The Surrealism movement was led by Andre Breton, who sought to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality”. Inspired by Freudian psychoanalysis and the prominence of the unconscious mind, various forms of Surrealist art emerged during this period, beginning in the 1920s, from writing to painting.
Although music was never a primary focus of Surrealism – Breton even wrote negatively about the medium in Silence is Golden – the movement still inspired many musicians. Composers like Erik Satie and Edgard Varèse drew inspiration from Surrealist methods, such as dreams, as reflected in the latter’s piece Arcana. After the initial wave of Surrealism ended, its influence remained, and it continues to inspire artists, filmmakers and musicians today.
One of the most notable examples of Surrealism making its way into popular music can be found in the work of The Beatles. John Lennon was a tremendous fan of the movement, once explaining to David Sheff: “Surrealism had a great effect on me because then I realised that the imagery in my mind wasn’t insanity; that if it was insane, I belong in an exclusive club that sees the world in those terms. Surrealism to me is reality. Psychic vision to me is reality.”
Thus, Surrealist themes can be found in many of his songs, particularly those from Magical Mystery Tour. Arguably the band’s most surreal track is ‘I Am The Walrus’, which The Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr called: “Hieronymus Bosch and Salvador Dalí set to music”. Although Bosch’s paintings predated Surrealism, the movement’s members championed his work as a critical influence on their style.
Surrealist ways of thinking undoubtedly inspired ‘I Am The Walrus’. You only have to take a quick glance at the lyrics to recognise the influence of ‘automatic writing’, a technique used heavily by Dadaists and Surrealists. The process involved writing uncensored thoughts stemming from the unconscious mind, even if they initially read as gibberish. Lyrics such as “Yellow matter custard/ Dripping from a dead dog’s eye/ Crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess” don’t make much coherent sense, but they clearly emerged from part of Lennon’s subconscious.
To Marr, ‘I Am The Walrus’ is a work of art that genuinely sounds like a piece of Surrealist art come to life. He explained: “That is completely and utterly beyond what we think of as pop music. It could only have come out of popular culture. It’s completely anarchic and beautiful. I very rarely would use the word ‘genius’ but it’s a genius piece of work, and genuinely trippy, you know? I don’t think anything’s really quite surpassed it in terms of pop music.”
Revisit the song below.