In the studio
The Beatles began recording I Am The Walrus on 5 September 1967, just nine days after the death of Brian Epstein. Sixteen takes were recorded on that first day, just five of them complete. At this point it was bass, lead guitar, electric piano and drums, with an overdubbed Mellotron.
This version, without the various orchestral overdubs that came later, can be heard on the Anthology 2 collection. The sparseness of the recording serves to highlight the magic and mastery of George Martin‘s orchestration.
I Am The Walrus was then left until 27 September, when the orchestral and choral overdubs were recorded. George Martin conducted the 16-piece orchestra in an afternoon session in Abbey Road’s Studio One, and in the evening the Mike Sammes Singers were brought in to Studio Two.
John worked with George Martin on the orchestration and did some very exciting things with the Mike Sammes Singers… Most of the time they got asked to do Sing Something Simple and all the old songs, but John got them doing all sorts of swoops and phonetic noises. It was a fascinating session. That was John’s baby, great one, a really good one.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
The singers, eight female, eight male, were seasoned session performers. George Martin’s rather unorthodox score consisted of a series of whoops, “ho ho ho, he he he, ha ha ha”, “Oompah, oompah, stick it up your jumper” and “Got one, got one, everybody’s got one”.
The idea of using voices was a good one. We got in the Mike Sammes Singers, very commercial people and so alien to John that it wasn’t true. But in the score I simply orchestrated the laughs and noises, the whooooooah kind of thing. John was delighted with it.
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn
Lennon spoke about the choir in his 1980 interview for Playboy magazine.
I had this whole choir saying ‘Everybody’s got one, everybody’s got one.’ But when you get thirty people, male and female, on top of thirty cellos and on top of the Beatles’ rock ‘n’ roll rhythm section, you can’t hear what they’re saying.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
On 29 September the final overdub took place, and it was a memorable one. By this point they were at the remix stage, with 17 mono mixes being made during the session. Only two were complete, and the final master copy was an edit of the two.
The first part of the song came from mix 10, and lasted up until the end of the second chorus. From then it was joined to mix 22, which incorporated a live radio feed from the BBC Third Programme, the day before it became Radio 3.
That night a broadcast of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy Of King Lear was broadcast, and Lennon’s radio happened to settle on Act IV, Scene VI featuring Gloucester, Edgar and Oswald, played by Mark Dignam, Philip Guard and John Bryning respectively.
We did about half a dozen mixes and I just used whatever was coming through at that time. I never knew it was King Lear until, years later, somebody told me – because I could hardly make out what he was saying. It was interesting to mix the whole thing with a live radio coming through it., So that’s the secret of that one.
The noise of the detuned radio appears before the line “Sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun”. A snippet from King Lear can be heard in the chorus immediately before the “Expert texpert choking smokers” line, with an exchange between Gloucester and Edgar:
Lennon: I am the eggman
Gloucester: Now, good sir, what are you?
Lennon: They are the eggmen
Edgar: A most poor man, made tame to fortune’s blows
Lennon: I am the Walrus
The King Lear performance reappears more prominently towards the song’s end, as the strings reach their climax and amid the choir’s chant of “Everybody’s got one”. The radio dial once more flits between channels, and in the song’s final minute a longer passage was used.
Oswald: Slave, thou hast slain me. Villain, take my purse.
If ever thou wilt thrive, bury my body;
And give the letters which thou find’st about me
To Edmund Earl of Gloucester; seek him out
Upon the English party: O! untimely death. [Dies.]
Edgar: I know thee well: a serviceable villain;
As duteous to the vices of thy mistress
As badness would desire.
Gloucester: What! is he dead?
Edgar: Sit you down, father; rest you.