‘Glass Onion’ was John Lennon’s answer to those who looked for hidden meanings in The Beatles’ music. It was a song deliberately filled with red herrings, obscure imagery and allusions to past works.
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.
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’.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
McCartney later revealed that he wore the walrus costume during the photo shoot for the album and EP cover, but Lennon who wore it during the film.
The big one. Very good question. I tell you what it was. In the stills we had taken, I was the one with the walrus head on – in the film it’s different. So John then immortalised it in ‘Glass Onion’, ‘I’ve got news for you all [sic], the walrus was Paul’. Obviously at the time you don’t care, it’s just a walrus head.
Q magazine, January 1998
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.
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 John Lennon recorded his lead vocals and Ringo 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.