In the last post we discussed that in 50 years few people would have the right associations to understand and appreciate even the most popular songs. Here is another example from the Beatles:
Yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog’s eye
Crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess
Boy, you’ve been a naughty girl you let your knickers down
I am the egg man, they are the egg men
I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob
Ask anyone around – what is it? — Boy, they used a lot of acid in the 1960s!
Here we have the exact opposite of the supposedly nostalgic and tranquil Penny Lane (which it isn’t): pure psychedelic jibberish written on drugs. However, it is no less rooted in English tradition:
…[Lennon] received a letter from a student at Quarry Bank School, his old school, saying that pupils were analysing Lennon’s lyrics in English lessons. John asked his old school friend Pete Shotton for a nursery rhyme they used to sing. Shotton gave them this rhyme, which Lennon incorporated into the song: Yellow matter custard, green slop pie, all mixed together with a dead dog’s eye. Slap it on a butty, ten foot thick, then wash it all down with a cup of cold sick. John incorporated that with his other surreal song fragments, and voila, total nonsense. “Let the f*rs figure that one out.” And now here we are, over-analysing a song written because songs were being over-analysed…
Lennon wanted to write something nonsensical to spite those analyzing his songs, and he based this verse on a nursery rhyme. This is lost on today’s listeners, because this rhyme itself became obscure. It certainly sounds Northern English (e.g., “butty” for a sandwich). “Slop pie” suggests that it might be old. “Yellow matter” in reference to egg yolks or bile would place it in the first half of the 19th century. However, it is just a regional variant of a more common verse. I found two similar rhymes, one recorded in Yorkshire (1980), another in Coventry (1970)
Cody cody custard, green snot pie
All mixed up with a dead dog’s eye
Caterpillar sandwich mixed up thick
Wash it all down with a cup of sick.
Yellow belly custard, green snot pie
All mixed together with a dead dog’s eye
Get a bit of brown bread
Slap it on thick and wash it all down
With a cold cup of sick.
You can spot regional differences: “butty” replaced with “sandwich,” etc. So what is this mysterious “yellow matter custard”?
“Yellow-belly” (in one of the variants) is a slang word for cowardly. It has not been used in England since the end of the 18th century (it is still in wide use in America)
Cowardly, cowardly custard // Eats his mother’s [father’s] mustard // Catch me if you can! is an ancient jinge in the game of catch-all. Yellow-belly custard = cowardy custard.
Why is custard cowardy? Custard is distorted “costard” (= a block head). A costard is large apple, and, metaphorically, a man’s head.
Costard is from
late 13c., coster, perhaps from Anglo-French or Old French coste “rib” (from Latin costa “a rib;” see coast (n.)). A kind of large apple with prominent “ribs,” i.e. one having a shape more like a green pepper than a plain, round apple. Also applied derisively to “the head.” Common 14c.-17c. but limited to fruit-growers afterward.
Custard is of entirely different origin:
mid-14c., “meat or fruit pie,” crustade, from Middle French croustade (Modern French coutarde), from Old Provençal croustado “fruit tart,” literally “something covered with crust,” from crosta “crust,” from Latin crusta (see crust (n.)). Modern meaning is c.1600. Spelling change perhaps by influence of mustard.
Cowardy costard of the jingle first became cowardy custard (when costard became obsolete) that became yellow-belly custard then yellow matter custard (when yellow-belly became obsolete) then cody cody custard (when yellow matter became obsolete).
Psychedelic imagery indeed.