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.

John Lennon played a pianet electric piano, Paul McCartney played bass on the initial takes and later switched to tambourine, while George Harrison was on electric guitar and Ringo Starr played drums. Lennon also sang a guide vocal to help the band follow the song.

Take 16 featured tambourine on track one, electric guitar on track two, drums on three, and pianet on four. The following day a reduction mix was made, known as take 17, which combined all four parts on track one of the tape. McCartney and Starr then overdubbed bass guitar and snare drum onto track three, along with John Lennon’s vocals, snarled with such ferocity that the studio levels often peaked and distorted. Track two of take 17 was left empty, but would be put to use several days later.

A version with the basic backing track and Lennon’s lead vocals, but without the bass and snare overdubs or the various orchestral and vocal overdubs that came later, can be heard on Anthology 2. The sparseness of the recording serves to highlight the magic and mastery of George Martin’s orchestration.

‘I Am The Walrus’ then left until 27 September, when the orchestral and choral overdubs were recorded. 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.

The orchestral musicians were recorded simultaneously with a reduction mix, in Abbey Road’s Studio Two. It took seven attempts – numbered 18-24 – to complete, with take 20 being the best. The final four takes, however, were edit pieces not lasting the length of the song.

Take 20 featured pianet, electric guitar, drums and tambourine on track one; brass and contrabass clarinet on track two violins on track three, and cellos on track four. A reduction mix was then made, numbered take 25, which combined all the orchestral instruments onto track four, and The Beatles’ backing track on track one, with track two left empty. The Mike Sammes Singers then overdubbed their vocals onto track three.

The vocals and orchestral instruments were then bounced onto the empty track two of take 17. This meant the final multitrack tape contained pianet, guitar, drums and tambourine on track one; backing vocals and orchestra on track two; bass guitar and snare drum on three; and lead vocals on four.

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.
Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

The singers, eight female, eight male, were seasoned session performers. 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.
George Martin
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.
John Lennon
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.
John Lennon

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, and features an exchange between Gloucester and Edgar interspersed between Lennon’s own words:

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.

Previous song: ‘Your Mother Should Know’
Next song: ‘Hello, Goodbye’
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