Synesthesia: Surrealism in the Beatles'
John Lennon, Paul McCartney,
Ringo Starr, and George Harrison were discovered by Brian Epstein in
1961. People kept coming to Epstein's record store in search of a
little-known album by this unknown group. Intrigued, he
imported copies of their album from Germany, and went to see them play at
a club in town. Within a month he not only became their manager, but also
became the first manager in history to accurately say, "My group will be
bigger than Elvis!" The Beatles' fame quickly spread through the United
Kingdom, and then through the United States with their appearance on the
"Ed Sullivan Show" in February of 1964. They became trend-setters: they
were the first group to print their lyrics on their album covers, the
first group to create an album where all the songs revolved around a
central theme, (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band), the first group
to put out an album that didn't have their name in big letters on the
cover, and the first group to popularize surrealism in music.
Surrealism, an art movement which began in the 1880s, concentrates
on dreamlike, unreal imagery or effects produced by unusual juxtapositions
and combinations. In surrealistic art and literature, events don't have to
have an obvious cause or proceed logically. Guillaume Apollinaire first
coined the term in 1917; but the artistic movement didn't really take off
until the French poet Andre Breton published the first surrealist
manifesto in 1924.
Surrealism was revolting "against the control exercised by
rationality over accepted modes of communication." (Rubin) The surrealists wanted
to attain what they termed "the true functioning of thought", by
attacking the unwritten conventions and rules of the art society. The
point was to try and reach a point where one was working from the
subconscious mind; only then was it possible to achieve this "true
functioning," by delving from a part of the mind unimpeded by
moral principles or critical thought.
Surrealism officially spread from visual art to literature with
Andre Breton's Magnetic Fields, in 1921. Magnetic Fields was written with
what is called "automatic writing," where the author writes straight from
the imagination, banishing any deliberate intents from his or her
conscious mind to better reach the images that spring from the Freudian
subconscious. Since then, it has influenced art throughout writing,
painting, film, sculpture, and theater. More recently, it has spread to
The Beatles, influenced by Bob Dylan, were the first to popularize
the use of surrealism in lyrics and instrumentals. They hit the
unsuspecting music world with this new art/music hybrid in 1965, with
their hit song "Nowhere Man," and it soon spread to other groups, becoming
a large part of what was to be called "psychedelic rock," and
revolutionizing the rock music world.
The Rolling Stone once described "acid rock" or "psychedelic rock"
as "less a phenomenon than a manner, premised on the simple and
straightforward assumption that this was trip music, being played by
dopers for dopers." (DeCurtis) Songs with surreal lyrics or music were automatically
lumped into this category, especially since most of these songs were (at least assumed to be)
inspired in some way by LSD "trips." Nobody bothered to look at the music
as more than random phrases and imagery, just describing hallucinations.
But artists like the Beatles were perfectionists. If they had written
lyrics or music under the influence of drugs and then discovered that they
seemed to make no sense when sober, they would have found a way to use the
music in a song that made sense, turned it into a hit, rather than just
serve the nonsensical phrases to their fans as they were. Given the
diligence of the Beatles and their fondness for surrealistic literature,
such songs were probably more than just random psychedelia: they were
experiments in combining surrealism and music.
John Lennon's favorite author, Lewis Carroll, became famous for
his two surrealistic children's novels, Alice in Wonderland and its
sequel, Alice Through the Looking-Glass. John Lennon, who co-wrote most of the Beatles' songs with Paul
McCartney, admired Lewis Carroll's work tremendously. When he was young,
Alice in Wonderland was his favorite book. He wrote poems and stories all
through his childhood and adult life. In 1964, while the Beatles'
popularity was exploding across the US, John had a book published called
In His Own Write. It was a collection of his short stories and
illustrations, filled with plays on words and puns, like "stabbed
undressed envelope." He soon began writing a sequel, Spaniard in the
Works. Reviews of his books ranked him with Edward Lear and Lewis
Carroll. Lennon said, "To express myself, I would write ... stories which were expressive of my personal
emotions. I'd have a separate songwriting John Lennon and I didn't
consider the lyrics to have any depth at all. That got embarrassing, and I
began writing about what happened to me." As he continued to write
Beatles lyrics, the delight he found in playing with the English language
showed up more and more often in their songs.
A lot of the surreal imagery in the Beatles' work can be traced
back to Lewis Carroll's surreal stories: this is particularly obvious in
"I Am the Walrus" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." There is a
poem in Carroll's Alice Through the Looking-Glass that begins, "'The time
has come,' the Walrus said, / 'To talk of many things: / Of shoes and
ships and sealing-wax, and cabbages and kings...." The title of Lennon's
song was probably a tribute to his favorite author. There was even a line
in the song, "I am the eggman, they are the eggmen, I am the walrus- Goo
goo goo joob!" that could have been referring both to the Walrus of
Carroll's story, and to Humpty Dumpty's scene in the same book. Humpty
Dumpty recites nonsense poetry to Alice: "'Twas brillig, and the slithy
toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe, / All mimsy were the borogoves, /
And the momeraths outgrabe." The Beatles, like Carroll, included nonsense
words they had made up in this song, ("See how they smile, like pigs in a
sty, see how they snied," and "I am he and he is me and we are all
together, goo goo goo joob!") confusing their audiences further.
The mastery of surrealism in this and other Beatles songs is shown by the fact that they used it not only in their lyrics but also in their instrumentals and sound effects.
music for "I Am the Walrus," for example, was inspired by the monotonous two-note beat of a
police siren. It opens with an ominous violin and cello passage, then the
thumping beat of the siren, reproduced in their drum section, takes over
and continues for the rest of the song, pausing only at the lines, "I'm
crying, I'm crying I'm crying." "I am the eggman" is echoed in every verse
by an unexpected off-key "Oooooh!" These clashing and confusing sounds are highlighted by the bass line. Many of the verses of the song are set one syllable per beat,
adding extra weight to the maddening non-stop rhythm of the drums and
violins. After the fourth verse, ("Boy you been a naughty girl, you let
your knickers down. I am the eggman...."), more
voices start intruding on the song at the "eggmen" chorus,
questioning identities and mumbling things about maintaining fortunes. In
addition to the strange voices, the line "don't you think the joker laughs
at you?" is followed by grating, menacing laughter set to the steadily
increasing beat of the song. From there, anything can happen - pigs grunt
with the line "see how they snied," Paul McCartney repeats "goo goo goo
joob!" over and over, mixing the "goo"s and "joob"s in strange rhythms.
("goo goo goo joob goo! joob-a joob-a joob-a!") The strings rise and
swell, then mark out the beat firmly amongst the growing chaos. A boys'
choir chants, baritone, "oompah, oompah, stick it up your jumpah!" High,
screeching sounds, like those used for special effects on Star Trek,
interfere with the rising cacophony, and another group of voices join the
"oompah" chant, octaves higher, giving a frantic pitch to it all. A deeper
voice starts a voice-over, unintelligible between all the horns and
strings and chanting and sound effects competing for dominance. Finally it
all fades out, and the deeper British voice-over can be understood as it,
too, fades out, reciting speeches from Shakespeare's King Lear - and so the
"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" provides another Carrollian
tribute with surreal lyrics:
Picture yourself in a boat on a river
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies.
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes.
Cellophane flowers of yellow and green
Towering over your head
Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes and she's gone.
Chorus: Lucy in the sky with diamonds
Lucy in the sky with diamonds,
Lucy in the sky with diamonds, aaaaah, aaaah....
Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain
Where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies.
Everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers
That grow so incredibly high.
Newspaper taxis appear on the shore
Waiting to take you away
Climb in the back with your head in the clouds and you're gone.
Picture yourself on a train in a station
With plasticine porters with looking-glass ties.
Suddenly someone is there at the turnstile
The girl with kaleidoscope eyes.
Many of the fans, seeing that the capitalized words in the song's title
spelled "LSD," thought that the song was a tribute to drug usage. But John
Lennon insisted that this was pure coincidence, and that the title was
dreamed up by his four year old son Julian as a title for one of his own
drawings. Paul McCartney said, "We did the whole thing like an Alice in
Wonderland idea, being in a boat on the river, slowly drifting downstream
with those great 'cellophane flowers towering over your head.'" One of the
major themes in Alice Through the Looking-Glass was that of an extremely
confusing train which took her from one square to another on a giant
chess-board. The train pictured in "Lucy" echoed the confusing characters
of Carroll's train.
Like the early surrealists, the Beatles used their art as
a way to protest the actions of society and the government, as in "Taxman"
(1966) and "Good Morning Good Morning" (1967). Taxman was a tirade against
the British government's system of taxation, which could take up to 95% of
your income if you made as much as the Beatles did. John Lennon's "Good
Morning Good Morning" was aimed at the empty small talk people use "to
hide the fact that they have nothing to say to each other."
The Beatles' use of LSD, and its effect on their songwriting,
strongly resembled Breton's "automatic writing." They began writing
straight from their imaginations, attempting to show their fans what LSD
and Eastern mysticism had shown them.
Their use of surrealism in their song lyrics may have been
triggered by their use of LSD. But even when they stopped using drugs and
turned to other interests such as transcendental meditation, the
surrealistic trend in their songs continued to grow. In 1965, Lennon and
McCartney wrote "Nowhere Man," arguably the first song to use surrealism:
He's a real Nowhere Man,
Sitting in his Nowhere Land,
Making all his Nowhere Plans for nobody.
In 1966, the Beatles' big album was Revolver. It featured at least four
surrealistic songs, including the songs "She Said She Said," "I'm Only
Sleeping," "Love You To," and "Tomorrow Never Knows."
"She Said She Said" described an LSD trip John Lennon had taken
with actor Peter Fonda, the "she" in this song. Their conversation is set
to "churning, spaced-out music of the sort that people would soon describe
as 'psychedelic'." "I'm Only Sleeping" is an ode to the joys of staying
in bed all day long; the Beatles achieved a surrealistic feeling by
playing George Harrison's guitar music backwards onto the main recording.
The words to "Tomorrow Never Knows" don't rhyme, which was extremely
unusual, even for a Beatles song! They were based on The Book of the Dead,
a Tibetan Buddhist text describing the journey into the afterlife. It
began with John Lennon, his voice distorted to sound as if it were coming
from a faraway foghorn, telling listeners to "turn off your mind, relax,
and float downstream." John originally wanted to have a thousand Tibetan
monks chanting along on this song, but when that couldn't be arranged,
each Beatle managed to create weird sound effects of their own on home
tape recorders. The song is peppered with bits of backward tapes, often
slowed down or speeded up to create an even stranger mood.
In 1967, the Beatles embarked on their most ambitious project yet, an album which was to cement surrealism into their music and explode it outward across the rock scene.
For months rumor swept the music world that the Beatles were making a
historic album that would cover and transcend everything that they had
done in the past four years. In February of 1967, they released a single
with two new songs, "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever."
"Strawberry Fields Forever" was their most surrealistic song yet.
It reflected John Lennon's dazed, confused experience with LSD. Lennon
said, "I wrote it about me and I was having a hard time," and this
becomes obvious in the lyrics. "Living is easy with eyes closed /
Misunderstanding all you see / It's getting hard to be someone but it all
works out / It doesn't matter much to me...." He becomes more confused as
the song goes on: "No one, I think, is in my tree; / I mean it must be
high or low, / That is you can't, you know, tune in, but it's all right; /
That is, I think it's not too bad." The lyrics say first one thing, then
the complete opposite: "I think I know a thing - / Er, yes, but it's all
wrong, / That is, I think I disagree...." And the chorus keeps repeating,
"Nothing is real - strawberry fields forever!" Then the music itself
becomes surreal. The Beatles taped both a 33 and 45 rpm version of this
song, but neither version was quite right- then they discovered that, if
they slowed the 45 rpm version down to 33 rpm, it fell into exactly the
same key. The final product was both versions mixed together, producing a
slightly off-key feeling to the whole song. John's voice sounds almost
separate from the rhythmic background music.
The instrumental section begins with classical cello music, then
segues into a nightmarish horn part. The music fades out, then suddenly
charges back as loud as ever - but the horns and strings are gone. In their
place are snatches of backward tapes, changing into heavy, pulsing
electronic music, which passes and fades into backward snippets of music
again, all punctuated with mysterious muttering voices; all this finally
fades out once again, ending with a deep voice whispering what sounds like
"cranberry sauce," or maybe "I bury Paul."
The music world buzzed with commentary about the Beatles'
new single; if this were just a taste of what their new record would be
like, it would live up to everything being speculated about it. In the spring of 1967, bootleg tapes of their new recordings began
to circulate. A few radio stations played a bizarre new song called "A Day
in the Life" - then it was quickly withdrawn. The new album had taken 700
hours to record, as opposed to the 12 hours it took for their first
record; rumors flew, saying that their new album included "astonishingly
experimental techniques, huge orchestras, hundred-voice choirs." Then
the Beatles announced that they would release their record to radio
stations only, on midnight the Sunday before it would appear in stores.
Any station that played the disc even a minute early would have all their
prerelease airing privileges withheld forever. Most stations went off the
air at midnight on Sundays, but this only made it more of a challenge to
the Beatles. Sunday midnight or not, radio stations across the world
played the record, all through the next day, each one trying to play it
longer than all the other stations.
In 1968, Langdon Winner wrote that "The closest Western
Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was
the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released." That may have been an
exaggeration, but it aptly illustrates the Beatles' ability to hold their
culture in sway.
They made huge publicity waves with their music now, and
other groups saw a new trend and followed in their wake. Sgt. Pepper's
Lonely Hearts Club Band covered a wide variety of musical styles, from a taste of Indian music ("Within You Without You") to big-band sound ("When I'm 64")
to semiclassical ("She's Leaving Home"). "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"
made its first appearance on this album, as did the almost equally surreal
"A Day in the Life." "A Day in the Life" began as two different songs, but
went nowhere until John and Paul tried putting the two unfinished songs
together. It began with an account of a crowd at the scene of an accident,
wondering whether they recognized the victim. Then we are shown another
crowd, this one at a showing of Lennon's antiwar film "How I Won the War."
The verse ends with the words "I'd love to turn you on," and
London's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra- all forty-one instruments- charges
into a passage reminiscent of a drug rush. Just as abruptly, the orchestra
stops, and a lone piano takes up the melody. We hear the ringing of an
alarm clock, "as if to indicate that the first part of the song had been
someone's dream." But the dream continues, both in music and lyrics. The
third verse is stranger than ever: "One thousand holes in Blackburn,
Lancashire / And though the holes were rather small / They had to count
them all / Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall /
I'd love to turn you on." The Royal Philharmonic rushes into an even more
powerful passage, and the song ends with a single deep, resonant chord
that continues for almost a whole minute.
The Beatles influenced a lot of groups, including The Byrds,
Jefferson Airplane, and Simon and Garfunkel; more importantly, they opened
up possibilities for the groups to come. After the seven minute long "Hey
Jude," recorded songs could be any length necessary, from the original three minute
limit to half an hour; written on any subject, where before most songs had
been boy-meets-girl. They started using more styles and a wider array of
instruments than ever before, until their songs became so complex that
they could not perform them live: when they reappeared on the "Ed Sullivan
Show" in 1967, they had to prepare film clips of their songs beforehand.
(The first music video?)
There's plenty of space for more research to be done in this area:
for example, there are no books or articles in the University of California's library
system on surrealism in music. The fallacy of lumping all "bizarre" music
into the category of "acid-rock" and failing to examine it has denied a
lot of modern music its artistic value. With two Beatles and many of
the musicians they inspired still living, there is still the opportunity
to test the theory that their music was specifically meant to be surreal,
by interviewing them about it.
Compton's Pictured Encyclopedia. F.E. Compton & Co. Chicago, IL.
Hofstadter, Douglas R. Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden
Braid. Basic Books, Inc. New York, New York. 1979.
Lippard, Lucy R. Pop Art. Frederick A. Praeger, Inc. New York, New
Oxford Companion to French Literature, The. Edited by Sir Paul
Harvey and J. E. Heseltine. Oxford University Press. London, Great
Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. Ed. by DeCurtis,
Anthony. Random House, Inc. New York, New York. 1992.
Rubin, William S. Dada, Surrealism, And Their Heritage. The Museum
of Modern Art. New York, New York. 1968.
Schaffner, Nicholas. The Lads from Liverpool: Paul, John, George,
and Ringo. Alfred A. Knopf. New York, New York. 1979.
World of M. C. Escher, The. Edited by J. L. Locher. Harry N.
Abrams, Inc. New York, New York. 1971.