Synesthesia: Surrealism in the Beatles' Music

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 music.

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. The 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 song ends.

"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.


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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 York. 1970.

Oxford Companion to French Literature, The. Edited by Sir Paul Harvey and J. E. Heseltine. Oxford University Press. London, Great Britain. 1959.

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.

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