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"GLASS ONION"

(John Lennon – Paul McCartney)

When The Beatles first came into the U.S. spotlight on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9th, 1964, what the millions of new fans concentrated on most was their seemingly unique sound. The lyrical content of their original compositions weren't of much concern to the screaming girls in the studio audience that evening, as anyone can witness when watching that broadcast today. When Paul sang “Close your eyes and I'll kiss you, tomorrow I'll miss you,” nobody interpreted those words to mean anything but the obvious. Because, of course, what was meant was the obvious.

Just a couple years later, however, those same screaming girls may have been scratching their heads at the meaning of Beatles lyrics such as “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream.” Shortly thereafter, they may have wondered what “marmalade skies” or “yellow matter custard” represented, or how they could get to a wondrous place like “Strawberry Fields” or who really was “The Fool On The Hill.” Maybe if they listened very carefully to the vocals, the fans could get clues to allow all of these mysteries to be solved.

For those who subscribed to this thinking, and there apparently were millions who did, the third track on their 1968 double-album “The Beatles” (aka “The White Album”) got them all to get out their Sherlock Holmes magnifying glasses and try even harder to piece together the mysterious story. Could the song “Glass Onion” reveal what was necessary to finally fill in some of the missing pieces? Or did these pieces fit together at all? When listening to the song, it's obvious that John Lennon wanted you to think they did.

Songwriting History

“I was having a laugh because there had been so much gobbledegook about 'Pepper,' play it backwards and you stand on your head and all that.” This quote from Lennon in 1970 concerning the song “Glass Onion” shows that he wasn't seriously trying to lay out legitimate clues for listeners to figure out but was pulling everyone's leg. Fans from around the world were taking The Beatles' music so seriously that he wanted to take the air out of their sails a little, as he had done the previous year with “I Am The Walrus.” “That's me, just doing a throwaway song, a la 'Walrus,' a la everything I've ever written,” John explained in 1980.

When Stephen Bayley, a current student from Lennon's old Quarry Bank School, wrote John in 1967 to inform him that a teacher was getting his class to analyze Beatles' songs, he appeared both amused and annoyed at this development. When the student asked him in the letter to explain his songwriting, John replied: “I do it for me first...Whatever people make of it afterwards is valid, but it doesn't necessarily have to correspond to my thoughts about it, OK? This goes for anyone's 'creations,' art, poetry, song etc. The mystery and sh*t that is built around all forms of art needs smashing anyway.”

“Glass Onion” was among the plethora of songs that John had written during their spring 1968 visit to Rishikesh, India to study transcendental meditation with the Maharishi. However, it appears that he hadn't got much further than writing the first verse as of his demo recording in late May of the year. Sometime between then and the time it began to be officially recorded in EMI Studios in September, John recruited a little help to flesh out the song.

In Paul's book “Many Years From Now,” Paul explained: “He and Yoko came round to Cavendish Avenue and John and I went out into the garden for half an hour, because there were a couple of things he needed me to finish up, but it was his song, his idea...It was a nice song of John's. We had a fun moment when we were working on the bit, 'I've got news for you all, the walrus was Paul.' Because, although we'd never planned it, people read into our songs and little legends grew up about every item of so-called significance, so on this occasion we decided to plant one. What John meant was that in 'Magical Mystery Tour,' when we came to do the costumes on 'I Am The Walrus,' it happened to be me in the walrus costume. It was not significant at all, but it was a nice little twist to the legend that we threw in. But it was John's song. I'd guess I had minor input or something as we finished it up together...We still worked together, even on a song like 'Glass Onion' where many people think there wouldn't be any collaboration.”

While Paul did appear to have some degree of input in the writing of the song, John cleared up some matters about the “walrus” line in interviews over the years. In 1980 he stated: “Well, that was a joke, that was a bit of a song, you know. I mean, it was actually me in the Walrus suit. I thought I'd confuse people who read great depths into lyrics. It could have been 'The fox terrier was Paul,' you know. It's just a bit of poetry. It was just thrown in like that. The line was put in partly because I was feeling guilty because I was with Yoko, and I was leaving Paul. It's, you know, a perverse way of saying to Paul, you know, 'Here, have a crumb, this illusion, this stroke, because I'm leaving.'”

John explained in 1970: “At that time I was still in my love cloud with Yoko. I thought 'Well, I'll just say something nice to Paul, that it's all right and you did a good job over these few years, holding us together.' He was trying to organize the group and all that, so I wanted to say something to him. I thought, 'Well, he can have it, I've got Yoko. And thank you, you can have the credit.'”

Many references to previous Beatles songs were interwoven in the lyrics of “Glass Onion,” namely “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “I Am The Walrus,” Lady Madonna,” “The Fool On The Hill” and “Fixing A Hole.” Some say “There's A Place” and “Within You Without You” are touched on in the first verse as well because of some brief lyrical content, although this may just be the fanciful imagination of some authors.

There are various other phrases that may raise a mysterious eyebrow, such as the mention of “bent back tulips.” Derek Taylor, press officer for Apple Records, explains this phrase regarding a flower arrangement found in an elegant London restaurant named Parkes. “You'd be in Parkes sitting around your table wondering what was going on with the flowers and then you'd realize that they were actually tulips with their petals bent all the way back, so that you could see the obverse side of the petals and also the stamen. This is what John meant about 'seeing how the other half lives.' He meant seeing how the other half of the flower lives but also, because it was an expensive restaurant, how the other half of society lived.”

Another interesting phrase in the song is “cast iron shore,” which is actually a nickname for a coastal area of south Liverpool also known by the locals as “The Cazzy.” The definition of a “dovetail joint,” as mentioned in the song, is a wood joint formed by one or more tenons on one piece that interlocks with corresponding notches in another piece. However, knowing Lennon, it could be a sly reference to a type of rolled marijuana cigarette.

As to the meaning of the actual phrase “Glass Onion,” David Quantick's book “Revolution: The Making Of The Beatles' White Album” comes up with a very convincing explanation: “'Glass Onion' is a 'do you get it?' mocking tune in which Lennon scatters imaginary clues to a nonexistent riddle all over the place and invites us all to make fools of ourselves trying to work it out. The answer...is in the title. 'Glass Onion' is an extremely aptly-named song. Peel away the layers of an onion and there is, of course, nothing there, but with a glass onion, you don't even have to peel. The essential nothingness of it is on display for all to see."

Whether this was John's intention or not, an actual glass onion is a large glass bottle that was used on ships to hold wine or brandy, hand-blown to be larger at the bottom to prevent toppling over.  While appearing to resemble an onion, we can only wonder whether anyone could attempt "looking through" one with any success.  Then again, John's father spent much time employed at sea, so John may have been familiar with this kind of drinking vessel.

John was enamored enough with this song title that is has been said to be one of his suggestions as a new name for the newly signed Apple band “The Iveys.” This being rejected, along with another Lennon suggestion “Prix,” the group went with “Badfinger” instead, which was a shortened form of the working title for the Beatles song “With A Little Help From My Friends,” namely “Bandfinger Boogie.”

Recording History

John didn't have much of the song written by May 28th, 1968, when The Beatles met at George Harrison's 'Kinfauns' home in Esher, Surrey to record demos of the songs they've recently written. This fact, though, didn't stop John from putting down on tape what he had so far. The recording consists of John double-tracking himself on acoustic guitar and vocal with a hint of tambourine played by someone else in the third verse. All three verses, however, consist of the first verse repeated three times with slightly different lyrics from what became the finished version. John here sings “I told you about Strawberry Fields, well here's a place you know just as real...where everything glows.” In the second verse, John flubs the line “to see how the other half lives” which results in him mumbling gibberish, him doing the same thing when this point arrives during double-tracking. John then continues this nonsensical habit in many other places in this recording, right down to the song's last moments. Another difference is the dramatically slowed tempo in the third verse during the line “here's another place you can go, where everything glows,” during which time you hear other Beatle voices in the background, one even saying “Help!” at one point. This recording can be heard in its entirety on the compilation album “Anthology 3.”

September 11th, 1968, was the first day “Glass Onion” was brought into EMI Studio Two to be officially recorded. John got together with Paul to finish off the lyrics at some point between when the demo was recorded and this day, so a completely written song was ready to go. They all arrived sometime after 7 pm with Chris Thomas as producer since George Martin was on vacation at the time.

The Beatles ran through 34 takes of the rhythm track on this day, the instrumentation being John on his Gibson acoustic guitar, George on his Fender Stratocaster, Paul on a newly acquired Fender Jazz Bass and Ringo on drums. The song may have been completely written but, with only three verses and no solo of any kind, it was only one minute and fifty seconds long, almost each of these 34 takes being of that length. Take 15 was stretched out to around six minutes as the song turned into a longer jam session. Take 33 was designated as the best take of the day, although it appears to have been an edited version of two of the takes of this day, the obvious edit being detected in the drum/cymbal sounds heard in the final verse during the line “fixing a hole in the ocean.” This edit probably was performed at the end of this session by Chris Thomas and engineers Ken Scott and John Smith, after which the session ended at 3:30 am.

They returned to the song on the following day (aka later that evening), September 12th, 1968, for more overdubs. They arrived in Studio Two at around 8:30 pm, the result of the day being John recording his lead vocal, he then double-tracking it, and Ringo adding a tambourine part. By 1:30 am, they left for the evening.

The following day, September 13th, 1968, they met again at EMI Studio Two, this time around 8 pm, for further work on “Glass Onion.” Ringo actually double-tracked his drums for the song on this day, which is especially noticeable on the snare beats throughout the song. Paul also overdubbed a piano part on this day, which plays a vital rhythmic role in the recording. By 1:45 am, this session was then over.

On September 16th, 1968, John, Paul and Ringo returned to EMI Studio Two primarily to work on a new Paul McCartney song entitled “I Will.” After extensive work was performed on this new track, they returned to “Glass Onion” for another overdub before the evening was over. Someone, either John or Paul, came up with the idea to add a recorder to the song after the reference to “The Fool On The Hill,” since the recorder was in such prominent use in that song. At approximately 2 am, Paul added a simple melody line on recorder after the lyric “he living there still,” he then double-tracking the line afterwards. By 3 am, this recording session was complete.

John Lennon felt that the recording of “Glass Onion” still needed something, so he compiled sound effects of four different elements at home and brought them into the control room of EMI Studio Two on September 26th, 1968, for overdubbing onto the song. The purpose of this session, actually, was for creating mono mixes of recently recorded songs, but at John's insistence, his idea took precedence.

A four-track tape was created for the purpose of this overdub: Track one contained a telephone ringing, Track Two contained a single note of an organ, Track Three contained BBC television soccer commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme shouting “It's A Goal!” over and over with a cheering crowd in the background, and Track Four contained the sound of a window being smashed. All four tracks had these elements repeated over and over, the entire tape lasting 2:35, which is just a little bit longer than the finished song so far. After this four-track tape was put together, two attempts at a mono mix of the song was made by Chris Thomas and engineers Ken Scott and Mike Sheady, no doubt with input from John, interjecting these effects at different times in the mix. This session, the last one with Chris Thomas as producer, was complete by 1:30 am the next morning.

Upon George Martin's return from vacation, he was played mixes of five of the Beatles songs that were recorded in his absence, “Glass Onion” being one of them. He was unimpressed by John's sound effects and convinced him to let him score a part for strings to complement the song nicely. John relented, and the tape box containing “Glass Onion” with the strange sound effects was marked “do not use” which, of course, was readily noticed when compiling the “Anthology 3” album decades later.

With the allotted time for finishing the album coming to a close, the needed session to record the string arrangement for “Glass Onion” happened on October 10th, 1968, in EMI Studio Two, starting at 7 pm. Eight musicians were brought in for the overdub on the song as well as on George Harrison's “Piggies.” An eerie orchestral score was recorded as an edit piece for the conclusion of “Glass Onion” which slowed in tempo as it progressed. With this complete, both the stereo and mono mixes that were used on the finished album were created by George Martin and engineers Ken Scott and John Smith, them adding a manual ADT "wobble" effect to both mixes. Two attempts were made at each of this mixes, undoubtedly the second of both being the ones used, both having the eerie string section faded down at the conclusion of the song. One noticeable difference between the two mixes is an additional “ooh yeah” from Paul after the break in the mono mix.

A mash-up mix of the song was created by George Martin and his son Giles Martin sometime between 2004 and 2006 in Abbey Road (formerly EMI) Studios for inclusion on the album “Love.” This “Glass Onion” track combined vocal elements of “Hello Goodbye,” horns from “Magical Mystery Tour” and “Penny Lane,” and guitar work from “Things We Said Today.”

Song Structure and Style

The structure for “Glass Onion” couldn't be much simpler, this being 'verse/ verse/ bridge/ verse/ conclusion' (or aabac). The “conclusion” consists of the menacing string arrangement that George Martin added to the end of the song which actually works as a link between album tracks. The idea was to come up with different types of segues between the songs on this album, these taking on many different forms. The first two songs, “Back In The U.S.S.R.” and “Dear Prudence,” had a crossfade between them. The next two songs, “Glass Onion” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” had this George Martin orchestral score. Even though this conclusion was not in John's Lennon initial vision of the song, it is universally accepted as an integral element of “Glass Onion.”

The song begins with two double-tracked snare drum flams from Ringo which startle the listener after the mellow fade of John's guitar ending for “Dear Prudence.” The first fifteen-measure verse begins immediately thereafter, ushering in Ringo's steady rock solid 4/4 drum beat, Paul's treble-heavy bass work, John's acoustic rhythm guitar and lead vocals, and George's electric guitar chops and accents. The strings first appear in measures six through nine with swooping ups and downs while the tambourine appears in this verse only in measures seven through nine.

The downbeat of measures ten through fourteen are anticipated and accented by a cymbal crash from Ringo. The tenth measure also ushers in Paul's piano for the first time, him playing descending and then ascending chords until the fourteenth measure where he pounds away on chords until the 'Beatles break' on the downbeat of the fifteenth measure. The cellos chop out dramatic eighth notes in the fourteenth measure to highlight the lyrical focal point “looking through a glass onion” before they disappear with the rest of the elements on the downbeat of the fifteenth measure. The only thing heard in the silence of this fifteenth measure is two more double-tracked snare flams from Ringo to usher in the next verse.

The second verse is nearly identical in arrangement from the first verse, the only noticeable difference being an excited “woo” in the silence of the fifteenth measure during another set of double-tracked snare flams.

The simple bridge is heard next which is ten measures long and vocally consists of three emotive “oh yeah”s (Paul getting vocally over excited in the background during the third one) until John finishes this section as if it's a verse with “looking through a glass onion” once again, this ushering in yet another 'Beatles break.' The piano thumps away throughout this bridge and even throws in a thumb roll at the end of the eighth measure. The strings hold out long notes throughout the first eight measures which rise along with the chords to add a tense feel to the bridge. The final piano chord rings out into the silence of the tenth measure as Ringo adds only single-tracked flams this time to bring in the final verse.

While the arrangement of this third verse is very similar to the other two, there are some differences worth noting. The fourth and fifth measures include a double-tracked recorder played by Paul to accompany the mention of “The Fool On The Hill.” The orchestral swoops in the sixth through ninth measures are more full and thick, which stand out much more in the song than before. The tambourine is absent in the seventh through ninth measures this time, but appear in the tenth measure and then continue to finish out the song. The rough edit in the rhythm track, as heard here in the tenth measure, appears to happen because Ringo forgot to put in his anticipated cymbal crashes at this point of the song, another 'take' being edited in to attempt to rectify this matter.

Before the silence of the fifteenth measure could be revealed, however, George Martin's eight-measure orchestral score unexpectedly pops in. Upon careful listening, it appears that this score is entirely in 4/4 time but the downbeat of the first measure is missing, this orchestral recording being edited onto the master tape on the second beat of the measure. This results in the first measure of this section being in 3/4 on the released recording while the rest of it is in 4/4. As these eight measures progress, however, the tempo slows and the volume decreases as a slow fade, but it doesn't fade away into silence. On the last beat of the eighth measure, the strings all slide their notes menacingly downward as if they've all just nodded off to sleep at that precise time in the studio that day. There may have been some strange endings to Beatles songs up to this point, but with headphones on, this one surely lifted up the hairs on the back of listeners necks.

Once again, the view that the “White Album” didn't see cooperation by all four Beatles playing as a band falls on deaf ears with this track. Everyone played a vital role, everyone being on top of their game as well. John's vocals make you sure he's imparting you with some hidden wisdom (even though there wasn't any) along with well performed acoustic guitar playing. Paul's rough sounding bass works well here, as does his piano and recorder performances. George puts in a proficient job on electric guitar as does Ringo on drums and tambourine. And good thing George Martin came back from vacation in time to recognize where another tantalizing orchestral score was needed.

American Releases

November 25th, 1968, was the date of U.S. release for the group's double-album entitled "The Beatles," affectionately known as the "White Album."  Lennon made sure his "Glass Onion" was heard early in the running order so as to be fully noticed, becoming the third track on side one.  The album got its first compact disc release on August 24th, 1987 and then as a 30th Anniversary limited edition release on November 23rd, 1998.  It wasn't released individually as a mono album until its vinyl release on September 9th, 2014.

An interesting release of the song was on a short lived format called “Playtape,” which became popular in the later 60's because of its portability, these tapes manufactured to be exclusively played on portable “Playtape” machines and as standard equipment in Volkswagen cars at that time. Because of the limited space on these tapes, five volumes of “White Album” tapes were released so those with these machines could enjoy most of this new album. Therefore, sometime in 1969, Capitol released these five tapes, “Volume I” containing the song “Glass Onion.”


The compilation album “Anthology 3” was released on October 28th, 1996, which contained two rare versions of “Glass Onion.” The first was the Kinfauns demo that John recorded on May 28th, 1968, as described above, and the second was the mono mix as prepared by Chris Thomas on September 26th, 1968, with Lennon's sound effects, as also described above.

On November 20th, 2006, the above mentioned compilation album “Love” was released to critical and commercial success, the newly created mash-up of “Glass Onion” being included therein.

The entire mono catalog of The Beatles was first released on September 9th, 2009 in the set entitled “The Beatles In Mono,” this being the first time the U.S. market could enjoy the superb “White Album” in all its mono glory.

Live Performances

Sorry to say, no live performance of “Glass Onion” ever developed by The Beatles as a group or as individual solo artists.

Conclusion

Just after the release of their 1969 album "Abbey Road," conspiracy mongers took to looking for "clues" in Beatles music and album sleeves concerning a quickly spreading rumor that Paul McCartney was dead.  This rumor rose to a fever pitch for just a short number of weeks before it died down, helped immensely by an interview with Paul that was published in the November 7th, 1969 issue of Life Magazine with the headline "Paul Is Still With Us," complete with recent pictures of him and his family in Scotland.

Among the plethora of elaborate clues “unearthed” in Beatles music was a wild interpretation of what The Beatles meant by the word “Walrus.” “'Walrus' is Greek for corpse,” wrote Fred LaBour, author of an article in The Michigan Daily, a University of Michigan newspaper that was a catalyst in spreading the Paul-Is-Dead rumor. And of course, while the country was busy scouring their Beatles albums (as well as buying ones they didn't own yet) for new “clues,” John's highly emphasized line “here's another clue for you all” shot out like a rocket. Lennon's explanation that “the Walrus was Paul” clinched it in their minds.


Although the rumor has been long debunked, especially by the very-much-alive McCartney throughout the successive decades, it's surprisingly very much still believed by many fans around the world. A good percentage of Beatles fans believe that, while Paul may not have really died and been replaced by a double, the whole thing was concocted by The Beatles themselves to be eventually found in order to ensure continued album sales in the future. For those who believe this to be true, the song “Glass Onion” stands out as a very significant song, which results in attention being given to a very innovative and superbly recorded track.

By the way, the Greek word for corpse is “ptoma,” and the Greek word for walrus is “thalassios ippos.”

Song Summary

Glass Onion”

Written by: John Lennon / Paul McCartney

  • Song Written:  March - September, 1968
  • Song Recorded: September 11, 12, 13 & 16, October 10, 1968
  • First US Release Date: November 25, 1968
  • First US Album Release: Apple #SWBO-101 “The Beatles
  • US Single Release: n/a
  • Highest Chart Position: n/a
  • British Album Release: Apple #PCS 7067-7068 “The Beatles
  • Length: 2:10
  • Key: A minor
  • Producer: Chris Thomas, George Martin
  • Engineers: Ken Scott, John Smith, Mike Sheady

Instrumentation (most likely):

  • John Lennon - Lead Vocals, Rhythm Guitar (1964 Gibson J-160E)
  • Paul McCartney - Bass (1966 Fender Jazz Bass), Piano (Hamburg Steinway Baby Grand), recorder
  • George Harrison - Lead Guitar (1961 Sonic Blue Fender Stratocaster, painted psychedelic)
  • Ringo Starr - Drums (1964 Ludwig Super Classic Black Oyster Pearl), tambourine
  • Henry Datyner - Violin
  • Eric Bowie - Violin
  • Norman Lederman - Violin
  • Ronald Thomas - Violin
  • Eldon Fox - Cello
  • Reginald Kilbey - Cello
  • John Underwood - Viola
  • Keith Cummings - Viola

Written and compiled by Dave Rybaczewski

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