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‘Glass Onion’: The Story Behind The Song

Playing with fans who sought to decipher hidden meanings in their songs, The Beatles laced ‘Glass Onion’ with references to their earlier songs.

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As the 60s progressed, so pop music became more sophisticated. One result of this was that song lyrics began to be viewed by some fans as secret messages, clues to some deeper meaning for them to decipher and uncover the hidden truth their idols were imparting exclusively to those clued-up enough to get the message. On ‘Glass Onion’, The Beatles decided to have some fun with lyrical references to their earlier songs.

In 1967, Stephen Bayley, who at that time was a student at John Lennon’s old Quarry Bank School, in Liverpool, wrote to Lennon to tell him that a teacher was getting the class to analyse Beatles songs. He asked John to explain his songwriting, to which Lennon wrote back: “All my writing… has always been for laughs or fun or whatever you call it – 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 s__t that is built around all forms of art needs smashing anyway.”

“Play it backwards and you stand on your head”

Talking specifically about ‘Glass Onion’ in 1970, John explained: “I was having a laugh because there’d been so much gobbledegook about Pepper – play it backwards and you stand on your head and all that.”

‘Glass Onion’ makes reference to a number of other Beatles songs in its lyrics. As well as the walrus line, the song opens with a reference to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, before mentioning ‘Fixing A Hole’ and ‘The Fool On The Hill’, for the last of which, Paul McCartney and producer Chris Thomas added recorders to add to the allusion. There’s also a reference to ‘Lady Madonna’, which had itself included a reference to ‘I Am The Walrus’ (“see how they run”), which in turn included a reference to ‘Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds’ (“see how they fly like Lucy in the sky”). The original handwritten lyrics to ‘Glass Onion’ also include a crossed-out reference to another Beatles number in the last verse: “Looking through a hole in the ocean for a yellow submarine.”

At the time they recorded the Esher demos for “The White Album”, in late May 1968, ‘Glass Onion’ consisted of just one verse, which was repeated. Recording of the song didn’t begin until 11 September, while George Martin was on holiday. Chris Thomas took the helm for the ‘Glass Onion’ sessions, which began with John on acoustic guitar, George on electric guitar, Paul playing bass and Ringo on a new, experimental drum set-up. He had acquired a new Ludwig Hollywood kit, and photos taken by Linda Eastman at the sessions show him with, as Mal Evans described it in his Beatles Book Monthly column, “two drum kits instead of one”. His traditional oyster black pearl kit and his new Hollywood one were set up in a combined kit: “I thought I’d try a double bass-drum in the studio, like Ginger [Baker] and Moony [Keith Moon], so we set them all up. When I was to play the fill, the break came and I just froze, looking at all these drums!”

A number of overdubs were then added, among them John’s double-tracked vocal, tambourine, piano, Mellotron, snare and the two recorders; during the song’s mix, an ending was created – and spliced throughout the song – using tape loops of a phone ringing, a glass breaking and BBC TV’s Kenneth Wolstenholme’s commentary of England’s controversial third goal from the 1966 World Cup Final: “It’s a goal!”

But when George Martin returned from his holidays, he had a suggestion: why not add a string section instead? Martin scored for a string octet (basically a string quartet doubled up), taking the song’s sudden ending and winding it down to an eerie conclusion.

“It’s just a bit of poetry”

Recalling the song in his 1994 memoir, Many Years From Now, Paul McCartney said: “It was a nice song of John’s. We had a fun moment when we were working on the bit, ‘Here’s another clue 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.”

This particular pointer was clearly signposted and would come back to bite them. This line would be seen as a significant clue in the “Paul is dead” conspiracy that emerged in 1969, where fans scoured the band’s songs and artwork to find clues as to how and when Paul had supposedly died and been replaced by a “fake Paul”.

Of course, as Paul himself confirmed, he was very much alive. And besides, the walrus wasn’t actually Paul anyway, as John clarified in a 1980 interview: “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.”

The super deluxe edition of The Beatles’ “White Album” will be released on 9 November. Scroll down to read the full tracklist and pre-order the box set here.

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The BEATLES (‘White Album’) releases include:

Super Deluxe: The comprehensive, individually numbered 7-disc and digital audio collections feature:

CDs 1 & 2: The BEATLES (‘White Album’) 2018 stereo album mix

CD3: Esher Demos

– Esher Demo tracks 1 through 19 sequenced in order of the finished song’s placement on ‘The White Album.’ Tracks 20-27 were not included on the album.

CDs 4, 5 & 6: Sessions

– 50 additional recordings, most previously unreleased, from ‘White Album’ studio sessions; all newly mixed from the four-track and eight-track session tapes, sequenced in order of their recording start dates.

Blu-ray:

– 2018 album mix in high resolution PCM stereo

– 2018 DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 album mix

– 2018 Dolby True HD 5.1 album mix

– 2018 direct transfer of the album’s original mono mix

Deluxe: The BEATLES (‘White Album’) 2018 stereo album mix + Esher Demos

The 3CD; 180-gram 4LP vinyl box set (limited edition); and digital audio collections pair the 2018 stereo album mix with the 27 Esher Demos.

Standard 2LP Vinyl: The BEATLES (‘White Album’) 2018 stereo mix

180-gram 2LP vinyl in gatefold sleeve with faithfully replicated original artwork

Super Deluxe [6CD+1Blu-ray set / digital audio collection]

CD1: The BEATLES (‘White Album’) 2018 Stereo Mix

Back in the U.S.S.R.
Dear Prudence
Glass Onion
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Wild Honey Pie
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Happiness is a Warm Gun
Martha My Dear
I’m so tired
Blackbird
Piggies
Rocky Raccoon
Don’t Pass Me By
Why don’t we do it in the road?
I Will
Julia

CD2: The BEATLES (‘White Album’) 2018 Stereo Mix

Birthday
Yer Blues
Mother Nature’s Son
Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey
Sexy Sadie
Helter Skelter
Long, Long, Long
Revolution 1
Honey Pie
Savoy Truffle
Cry Baby Cry
Revolution 9
Good Night

CD3: Esher Demos

Back in the U.S.S.R.
Dear Prudence
Glass Onion
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Happiness is a Warm Gun
I’m so tired
Blackbird
Piggies
Rocky Raccoon
Julia
Yer Blues
Mother Nature’s Son
Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey
Sexy Sadie
Revolution
Honey Pie
Cry Baby Cry
Sour Milk Sea
Junk
Child of Nature
Circles
Mean Mr. Mustard
Polythene Pam
Not Guilty
What’s the New Mary Jane

CD4: Sessions

Revolution 1 (Take 18)
A Beginning (Take 4) / Don’t Pass Me By (Take 7)
Blackbird (Take 28)
Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey (Unnumbered rehearsal)
Good Night (Unnumbered rehearsal)
Good Night (Take 10 with a guitar part from Take 5)
Good Night (Take 22)
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (Take 3)
Revolution (Unnumbered rehearsal)
Revolution (Take 14 – Instrumental backing track)
Cry Baby Cry (Unnumbered rehearsal)
Helter Skelter (First version – Take 2)

CD5: Sessions

Sexy Sadie (Take 3)
While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Acoustic version – Take 2)
Hey Jude (Take 1)
St. Louis Blues (Studio jam)
Not Guilty (Take 102)
Mother Nature’s Son (Take 15)
Yer Blues (Take 5 with guide vocal)
What’s the New Mary Jane (Take 1)
Rocky Raccoon (Take 8)
Back in the U.S.S.R. (Take 5 – Instrumental backing track)
Dear Prudence (Vocal, guitar & drums)
Let It Be (Unnumbered rehearsal)
While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Third version – Take 27)
(You’re so Square) Baby, I Don’t Care (Studio jam)
Helter Skelter (Second version – Take 17)
Glass Onion (Take 10)

CD6: Sessions

I Will (Take 13)
Blue Moon (Studio jam)
I Will (Take 29)
Step Inside Love (Studio jam)
Los Paranoias (Studio jam)
Can You Take Me Back? (Take 1)
Birthday (Take 2 – Instrumental backing track)
Piggies (Take 12 – Instrumental backing track)
Happiness is a Warm Gun (Take 19)
Honey Pie (Instrumental backing track)
Savoy Truffle (Instrumental backing track)
Martha My Dear (Without brass and strings)
Long, Long, Long (Take 44)
I’m so tired (Take 7)
I’m so tired (Take 14)
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill (Take 2)
Why don’t we do it in the road? (Take 5)
Julia (Two rehearsals)
The Inner Light (Take 6 – Instrumental backing track)
Lady Madonna (Take 2 – Piano and drums)
Lady Madonna (Backing vocals from take 3)Across the Universe (Take 6)

Blu-ray: The BEATLES (‘White Album’)

Audio Features:

: PCM Stereo (2018 Stereo Mix)

: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (2018)

: Dolby True HD 5.1 (2018)

: Mono (2018 Direct Transfer of ‘The White Album’ Original Mono Mix)

Deluxe [3CD digipak / 180-gram 4LP vinyl box set (limited edition) / digital audio collection]

The BEATLES (‘White Album’) 2018 Stereo Mix

Esher Demos

Standard 2LP Vinyl [180-gram]

The BEATLES (‘White Album’) 2018 Stereo Mix

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