennon loved gardens, English ones in particular; he once talked about how he needed the feeling of grass under his feet. Unlike Harrison he wasn’t an actual gardener, but I think in its sour way, this is an ironic little idyll, a break from the ranting—as well as Lennon actively trolling us, which is one of the things he’s doing in this song, making up weird-sounding shit just to taunt us.
Expert texpert choking smokers
Don’t you think the joker laughs at you?
‘Expert texpert’ suggests to me all those official dudes with their reports and commissions and statistics, choking on smoke as they sit in rooms making decisions about people, back in a time when everybody smoked in public. Don’t you think the joker laughs at you?: You all laugh at us, you old farts, but we’ll have the last laugh.
See how they smile
Like pigs in a sty, see how they snied
It’s not so much about the meaning, here. more about the contempt dripping from the lines: ‘snied’ isn’t even a word, although ‘snide’ means ‘mocking in an indirect way’. Lennon was always obsessed with being looked down on, and here I think his grief about Epstein (even more of an outsider on account of his sexuality) is all mixed up with his hatred of being condescended to.
Climbing up the Eiffel Tower
We’re getting into pure nonsense poetry here, but semolina (cooked with milk into a kind of gruel) and pilchards (tinned fish) were part of the everyday British diet in the mid-20th century.
Element’ry penguin singing Hare Krishna
‘Penguin’ used to be a mocking term for nuns, on account of their outdoor clothing: I think maybe Lennon’s having another anti-Establishment dig at the church and religion and education.
Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe
Poe is on the cover of Sgt Pepper. Another tormented outsider figure.
‘I Am The Walrus’ is, I think, Lennon pouring out his anger about, well, stuff generally, and his grief about Epstein in particular, and making a point of not trying to carve it into coherent sense. It’s a giant, splenetic Fuck you, not just to the authorities and the cops and the government and the patriarchy, but to rational meaning as well. (I owe this insight to the commentary on the song by the late Ian MacDonald.)
All of this is underlined and made more complex by Martin’s brilliant string arrangement in the outro, with the chords endlessly descending while the top line endlessly ascends, and the inclusion of random scraps of a BBC broadcast of Shakespeare’s King Lear, of which only odd, serendipitous lines are audible: ‘O, untimely Death’, ‘A serviceable villain,’ ‘What, is he dead?’, ‘Sit you down, father, rest you.’ The ultimate symbol of official British culture is enlisted to take part in an attack on that culture.
The final touch is that Lennon sang so loudly, and so close to the mic, that his entire vocal track repeatedly goes into peak distortion.
‘I Am The Walrus’ may be part nonsense, but make no mistake: it’s one of the angriest songs they ever recorded.
Hopeless Beatles Junkies … read on
As other answers have suggested, the words have a good deal to do with it. I discussed them in some depth in Alex Johnston’s answer to What is the meaning of the Beatles’ song “I Am The Walrus”? The short version is that ‘I Am The Walrus’ was deliberately written to be a kind of insult to the idea that a song has to make literal sense: it’s Lennon deliberately revelling in his ability to create nonsense phrases, but doing so not out of sheer fun. There’s an aggressive edge to the nonsense of ‘I Am The Walrus’, which is enhanced by Lennon singing it so close to the mic that he overdrives it, causing his voice to be slightly distorted.
But I think the real reason why ‘I Am The Walrus’ makes people feel slightly queasy is not so much the verbal content, but the musical. Words work on people’s brains, but music works on their nervous systems.
It would be wrong to say that ‘I Am The Walrus’ breaks all the rules of songwriting, or whatever, because it doesn’t: it’s divided into discrete sections, as other songs are, and it doesn’t do anything with harmony and melody that, like, bends the fabric of Western musical reality, or anything. But it’s nevertheless unorthodox, and in Alex Johnston’s answer to What would a musical analysis of The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” look like?, I described its harmonic structure in such a way as to show how it’s unorthodox.
Based on that answer (which I refer you to if you want more detail), there are three features of the song that I would seize on which, in my view, account for its creepiness.
One is the fact that the whole song is played in major chords, or dominant major chords.
The ‘laws’ of chord progressions are not fixed and immutable, but are predicated on the kind of effect you want to get. The normal logic of chord progressions dictates that when you move from one chord to another, assuming that you don’t want the listener to feel that the change is jarring or disorienting, then you have to change the kind of chord that you’re using—so, for example, a chord progression that goes from the tonic chord to the one two steps below and then to the one two steps below that, would be assumed to be in a minor key, because the notes I-VIIb-Vib are the last three notes of the descending melodic minor scale. So, the conventional way to write those changes in, say, B, would be Bmin-Amaj-Gmaj. Bob Dylan actually wrote ‘All Along the Watchtower’ on similar changes. Even now, someone playing those changes (Bmin-Amaj-Gmaj-Amaj-Bmin) would evoke the minor key, folk-ballad mood of that song.
Well, John Lennon did want the listener to feel that the change was jarring or disorienting. So, the opening progression of ‘Walrus’ is Bmaj-Amaj-Gmaj-Fmaj-Emaj.
This automatically sounds weird, because after going down to G, our ear has been trained by previous music to expect the chords to go to F sharp, the dominant V chord in the key of B. But instead, Lennon bypasses it and goes to the F natural key, which is a tritone away from where he began. The tritone is the most dissonant of all intervals. Well, apart from the half-step (semitone). This is the kind of detail that the average busker singing this song would miss.
Not only is ‘Walrus’ written only in major or dominant chords, it’s also written using only the chords that have root notes in the C major scale. There are no flats or sharps. Whether this was a conscious decision on Lennon’s part is hard to say, but it accounts for the second really creepy effect in the song: the highly disorienting change on the line ‘Corporation t shirt, stupid bloody Tuesday / Man you’ve been a naughty boy [etc.]’: the underlying chord here goes from F major to B major, a tritone away, but Lennon keeps singing the same two notes on top, so the meaning of the notes he’s singing changes as the harmony changes beneath them—to be specific, the notes are B and A, but with F underneath, those notes are a major third and a very dissonant flattened fifth, while with B underneath those same notes are the tonic and the much less dissonant diminished seventh. We get this change again on the lines ‘Crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess / Boy you’ve been a naughty girl [etc.]’.
The last creepy feature of the song is the ‘coda’, the final section where Lennon has stopped singing the lyrics and is making huffing and grunting noises, and someone’s spinning a radio dial which is broadcasting a performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear. The music here is doing something very cool.
The chord progression is endlessly descending: Amaj-Gmaj-Fmaj-Emaj-Dmaj-Cmaj-Bmaj-Amaj, over and over again. However, George Martin’s string arrangement features a line that’s endlessly ascending: A-B-C-D-E-F#-G-A, over and over again.
The subtle thing here is that the ascending melody does not quite map onto the descending chords. The difference between them is the Fmaj in the progression and the F sharp in the melody, and the fact that we feel that one element of the music is getting lower and lower while another goes higher and higher has a sort of screw-tightening effect on our nervous systems: the tension builds and builds but there’s no hint that it will ever break, or that it can ever break.
All in all, it’s one of Lennon’s most inspired songs, from a musical point of view. He set out to spook the listener, and he succeeded triumphantly. Hopefully this answer has explained some of why the song creeps you out so much.