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The Beatles Songs: Glass Onion

The history of this classic Beatles song

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The Beatles Songs: Glass Onion

The original US sheet music for "Glass Onion"

rarebeatles.com

Glass Onion

Written by: John Lennon (100%)
(credited to Lennon-McCartney)
Recorded: September 11-13, 16 and 23, 1968 (Studio 2, Abbey Road Studios, London, England)
Mixed: September 26 and October 10, 1968
Length: 2:17
Takes: 33

Musicians:

John Lennon: lead vocals (double-tracked), acoustic rhythm guitar (1963 Gibson "Super Jumbo" J-200)
Paul McCartney: bass guitar (1961 Fender Bass VI), piano (1905 Steinway Vertegrand "Mrs. Mills"), recorder
George Harrison: lead guitar (1961 Sonic Blue Fender Stratocaster)
Ringo Starr: drums (Ludwig and possibly unknown kit), tambourine
Eric Bowie, Henry Datyner, Norman Lederman, Ronald Thomas: violins
Keith Cummings, John Underwood: violas
Eldon Fox, Reginald Kilbey: cellos

Available on: (CDs in bold)
The Beatles (a/k/a "The White Album"; UK: Apple PMC 7067-8; US: Apple SWBO 101; Parlophone CDP 7 46443 2; CDP 7 46444 2)

History:

  • Although it's often misconstrued as a comment on the "Paul is Dead" phenomenon, Lennon's snide "Glass Onion" doesn't refer to that controversy, mainly because it didn't start to gain ground on college campuses until early 1969. This song was written sometime in late May of 1968, which we know because it doesn't appear on the "Kinfauns" demos of material written in India, but does appear on John's own "Kenwood" demos recorded just afterwards. Therefore, it's not about "PID," despite its references to "clues": Fact is, Beatles fans had been reading things into the band's lyrics for years, beginning with "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." Lennon had already written "I Am the Walrus" in response to the headmasters at his old school "teaching" his lyrics, but while that song was a deliberately obtuse thicket of metaphors that resisted all comprehension, "Glass Onion" was an attempt to make particular Beatles lyrics seem more important than they actually were, even setting them up as pieces of a larger puzzle. When the "Paul is Dead" rumors began to take off nationally, this song was already there to feed right into them.
  • A very simple and even short number, consisting of just three verses, "Glass Onion" began with a surprising 33 takes of its backing track, recorded on September 11, 1968 with bass, drums, and two guitars. The next day John recut his lead vocal, as was the practice, and Ringo added tambourine. On the 13th, Paul added piano and Ringo a rare second drum track, played in unison with the first on what band associate Mal Evans describes as a second set of drums, though what second kit Ringo might have played is unknown. Paul added a mocking recorder part to John's verse about the "Fool on the Hill" on the 16th, and John, realizing the track stopped dead, brought in 2:35 of a homemade sound collage to be used as a coda. George Martin, perhaps feeling that the boys had been to this particular well too many times, suggested instead a string section, which he recorded on October 10. The odd, wobbling effect that afflicts the strings as they gradually slow down is almost certainly Lennon's invention, possibly a product of altered tape effects. (The original ending, with a faded edit of the sound collage, can be heard on Anthology 3.
  • The word salad that John concocted to throw fans off the "trail" was a witty and appropriately confusing one. It pointedly contained lyrical references to "Strawberry Fields Forever," "The Fool on the Hill," "Fixing a Hole", "I Am the Walrus," and even the Beatles' current single at the time the song was written, "Lady Madonna." It also featured what seemed like several nonsense phrases, but as with other Lennon songs, these weren't invented but simply assembled. "Looking through the bent-back tulips / To see how the other half live," according to Beatles associate Derek Taylor, refers to the floral arrangements at a popular (and very expensive) London restaurant named Parkes that the band frequented. There is a "cast iron shore" in Liverpool, on the south banks of the Mersey near what was an iron foundry, which locals called the "Cazzy" or "Cassie." In typical John fashion, this lyric was inserted as a joke; that area of the Mersey shoreline was notorious for its sewage buildup. Similarly, a "dovetail joint" is a term in carpentry, but Lennon snuck it in as a drug reference, knowing that fans and critics alike pored over Beatles lyrics for such outrages.
  • John also notoriously refers to Paul as "The Walrus" in this song, in another attempt to confuse and confound, given that Lennon himself sang "I Am the Walrus." Contrary to what still gets reported today, the walrus "a symbol of death in some cultures" - John's original statement was meant to be nonsense, and this one even more so. (However, Paul did wear the Walrus suit in the Magical Mystery Tour movie during the band's performance of "I Am the Walrus," but the group maintains that this was because the suit fit Paul better than John.) In later interviews, John claimed that he included that line as a shout-out to McCartney, either as a thank-you for leading the band for the past couple of years, or a conciliatory gesture for making Yoko Ono his new creative partner.

Trivia:

  • John had originally wanted to rename The Iveys, a band the group were about to sign to their new Apple label, as Glass Onion. However, they eventually became named after "Bad Finger Boogie," the original title of "With a Little Help from My Friends." Hence, Badfinger.
  • John's original demo for "Glass Onion" can also be heard on Anthology 3. It has only the first verse, repeated three times, although the line "You know the place where nothing is real" is replaced by "Well, here's a place you know just as real." It slows down in parts, then concludes with quite a bit of double-tracked gibberish by John, including some vocal scatting and stray phrases like "Gene Vincent Fan Club," "The committee canceled all the..." and "Friends and neighbors."
  • Paul can be heard in the stereo mix shouting "Yeaaahhhh!" after John's third "Oh yeah" in the bridge. In mono, this is not present, but there were several sound effects in the original mono mix that never made it to the stereo mix. Paul can also be heard far back in both mixes yelping "forever" after John sings the words "Strawberry Fields."
  • In what is perhaps the ultimate irony, there's been a lot of discussion amongst fans and scholars of what sort of object a "glass onion" might be. The "Paul is Dead" interpretation says it's a coffin with a glass lid, though there's no record of it ever being referred to that way by morticians. It's also been posited as a television tube, a monocle, or a crystal ball, and also suggested that the phrase was merely a tribute to the story Through the Looking Glass, written by Lewis Carroll, a lifelong favorite of John's. The most popular current interpretation is that it's simply a metaphor for the song itself - a completely transparent object that reveals absolutely nothing as you remove its layers of meaning!

Covered by: Phish, Arif Mardin, Marshmallow, Godless Wicked Creeps

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