The Story Behind John Lennon’s Walrus

In 1967, the Beatles — already superstars — decided to branch out a bit. Instead of the typical album, they created a made-for-TV movie called the “Magical Mystery Tour,” a 52-minute fictional adventure. The story follows a group of people (including the Fab Four) on a bus ride to, well, they don’t know where yet, hence the “mystery tour.” The movie’s plot wasn’t all that well developed but the music was; throughout the film, the Beatles break out of character and instead start singing. While the film itself was forgettable, the music has become another credit in the band’s incredible discography.

And one song, in particular, is also John Lennon’s way of messing with his former high school.

Lennon attended Quarry Bank High School — now Calderstones School — in the suburbs of Liverpool. He wasn’t a great student — per Wikipedia, his school reports summarized him as “certainly on the road to failure … hopeless … rather a clown in class … wasting other pupils’ time.” He graduated in 1957, and ten years later, he’d prove that report right — well, the “clown” part, that is.

Back to 1967. Lennon began writing some of the songs for the Magical Mystery Tour late that summer, and on September 5th the quartet recorded the song “I Am The Walrus,” written primarily by Lennon. (Paul McCartney is credited as well, but probably did little work on it.) If you’re not familiar with the song, it’s weird. Really weird. It makes references to “sitting on a cornflake,” a “crabalocker fishwife,” and something called a “semolina pilchard.” In the chorus of the song, Lennon (who also sang lead vocals) repeats “I am the egg man, they are the egg man” and then “I am the walrus” followed by “goo goo ga joob.” To the casual listener, it sounds like nonsense. But since the song came out, fans have been trying to decipher the lyrics in hopes of uncovering Lennon’s true message.

It turns out, there probably isn’t one to find. Some sections are glib references to something Lennon had on his mind while writing it. The verse “elementary penguin singing Hare Krishna,” for example, is a coded insult toward beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg — Lennon told interviewer David Sheff that “I’d seen Allen Ginsberg and some other people who liked Dylan and Jesus go on about Hare Krishna. It was Ginsberg, in particular, I was referring to. The words ‘Elementary penguin’ meant that it’s naive to just go around chanting Hare Krishna or putting all your faith in one idol.” And the Walrus is an homage to a poem in Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carrol.

But by and large, the song is jibberish. About ten years after I Am The Walrus came out, Lennon explained in an interview:

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.

Why bother to write a song filled with nonsense lyrics? That’s where his high school comes in.

Lennon’s inspiration, per Mental Floss, was a fellow Quarry Bank High School student — one who attended well after Lennon had graduated and had already become a household name. The unnamed student wrote to Lennon to share that his English teacher had assigned the Beatles’ lyrics to the class — the students were to analyze the songs. Lennon, amused, decided to make it harder for future classes by creating a song of absolute gobbledegook. “The whole purpose of the song, according to John,” reports Mental Floss, “was to confuse, befuddle, and mess with the Beatles experts” — and with some poor, unsuspecting high school teacher.

Bonus fact: How bad was the Magical Mystery Tour film? When it debuted on the BBC in December of that year, it was met with such disapproval that Paul McCartney apologized for the quality, and despite the band’s popularity in the United States, none of the broadcasters wanted to air it.

From the Archives: Putting It All Together Again: Is Humpty Dumpty the Eggman? Are you sure?