Glass Onion

The Beatles (White Album) artworkWritten by: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: 11, 12, 13, 16, 20 September; 10 October 1968
Producers: Chris Thomas, George Martin
Engineer: Ken Scott

Released: 22 November 1968 (UK), 25 November 1968 (US)

John Lennon: vocals, acoustic guitar
Paul McCartney: bass, piano, recorder
George Harrison: lead guitar
Ringo Starr: drums, tambourine
Henry Datyner, Eric Bowie, Norman Lederman, Ronald Thomas: violins
John Underwood, Keith Cummings: violas
Eldon Fox, Reginald Kilbey: cellos

Available on:
The Beatles (White Album)
Anthology 3
Love

John Lennon’s answer to those who looked for hidden meanings in The Beatles’ music was Glass Onion, a song deliberately filled with red herrings, obscure imagery and allusions to past works.

Download on iTunes


Fully aware of the power of The Beatles’ own mythology, and with a general dislike of those who over-interpreted his work, Lennon deliberately inserted references to I Am The Walrus, Strawberry Fields Forever, Lady Madonna, The Fool On The Hill and Fixing A Hole.

The effect is a kaleidoscopic look through the group’s back pages. Lady Madonna, whose protagonist reappears in Glass Onion, contained a reference to I Am The Walrus (“See how they run”).

That song, in turn, featured the line “See how they fly like Lucy in the sky”, a clear reference to Sgt Pepper‘s psychedelic masterpiece. The effect is of a continual strand running through The Beatles’ works, even if such a strand was never intended in the first place.

That’s me, just doing a throwaway song, à la Walrus, à la everything I’ve ever written. I threw the line in – ‘the Walrus was Paul’ – just to confuse everybody a bit more. And I thought Walrus has now become me, meaning ‘I am the one.’ Only it didn’t mean that in this song.

It could have been ‘the fox terrier is Paul,’ you know. I mean, it’s just a bit of poetry. It was just thrown in like that.

John Lennon
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

Although it was written in 1968, Lennon later claimed the line was written because he was intending to leave The Beatles.

Well, that was a joke. The line was put in partly because I was feeling guilty because I was with Yoko and I was leaving Paul. I was trying – I don’t know. It’s a very perverse way of saying to Paul, you know, ‘Here, have this crumb, this illusion – this stroke, because I’m leaving’.
John Lennon
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

McCartney has also revealed that during the filming of Magical Mystery Tour, it was he who wore the Walrus costume for the song’s performance. It has been said that, although intended for Lennon, the costume was a better fit on McCartney.

As well as the references to past Beatles songs, Lennon also inserted a number of new images to assist further myth-making. These were bent backed tulips, the cast iron shore, a dove-tail joint and the glass onion of the title.

Glass Onion was a name suggested by Lennon for The Iveys, a Swansea group who signed to Apple in 1968 and later became Badfinger. Lennon retained a liking for the phrase ‘glass onion’, which had apt connotations of both transparency and multiple layers.

The Cast Iron Shore is a real place in Liverpool, sometimes known locally as the Cassie. A dovetail joint, meanwhile, is even less enigmatic, being a common feature of woodwork joinery. However, Lennon may have liked the use of the word ‘joint’, presumably expecting many to see it as a reference to a cannabis reefer.

The bent backed tulips are believed to have been inspired by the table arrangement at Parkes, a then-fashionable restaurant on London’s Beauchamp Place.

You’d be in Parkes sitting around your table wondering what was going on with the flowers and then you’d realise 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.
Derek Taylor
A Hard Day’s Write, Steve Turner

Anthology 3 contains two versions of Glass Onion. The first of these was a demo recorded at Kinfauns, George Harrison’s bungalow in Esher, Surrey. It features Lennon on acoustic guitar and double-tracked vocals, and lapses into gobbledigook where the lyrics were unfinished.

The second version was recorded in Abbey Road, and contains a selection of sound effects assembled by Lennon. These include a telephone ring, smashing glass, an organ note and a loop of the BBC football commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme exclaiming “It’s a goal!” The effects were later replaced by the string arrangement which ends the song.

In the studio

The Beatles began recording Glass Onion on 11 September 1968. They taped 34 attempts at the basic rhythm track, of which take 33 was the best.

The next day Lennon recorded his lead vocals and Starr taped a tambourine part. On 13 September piano and another drum track were added, and three days later Paul McCartney recorded a brief recorder part.

The sound effects, later discarded, were assembled on 20 September. Their replacement was recorded on 10 October: eight string musicians playing a short score by George Martin.

20 Responses to “Glass Onion”

  1. robert

    A thought about the “Walrus Was Paul” line – I have read John’s quote how this was his way of thanking Paul for keeping things together.

    At the same time, John also mentioned that after saying “I am the Walrus” he later realized that in actual story, the Walrus was the big capitalist who took all the oysters for himself.

    This causes me to wonder if John’s remarks about thanking Paul (made years later) aside, as to whether this line was actually a sly swipe at Paul at the time he wrote it. Paul becoming the greedy one etc.

    Remember the White Album was the beginning of their disintegration as a band and as partners.

    Thoughts?

    Reply
    • Joseph Brush

      I seem to remember reading the “thanking Paul” comment by John for the first time in the Rolling Stone interview “Lennon Remembers” which was released in January 1971.
      It didn’t read as though the Walrus story line and Paul were somehow being connected by John in the interview.

      Reply
  2. StarrTime

    I don’t think Lennon realized his “mistake” of not being calling it “I am the Carpenter” until much later, but I guess no one really knows…I don’t think it was a “swipe” at Paul, I just think he threw it in there for fun, which is the way John intended this song to be. See, we’re doing it, by even discussing the lyrics I suppose we’re proving Lennon’s point of looking too hard at the lyrics, but it’s so much fun!

    Reply
  3. robert

    I believe Lennon realized his mistake about the Walrus being the bad guy pretty soon after the song came out. I believe it’s covered in the Hunter Davies “authorized bio” which came about before the White Album.

    I’m not saying for sure if it was a swipe – however at that time period, Lennon never wrote lyrics without understanding their full impact.

    Just one view on it.

    Reply
  4. G. McGregor

    My favorite Paul bassline. Not saying it was the best – just my fave.
    I LOVE this song not for the intricasies and ambiguities of lyrics but just the SOUND of it. What a groovy 4/4 tempo. And the cello parts are fantastic. One of my faves of theirs.

    Reply
  5. Schminking of gin

    I’m a huge Lennon fan, my favorite Beatle, but sometimes when he talks about his disdain for people retrospectively interpreting his lyrics, and then he goes and says something like well, the walrus line was actually about me planning on leaving the Beatles…eh, that comes off like an after-the-fact interpretation of what he may have subconsciously been thinking at the time.

    Reply
  6. Richard

    I have heard that Paul used a baritone guitar to double his bass lines on many songs on the WA – something you can clearly hear on Glass Onion. Definitely he used the same technique on While My Guitar Gently Weeps…the bass sounds are pretty similar on these two WA songs. A really unique sound!

    Reply
    • D.B.

      It’s just a Fender VI on this track. This short-scale 6-string bass/long-scale baritone guitar (the distinction is blurry with this model) was also featured on several other White Album/Let It Be/Abbey Road tracks (when George and John played bass, it was always this one after 1968). No doubling here, it’s somehwere between a baritone and a bass!

      Reply
    • Millaard

      That’s a nice discovery! This sheds some new light on matters, although we will probably never be sure if that’s actually where Lennon got the title from.

      Reply
  7. JP

    It always surprised me that John believed the other Beatles (hell, the whole world in his mind) were “jealous” of his relationship with Yoko. It’s the height of arrogance and presumption, and a weird self-justification for his actions (the “I had to take heroin, and so did the often pregnant Yoko – because THEY were all so uncomfortable and jealous of our unmatched love”). Here on Glass Onion, John is claiming that he’s “throwing Paul a crumb of niceness – cos I have Yoko and I am leaving him!” Considering Paul had Linda (and could of had any woman he wanted then), and George had Patti Boyd, WHY would they be “jealous” of John and Yoko? Did John think so little of Paul that he had to pity him with cryptic references in his song?

    Reply
  8. SCOTT

    Paul does not wear the walrus costume in Magical Mystery Tour. It is John sitting at the piano who turns into the walrus. Also on the cover of MMT the hippo (Paul) is wearing a wristwatch on his right wrist. The rabbit (George) and chicken (Ringo) are wearing watches on their left wrists.

    Reply
  9. paulsbass

    Funny how James Bond left his mark on the boys (You only live twice came out in 67), since this is one of two songs on the White Album featuring the Bond theme (“Oh yeah”). The other one being “Savoy Truffle”.

    Reply
  10. Father McCartney

    The Scottish band Travis were originally called Glass Onion. I remember watching them in a Glasgow pub (Nice n’ Sleazy’s), probably around mid/late nineties under this moniker.

    Reply

Leave a reply