John Lennon’s Nonsense Lyrics (and Why They Work)
by Alec Plowman
“They Are the Egg Men”
Whenever I write lyrics, I always aim to tell a story.
It’s quite a methodical and linear approach, but it’s the one that works for me. In the first verse, I set a scene, either literally or emotionally, and then I advance that idea in the second and third verses, using the chorus to encapsulate the main themes that I’m exploring.
I’m not the only songwriter to use this approach. It’s a tried-and-tested way of writing songs. It results in some great lyrics as well. A song that tells a story provides something for the listener to identify with, even if on a subconscious level. It’s affecting, and when done well, the message of the song stays with the listener for a long time.
But, songwriting is an art, not a science, and there is no single set formula for creating great lyrics. Case in point, some of my favorite songs of all time feature lyrics that make no sense whatsoever.
They’re the complete opposite of the lyrics I write. They’re not linear, they don’t tell a story and the writers of these songs have even admitted that what they’re singing is gobbledygook.
But, they work.
In spite of not actually being about anything in particular, these lyrics still resonate with listeners. And this got me thinking. How do they do that? Why do they do that? What is it about these lyrics that speak to people in spite of their nonsensical-ness?
So, I decided to take a look one of the most famous songs with nonsense lyrics in the history of popular music - The Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus” - to try and figure it all out.
Here’s what I discovered.
“Let the f—kers work that one out”: the story behind the song
Beatles fans have long speculated over the meanings to the lyrics of “I Am The Walrus.” The 1967 classic, taken from the “Magical Mystery Tour” EP, features some of John Lennon’s most off-the-wall writings ever.
In case you’ve never heard it, here’s a verse and a chorus to give you an idea of what I’m talking about:
“Sitting on a corn flake
Waiting for the van to come
Corporation T-shirt, stupid bloody Tuesday
Man you've been a naughty boy
You let your face grow long
I am the egg man
They are the egg men
I am the walrus
Goo goo g'joob”
So where did this come from? Did John Lennon have a childhood penchant for sitting on corn flakes? Who were “the egg men” and how exactly is one supposed to “Goo goo g'joob”?
None of those things mean anything, and their meaninglessness was entirely deliberate.
It turns out that Lennon wrote the song as a troll way back before such a thing even existed.
In 1967, Lennon received a letter from a school pupil, which mentioned that his English master was making his class analyze Beatles lyrics.
Amused that the teacher was putting so much effort into understanding his words, Lennon decided to write the most confusing song he could; something that would be completely impenetrable to the hapless educator, and all other aspiring Beatles scholars.
Lennon took three separate, incomplete songs he’d been working on – one about a policeman, one about sitting amidst his garden, and a nonsense song about a cornflake – and mashed them up.
He threw in some references to Lewis Carroll (the titular “walrus” borrowed from Alice in Wonderland), King Lear, meditation teacher Maharishi Mahesh, James Joyce, and a Liverpudlian playground nursery rhyme for good measure.
“Let the f—kers work that one out,” he reportedly told childhood friend Pete Shotton upon finishing the words.
Thus, “I Am The Walrus” was born. And, as John Lennon had hoped, decades of head scratching from hippie English teachers and Fab Four devotees and pop culture obsessives ensued.
Why “The Walrus” Works
The lyrics of “I Am The Walrus” were deliberately written not to make sense. Yet, they remain some of the most beloved and analyzed lyrics in 20th century popular music.
Here’s the thing. “I Am The Walrus” ultimately doesn’t make sense, but its combination of disparate elements is compelling nonetheless. It’s an incredibly vivid song. Surreal mentions of “yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog's eye” and “elementary penguins singing Hare Krishna” catch the listener off-guard and capture their imagination.
It’s so out there that it makes you want to go and read the lyric sheet, to study the words and to try and understand exactly where Lennon is coming from (even though he’s not actually coming from anywhere). It piques the listener’s curiosity, because, as Hunter Davis writes in “The Beatles Lyrics”:
“…even nonsense words have to come from somewhere, there must have been a thought process that threw them up.”
Cracking The Egg Men
So what can we learn from “I Am The Walrus”?
Firstly, that a great lyric doesn’t have to make logical sense. Lyrics that tell a story are great – they speak to our lived human experience. But pop music lyrics are not novels, and the same rules don’t always have to apply.
Secondly, while great lyric doesn’t have to make sense, it does have to evoke something. It needs to inspire a strength of feeling in the listener that prompts a reaction on an emotional level.
Lennon’s lyrics – while ultimately not meant to mean anything – are so vivid, so out there, collaging so many disparate elements from high-brow and low-brow culture – that we can’t help but pore over them, and try to find meaning in them (even when it isn’t there).
So next time you put pen to paper, remember: you don’t need to get hung up on the specifics of a story. As John Lennon showed with “I Am The Walrus,” sometimes the best lyrics are the ones that make the least sense.