The Beatles, “Glass Onion” from The White Album (1968): Deep Beatles

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John Lennon’s best friend from childhood, Pete Shotton, once told the story of how the late Beatles star composed “I Am the Walrus.” Lennon had received a letter from a teenage fan who mentioned that his teacher was having the class analyze Beatles lyrics. This both annoyed and amused the songwriter, who was inspired to write meaningless lyrics such as “Yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog’s eye.”

Once he finished the song, Lennon turned to Shotton and said: “Let the fuckers work that one out.”

In that same vein, Lennon composed The White Album track “Glass Onion” partially as a response to those who over-interpreted Beatles lyrics. That allowed the Beatles to gently satirize their fans, but also themselves.

This riddle of a song began while the Beatles studied in India; when they arrived home, Lennon cut a demo at his Kenwood estate. In Barry Miles’ Many Years from Now, McCartney described fond memories of writing and recording the track. Lennon and McCartney worked on elements of the track at McCartney’s Cavendish Avenue home, and later Lennon completed the arrangement with George Martin. “It was [John’s] song, his idea,” he said. “We had a fun moment when we were working on the bit, ‘I’ve got news for you all, the walrus was Paul.’ 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.”

In reality, the line was a red herring: McCartney did not appear as a walrus either on the Magical Mystery Tour album cover or in the film.

In one of his final interviews, John Lennon dismissed “Glass Onion,” stating …

That’s me, just doing a throwaway song, a la ‘Walrus’ a la everything I’ve ever written. I threw in the line ‘The walrus was Paul’ just to confuse everybody a bit more. It could’ve been the fox terrier is Paul, you know. I mean, it’s just a bit of poetry. It was just thrown in like that. … The line was put in 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 perverse way of saying to Paul, you know, ‘Here, have this crumb, this illusion, this stroke, because I’m leaving.’

According to Mark Lewisohn’s Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, recording began on September 11, 1968 at Abbey Road. Since George Martin was on vacation, engineer Chris Thomas substituted as producer. They ran through 34 takes of the basic rhythm track, with Ringo Starr on drums and tambourine, George Harrison on guitar; Lennon on lead vocals and guitar; and McCartney on bass. Take 33 was deemed best. The next day an additional drum track and piano part (courtesy of McCartney) were recorded.

By September 16, either Lennon or McCartney devised a comedic element: flute notes echoing those from “Fool on the Hill.” Lewisohn posits that McCartney played the instrument; it was double-tracked, recorded as two overdubs, and placed on tracks six and eight. However, the Beatles were not done tinkering with the track: by September 26, Lennon decided to create a four-track tape containing sound effects. Noises including a telephone ringing, one note of an organ, breaking glass, and a sample of a BBC soccer commentator screaming “It’s a goal” comprised the tape.

Upon returning from vacation and hearing the rather unusual experiment, Martin suggested adding strings instead, which were recorded as an overdub on October 10. Lennon subsequently scrapped the sound effects; his original vision can be heard on Anthology 3, complete with the odd noises.

In his book From Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust, engineer Ken Scott recalled how an initially huge mistake turned out to be one of the most distinctive facets of “Glass Onion.” He explained that he and the Beatles had recorded many snares, specifically the opening beats to the track (or the “blap, blap” as Scott terms it). They recorded this section five times; Scott stated they had overdubbed many snares making the sound to increase the impact, then mixed it down to one track.

Later in the session, Scott prepared for seemingly the final overdub: Paul McCartney and George Martin’s assistant playing recorders. “And we’re doing what was called a punch-in where we start recording after the last blap blap, so I have to play the last blap blap, then hit record and then they start playing. Well, after quite a few attempts of it being played, I wasn’t thinking quite properly and I went straight into record as opposed to play / blap blap / record – and erased the last bunch of snares. And so the last time you hear it, it’s just a solo snare – just Ringo,” he told Strange Brew.

When Lennon heard the single snare in playback, he asked Scott to rewind the tape to that section. Thinking he was about to be sacked, Scott ran back the tape. “I played it for him and he said, ‘No one would ever think of having the smallest part of the song come immediately after the biggest. I like it. We’ll keep it.'” Scott said. “So, next time you hear it you’ll notice that the last one is very different and it was just because of my cock up.”

To enhance the sound of Ringo Starr’s drums even more, tea towels were placed in the drums to create a heavy “thud” effect. Another unusual technique was used: a pack of Geoff Emerick’s favorite cigarettes, Everest, rested on the drum head.

As Starr’s snares stumble in, John Lennon gleefully refers to several Beatles conspiracy theories and pokes fun at the band’s previous recordings. He states that he has already mentioned “Strawberry Fields,” but is now introducing listeners to a new state of mind, a place “where everything flows.” He paints a picture similar to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” in its surreal images: “Looking through the bent-backed tulips / To see how the other half live / Looking through a glass onion.”

Not surprisingly, Lennon follows these weird phrases with references to the equally abstract “I Am the Walrus.” He claims that he remains “as close as can be” to the walrus, but adds “Here’s another clue for you all / The walrus was Paul.” Next comes a quotation from “Lady Madonna” along with an apparent reference to Liverpool (“Standing on the cast-iron shore”).

As Lennon repeats “oh yeah,” the Beatles slowly build steam behind him. While it may appear to change in key, musicologist Alan Pollack points out the illusory qualities of this section. “The chromatically rising middle voice develops your sense of expectation over the course of the pedal point, though really it’s a bit of a tease; there’s nothing in the way of harmonic ‘progression’ going on behind the building suspense,” he writes.

Lennon’s scream relieves the tension, leading to a repetition of the title phrase, inviting listeners to gaze deeper into the world through the lens of the glass onion.

Through this lens, John Lennon points out the fool on the hill, stressing that he is still living in this alternate universe. However, he states he can lead listeners even further into the rabbit hole with two seemingly nonsensical lines: “Fixing a hole in the ocean / Trying to make a dove-tail joint, yeah.” In the Beatles Encyclopedia, Womack posits that the last part of the lyric could refer to Lennon’s difficulty in writing the song or telling the story.

After repeating the title phrase one more time, the music drops out to reveal only the strings. They play an eerie but melancholy tune, adding to the listener’s sense of disjointedness, of aurally residing in an alternate world where nothing makes sense.

Clearly, Lennon turned a satirical pen on himself and his bandmates. By slyly referencing previous Beatles songs, Lennon demonstrated that he does not take himself too seriously. Looking through the lens of the glass onion, he plays the trickster, turning the lens on fans as well as himself. Just he did with “I Am the Walrus,” John Lennon leaves listeners to interpret his intentions.

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole is a lifelong music enthusiast who maintains a stand-alone music blog called Listen to the Band. In addition, she is the internet columnist and a contributing editor for Beatlefan magazine. She also holds an Ed.D. in Instructional Technology. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Kit O'Toole
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