John Lennon’s final masterpiece of 1967 found him at his surrealistic, sneering best. ‘I Am The Walrus’ was included on the soundtrack of the Magical Mystery Tour TV film, and first released as the b-side of ‘Hello, Goodbye’.
Lennon had wanted ‘I Am The Walrus’ to be The Beatles’ next single after ‘All You Need Is Love’, but Paul McCartney and George Martin felt that ‘Hello, Goodbye’ was the more commercial song. The decision led to resentment from Lennon, who complained after the group’s split that “I got sick and tired of being Paul’s backup band”.
The song was written in August 1967, at the peak of the Summer of Love and shortly after the release of Sgt Pepper. Lennon later claimed to have written the opening lines under the influence of LSD.
The first line was written on one acid trip one weekend, the second line on another acid trip the next weekend, and it was filled in after I met Yoko.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
‘I Am The Walrus’ was a composite of three song fragments. The first part was inspired by a two-note police siren Lennon heard while at home in Weybridge. This became “Mr city policeman sitting pretty…”
Hunter Davies recounted the beginnings of the second part in his authorised 1968 biography of The Beatles:
He’d written down down another few words that day, just daft words, to put to another bit of rhythm. ‘Sitting on a cornflake, waiting for the man to come.’ I thought he said ‘van to come’, which he hadn’t, but he liked it better and said he’d use it instead.
The third part of ‘I Am The Walrus’ started from the phrase “sitting in an English country garden” which, as Davies noted, Lennon was fond of doing for hours at a time. Lennon repeated the phrase to himself until a melody came.
I don’t know how it will all end up. Perhaps they’ll turn out to be different parts of the same song – sitting in an English garden, waiting for the van to come. I don’t know.
The Beatles, Hunter Davies
The chord sequence was described by critic Ian MacDonald as “the most unorthodox and tonally ambiguous sequence he ever devised.” He ingeniously referred to the looped sequence as “an obsessive musical structure built round a perpetually ascending/descending MC Escher staircase of all the natural major chords”.
‘I Am The Walrus’ was one of the highlights of the Magical Mystery Tour film. For the performance, filmed in West Malling in Kent, Lennon tellingly wore an 18th century madman’s cap.