The Beatles in Wonderland
A couple of years ago, I wrote An Enchanted Garden, a short story transferring the opening of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) into a contemporary adult tale. My story included many references to lyrics by the Beatles, with the modern-day Alice listening to their music on her Ipod, as events began in the garden of Strawberry Fields Forever, a National Trust home located in my imagination. Recent work, expanding the story into a novel, set me thinking about the way in which the Beatles were influenced by Carroll’s two Alice books, with the original being followed by Through the Looking-Glass, And What Alice Found There (1871).
My starting point was a thought that four songs by the Beatles showed clear influences from Alice.
1 I Am the Walrus (1967) draws upon Carroll’s tale of the Walrus and the Carpenter. The eggman could be Humpty Dumpty, although John Lennon recalled a strange practice enjoyed by Eric Burden involving eggs.
2 The Long and Winding Road (1969) has the lyric “the wild and windy night has left a pool of tears”, echoing the Pool of Tears episode in Alice.
3 Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds (1967) tells the tale of a girl in a surreal land. In contrast to speculation that the song was influenced by LSD, Lennon explained that the title came from a painting that his son, Julian, brought home from nursery school. When Lennon expanded the contents of the picture into a song, he added elements from Carroll, explaining “It was Alice in the boat. She is buying an egg and it turns into Humpty Dumpty. The woman serving in the shop turns into a sheep and the next minute they are rowing in a rowing boat somewhere and I was visualising that”. This is the Wool and Water episode of Looking Glass. The song also includes “newspaper taxis” plus “a train in a station with plasticine porters with looking glass ties”. This follows the Looking-Glass Insects chapter, where Alice goes on a train journey, sharing a carriage with a man dressed as a newspaper, a goat, and….a beetle. Lennon’s Lucy would be mentioned again, in I Am the Walrus, recorded a few months later.
4 Cry Baby Cry (1968) draws on the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence, but there are elements from the Pig and Pepper chapter in Alice, with a duchess and a crying baby. The song has the Duchess of Kirkaldy arriving late for tea, suggesting the Tea Party in Alice. John’s Cry Baby Cry ends with the Can You Take Me Back fragment from Paul McCartney, and it couId be that this expresses a wish to move from Wonderland back to reality. Conversely Paul might hope to move away from reality, and back into a nursery rhyme tale?
Three of these four songs (the exception being Paul’s The Long and Winding Road) were predominantly written by John Lennon.
In the old days, I would have pursued this line of thought through books about the Beatles. Nowadays a look around the Internet, following the lines suggested by Google, makes the search for information a lot quicker. One of the best pieces I found was John in Wonderland by Edgar O Cruz, who suggests songs that were – or may have been – influenced by Carroll, which are in turn added to my list:
5 Do You Want to Know a Secret (1963) was inspired by the Wishing Well song in the Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which seems to me a bit out of place here, lacking a direct flow from Carroll. As far as I can tell, the Alice books only include the word secret once, in the Queen Alice chapter of Through the Looking Glass.
6 I’ll Get You (1963) is another song that Cruz only links to Carroll in general terms. On the other hand, McCartney made a direct connection in later years, saying “To me and John, though I can’t really speak for him, words like ‘imagine’ and ‘picture’ were from Lewis Carroll. This idea of asking your listener to imagine, ‘Come with me if you will…’, ‘Enter please into my…’, ‘Picture yourself in a boat…’ It drew you in. It was a good little trick, that. Both of us loved Lewis Carroll and the Alice books and were fascinated by his surreal world so this was a nice song to write”.
7 Yellow Submarine (1966) does not have any direct lyrical origin in Carroll, but the song evokes a fantasy land for children. The song would in turn feature in an animated Beatles film of the same title, released in 1968. Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds was another song featured in the film.
8 Strawberry Fields Forever (1967) has lyrics in which Cruz hears an echo of Carroll. He says “The theme of loss in Strawberry Fields Forever is similar to the book’s ‘going down’ device” as Alice slips through the Rabbit Hole. The Beatles’ lyric “It doesn’t matter much to me” follows “It didn’t much matter which way she put it” in Alice.
9 Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite (1967) is a song in the tradition of Carroll’s poems. Lennon copied the lyrics from an 1843 poster advertising a circus – having bought this from an antique shop when the Beatles were filming a promotional film for Strawberry Fields Forever.
10 Magical Mystery Tour (1967) is the title song of a Beatles fantasy film, which was influenced by Carroll, and featured I Am the Walrus.
11 Glass Onion (1968) is a surreal story, which includes references to five previous songs by the Beatles, two of which we have already encountered here – Fixing a Hole, Strawberry Fields Forever, I Am the Walrus, Fool on the Hill, and Lady Madonna.
12 Helter Skelter (1968) features the lyric “Will you, won’t you want me to make you” which Paul appears to have adapted from The Lobster Quadrille’s “Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you join the dance?”. I also think that the “I’m coming down fast” part of the song could echo Alice falling down the Rabbit Hole.
13 Across the Universe (1968) includes the phrase “pool of sorrows”, suggested by the “pool of tears” cried by Alice, which would feature a year later in The Long and Winding Road.
Further searching brought suggestions of other songs, in a piece on a Blog called Of Buckley and the Beatles. The White Queen’s repetitive use of the word “better” in the Looking Glass book may have influenced Paul in two songs:
14 Getting Better (1967) from the Sgt Pepper album.
15 Hey Jude (1968) the song that Paul wrote for John’s son Julian.
There is one song missing from my original thoughts, and the suggestions above, that clearly develops the theme.
16 Come Together (1969) includes reference to “walrus gumboot”. I had overlooked this, until being reminded by the Wikipedia page for I Am the Walrus that there is a Walrus reference in a Beatles song after Glass Onion.
Next I thought of another song with a lyric that might derive from Carroll, and found a possible link
17 Nowhere Man (1965) is about somebody “making all his nowhere plans for nobody”. There is a character called Nobody in the Lion and the Unicorn episode of the second Alice novel. Nowhere Man was later used in the Yellow Submarine film.
This is turn led to my considering The Fool on the Hill, another tale of a loner, and somebody I imagined as akin to the Mad Hatter in Alice. A Google search led to Alice Through the Magnifying Glass: the Psychedelic Journey of Carroll’s Creations, on a Blog called George’s Journal. The man who wrote this piece suggests echoes of Carroll in various songs and films. In terms of the Beatles, George sees the cinematic Yellow Submarine as significant. George also refers to songs which “could all be said to be lyrically and stylistically Carroll-esque”, which I in turn add to this list, with some additional comments:
18 Penny Lane (1967) presenting a surreal version of English life, was recorded during the Sgt Pepper sessions, and released as a Double A side single with Strawberry Fields Forever.
19 Fool on the Hill (1967) fits for the reason set out above, and featured in the Magical Mystery Tour film.
20 Happiness is a Warm Gun (1968) is one I am not sure about in the Carroll context. Indeed I have trouble thinking about this song in any context, given that Lennon was shot dead 12 years after it was released.
21 Piggies (1968) was one I had thought about, given the number of animals that appear in the Alice books, including the pig baby.
22 Octopus’s Garden (1969) could fit as a song about a place somewhere near the beach in the first Alice book. It also serves as a sequel to Yellow Submarine, an earlier song sung by Ringo.
23 Mean Mr Mustard (1969) is another one at a tangent, apart from it featuring Her Majesty the Queen, possibly related to a monarch in Wonderland.
24 Polythene Pam (1969) could just about fit as the sequel to Mean Mr Mustard, within the Abbey Road Medley, while being one of the many titles by the Beatles to feature a female name – two years on from Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.
I was surprised that the number of songs reached two dozen, but there were still more occurring to me, and I found that somebody had already suggested one of them.
25 Within You Without You (1967) is mentioned in the book Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture by Will Brooker (2004). Brooker suggests similarities between the sitar soundtrack by Ravi Shankar to a BBC television production of Alice, broadcast at the end of 1966, and Within You Without You, a song by George Harrison, who learnt Indian music from Shankar, recorded a few weeks later. I think that the song’s philosophical lyrics echo the cryptic phrases of the caterpillar in Alice.
With my mind expanded – by knowledge and not narcotics – the mental journey took me to five other songs, which I think were influenced by Carroll:
26 Tomorrow Never Knows (1966) has lyrics that Lennon drew from a book about psychedelic meditation, but the opening “turn off you mind, relax and float downstream” may also owe something to the Alice in a boat image subsequently used in Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
27 It’s All Too Much (1967) is one of the great neglected Beatles songs, recorded just after work was completed on Sgt Pepper, but not released until the Yellow Submarine album arrived in 1969, the year after the relevant film. George Harrison goes on a LSD trip, singing about “floating down the stream of time”, birthday cake, and getting “home for tea”. It could be that he is joining Alice at a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.
28 Dear Prudence (1968) is a song about Prudence, sister of the actress Mia Farrow, both of whom the Beatles met while meditating in India. The lyrics feature “a little child” and “a daisy chain”, suggesting Alice with her sister at the start of the first book.
29 Golden Slumbers (1969) features lyrics that Paul borrowed from a lullaby of the same title, written by Thomas Dekker in around 1600. There may, however, be an echo of the “golden afternoon” and “dream-child” in the poem that precedes the narrative of the first Alice book. Paul’s song also has a similar musical and lyrical feel to his Alice-inspired The Long and Winding Road.
It’s getting very near the end, and we move to the grand finale. I should also highlight a SPOILER ALERT for anybody who has not read the Alice books.
30 A Day in the Life (1967) is my favourite Beatles song. Despite much searching, I cannot find anybody directly linking this to the Alice books, which means that the remainder of this paragraph can be proclaimed as “It’s my own invention”. Lennon and McCartney’s amazing climax to the Sgt Pepper album extends the dream atmosphere of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Indeed Paul’s verse has a character who “noticed I was late”, just like the White Rabbit, and “went into a dream” which is the very basis of the two novels. When Lennon sings in A Day in the Life that “I read the news today” he echoes the “newspaper taxis” earlier in the album, and the “four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire” may have expanded from the one hole leading to Wonderland.
Having started with the idea that four songs by the Beatles were directly influenced by Carroll and the Alice novels, a journey through Wonderland has led, admittedly with a few tangents, to a massive 30 tracks to consider – enough to match the wonderful diversity of the White Album.