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alan w. pollack's
notes on ...

Notes on "I Am The Walrus"

 





Notes on ... Series #121 (IATW)
  by Alan W. Pollack
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       Key: A Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Intro | First Verse | Second Verse | Refrain |
                  | First Verse Variant | Second Verse | Refrain |
                  | Intro redux | Refrain | First Verse |
                  | Second Verse | Refrain | Outro (fade-out)
        CD: "Magical Mystery Tour", Track 6 (Parlophone CDP7 48062-2)
  Recorded: 5th September 1967, Abbey Road 1;
            6th September 1967, Abbey Road 2;
            27th September 1967, Abbey Road 1;
            28th, 29th September 1967, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 24th November 1967 (A Single / "Hello Goodbye")
US-release: 27th November 1967 (A Single / "Hello Goodbye")
 
1

General Points of Interest

 

Style and Form

  Next note Many times I've told you how wherever you find the Beatles at their most far out you also find them, under the surface, operating on their most classical instincts. So don't be fooled here: no matter what else you may respond to in this wonderfully outrageous song, you should acknowledge the extent to which it ultimately weighs in as a (granted, extremely stylized and abstract) talkin' blues number. In this regard I'm thinking not just of the patter style declamation of the words, but also of the formal use of phrases in groups of three, and the prominent exposure given to the V -» IV -» I progression, especially in context of a song whose harmony is otherwise quite out to lunch.
  Next note Even the two unusual formal details of this song are precedented by surprisingly early efforts by the same composer:
 
  • Verses that are followed by refrains are subtly different from those which are followed by other verses. Take a look back at "I Should Have Known Better".
  • The intro reappears in the middle of the song. Look all the way back for this to "Thank You Girl", which is also bears interesting comparison to "Walrus" in terms of the pseudo bluesy bone structure.
 

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The song is ostensibly in the home key of A Major, but a number of harmonic factors keep you off balance and give the song what I sometimes describe as a perilously high center of gravity:
 
  • the prominence and sense of tonal focus given to the B-Major chord (V-of-V in this context) at the beginning of the intro and at the end of the second verse sections;
  • similarly, the sense of tonal arrival given to the E-Major chord (V in this context) at the end of the refrain;
  • the use of block chords moving root-wise along the scale in all sections; especially in the outro, where its step-wise descending chord progression and a top voice which is ascends step-wise conjures visions of an limitless expansion.
  Next note Balanced off against these forces of tonal instability you ironically find almost equal prominence given to the very clear, very bluesy V -» IV -» I chord progression as I already mentioned. The tune, when it is not hammering away on a single pitch for rhetorically haranguing emphasis is quite prone to bluesy licks that contain flat third and seventh scale degrees; same thing for the licks played by the horns and strings.
 

Arrangement

  Next note With, perhaps, the exception of "All You Need Is Love", this is the Beatles' arrangement to this point in time with the largest number of discrete, disparate elements; with significant, complex parts for orchestra, chorus, radio program, and other sound effects, all on top of a basic rhythm track and vocal which themselves have been heavily processed.
  Next note The overall effect of the orchestration is surreal in a manner analogous to that of a colorized classic film. The overlay of orchestra and chorus underscores various details of imagery in the words and music with exaggerated gestures suggestive of some crazy cartoon soundtrack; e.g. stumbling triplets after "see how they run," the glissandi behind "crying," the laughing at the choking smokers, and the "sneiding" pigs. Glissandi, by the way, serve an almost leitmotific role in their constant reappearance at different places and in different speeds.
  Next note The intro features the type of staggered entrances we've seen so many times before in much more straight-laced Beatles' song: with part of the backing track to start, the strings coming in second, and the full drum kit coming in last.
  Next note The feel of the back-beat is subtly modulated over the course of the song. We start off with gently rocking eighth notes (note how the cellos mimic the lead vocal's oscillation between E and D#), and end up with more of an abrasive quarter note march, with a brief hiatus in the very middle of the proceedings. This breaking of this song into two halves is less obvious than it was in "Strawberry Fields Forever" though the two songs bear an interesting comparison in this regard.
  Next note The radio broadcast seems to fit in uncannily, almost surprisingly so, given its random selection. John Cage, for whom the inclusion of such "noise" elements in his compositions was the fulfillment of a strongly felt and persistently argued Zen-like philosophy of art would not have been surprised, of course :-) Regardless of how unlikely it may be that John Lennon had read Mr. Cages books, I still find this small quote from "Silence" (p. 3) quite apt to our present context:
  "Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise.
When we ignore it, it disturbs us.
When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.
The sound of a truck at fifty miles per hour.
Static between the stations. Rain.
We want to capture these sounds, to use them
not as sound effects but as musical instruments."
  Next note The sparing use of the radio effect, its being saved until a full half of the song has transpired, its continued appearance in the refrain section that follows, and its then being held way back in the mix until the outro demonstrates a sophisticated command of the "less is more" aesthetic.
2

Section-by-Section Walkthrough

 

Intro

  Next note The intro is seven (and a half) measures long, and harmonically converges to the home key from the relatively remote starting point of V-of-V:
 
           |B               |-      |
        A:  V-of-V (4 beats in the US, and 6 beats in the UK!)

  Topline: |D#      C#  F#  |B       A   D   |
 Bassline: |B       A       |G       F       |
        A:  V-of-V

           |B             C |D               |
           |E               |-               |
            V7

           |D             B |C               |
            IV7

   [Figure 121.1]
  Next note I prefer to not assign roman numerals to the chords which intervene between V-of-V and V because I believe they are motivated by the persuasive downward motion of bassline and upper voice in parallel tenths, rather than as a matter of harmonically significant root motion; yes, by the way, there's an unusual augmented triad with G in the bass. Your sense of home key is further obscured here by the bassline's usage of G- and F-natural, neither of which belong in the key of A Major.
  Next note In this otherwise strange musical context, you should note how the business end of this intro features a rather traditional AABB phrasing in the melody.
 

First Verse

  Next note The first verse is six measures long and consists of the two phrases of equal length. Harmonically, the section stays within the home key but note how the latter is established without recourse to the V chord:
 
   |A      (G)      |C        D       |A      (G)      |
    I                flat-III IV       I

   |C               |D                |A               |
    flat-III         IV                I

   [Figure 121.2]
  Next note I've fretted quite a bit over how to call the harmony in the second half of measures 1 and 3. The finished recording is thickly ambiguous with a suggestion of blurred G-Major (flat-VII); at least it sounds like there are parallel fifths along this line in the bass. When I listen to the instrumental outtake, though, I hear the A-Major chord sustained all the way through in spite of the bassline move to G-natural. In classical music, these G-naturals in the bassline without the chord change make for a dominant seventh chord in third inversion (4/2) and would signal a move to the D-Major or d-minor chord in first inversion; clearly, the move here to C-Major is unexpected in that context.
  Next note The second time around, this verse is extended five measures; a gesture that, if nothing else, tends to reinforce your subliminal association of this songs with the harmonic style of the blues:
 
   |D               |-               |A              |
    IV                                I

   |E               |D               |
    V                IV

   [Figure 121.3]
 

Second Verse

  Next note The second verse is melodically similar to the first one but but its harmony is modified significantly to transition from the home key to halfway toward the V chord:
 
   |A      (G)      |f#      F   G   |A      (G)      |
    I                vi   flat- flat- I
                             VI   VII

   |F               |B               |-               |
    flat-VI          V-of-V

   [Figure 121.4]
  Next note This time, I hear the chords more clearly moving in block fashion along the scale in measure 2. Both the creepy-crawly progression of f#-minor -» F-Major -» G-Major -» A-Major are as well as the tritone leap from F-Major to B-Major are striking. Try single that stretch of bassline if you don't believe me!
 

Refrain

  Next note The three-measure refrain provides the ultimate arrival on V, sounding almost more like a modulation to the key of V rather than a half-cadence on the V chord of home key, A Major. In fact, I think you're starting to adjust your ears to E as the home key here just as the chord is allowed to resolve to I at the start of the next verse.
 
                                                   ||3rd refrain, only
   |C              |D              |E              ||D              |
    flat VI of V    flat-VII of V   V                IV

   [Figure 121.5]
  Next note The VI -» VII -» I chord progression here, with respect to V, nicely resonates with the same one used in the second verse with respect to I.
  Next note The third refrain is extended one extra measure that is "unnecessary" in one sense, but which importantly sets a precedent for how the outro will eventually grow out of the final refrain. You might even argue that the five-measure extension to the second repeat of the first verse (also, with its V -» IV chord progression) is an even earlier forecaster of how the world of this song will come to its end.
 

Intro-redux

  Next note The radio interlude turns out to actually be one measure long, in tempo, if you manage to count it out, though you'd never expect it from the effect it makes.
  Next note The fact that this whole section is essentially a reprise of the intro is somewhat disguised by the momentary change in beat and the manner in which we proceed partly instrumental only and partly with vocal added. You're also thrown off balance by the radio intrusion.
  Next note Rather than a slavish reprise of the intro, we get a two-phrase section based on a varied repeat of it:
 
   |B       A       |G       F       |E               |
    V-of-V                            V7 gli-ss-an-do

   |B       A       |G       F       |E       F       |
    V-of-V                            V       flat-VI

   |B               |-               |
    V-of-V

   [Figure 121.6]
 

Outro

  Next note The outro grows directly out of the final refrain with this passage:
 
         ...Walrus ...
           |E           |D           |C           |B           |
            V            IV           flat-III     V-of-V

   [Figure 121.7]
  Next note The chord progression of the outro itself is an harmonic Moebius strip with scales in bassline and top voice that move in contrary motion:
 
      Top: |A           |B           |C           |D           |
 Bassline: |A           |G           |F           |E           |
            I            flat-VII     flat-VI      V7

           |E           |F#          |G           |A ...
           |D           |C           |B           |A ...
            IV9          flat-III 11  v            I

   [Figure 121.8]
  Next note The progression repeats on its eighth move so, given a pattern of four-measure phrases, a different chord shows up at the beginning of every third phrase; the second repeat has G-Major on the downbeat; the third repeat has F-Major, and the whole thing conveys intimations of immortality. Beyond a point, it is the contrary motion of those two scales that drive the chord progression here, rather than any "harmonic" logic, per se.
  Next note The music and chorus quickly fade to faintness on the early side; they don't completely fade-out until a few seconds before the very end, but allowing the radio program to subtly, noisily predominate through the final om and about forty seconds.
3

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note As much as I stressed, at the beginning, how strongly grounded this song is in certain traditional values, let me turn it around on you here at the end.
  Next note I think you can as easily argue that the durable strength of this song is traceable to the fact that it is so consistently, organically off-beat, from its very surface tension down to its soulful studs.
  Next note The multi-layered details of the finished recording are surely to be savored, but the song does not at all rely on them for its essential impact. You can feel that in your gut just by listening to the familiar acetate outtake on which the orchestra, chorus, and radio are yet to make an appearance. Hell, you can sense it even on the less familiar take of just the backing track with no guide vocal. You don't even need the words, though they sure do help :-)
  Next note One of my teachers used the metaphor of "the whole orange" for this kind of thing. You can cut into different parts and depths of it, but somehow no matter where or how you do it, you find it's all part of the same fruit.
  Regards,
  Alan (112596#121)
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Copyright © 1996 by Alan W. Pollack. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.