Saturday, December 22, 2012

Song Spot: Glass Onion

Glass Onion is one of my favourite Beatle songs and an interesting composition. But what does it all mean?

Some comments: 

Glass Onion is a track from the 1968 double album The Beatles. Their ninth album, it is more commonly as The White Album in that it had no images or text on the front or back of the album cover, simply the words “The Beatles” in embossing. The cover looked like this:

Just kidding.

Written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, it has generated considerable discussion and debate as to the meaning of the lyrics. The song, and indeed the album, was recorded during a stormy period for the group. They had returned from time spent with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (the founder of Transcendental Meditation) in India, spent time songwriting and then recording. Despite the unity implied by the name of the album, they were all going in separate directions and conflict was increasing. With the final withdrawal of McCartney in 1970, the group was at an end. George Martin, their producer, later commented "The world was a problem, but we weren't. You know, that was the best thing about The Beatles, until we started to break up, like during the White Album and stuff. Even the studio got a bit tense then." 


I told you about strawberry fields,
You know the place where nothing is real
Well here's another place you can go 
Where everything flows.
Looking through the bent backed tulips
To see how the other half lives 
Looking through a glass onion.

I told you about the walrus and me, man
You know that we're as close as can be, man.
Well here's another clue for you all,
The walrus was Paul.
Standing on the cast iron shore, yeah,
Lady Madonna trying to make ends meet, yeah.
Looking through a glass onion.
Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah.
Looking through a glass onion.

I told you about the fool on the hill,
I tell you man he living there still.
Well here's another place you can be,
Listen to me.

Fixing a hole in the ocean
Trying to make a dove-tail joint, yeah
Looking through a glass onion 

Video link:

Hear the song and see the clip at: 


The song refers to a number of earlier Beatles’ songs: 
Strawberry Fields Forever 
I am the Walrus 
Lady Madonna 
The Fool on the Hill 
Fixing a Hole. 

The “cast iron shore” mentioned is an area on the coast south of Liverpool which scousers refer to locally as “The Cazzy”. 

The two items receiving the most attention and generating the most discussion are the line “The walrus was Paul” and the meaning of “Glass Onion”. 

John Lennon wrote the lyrics to I am the Walrus in response to a report he received that the English master at his old school was making his class analyse Beatles’ lyrics. The lyrics to I am the Walrus are nonsense lyrics and Lennon commented after finishing it “Let the fuckers work that one out.” 

The reference to the Walrus in I am the Walrus came from the poem The Walrus and the Carpenter from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass. In his 1980 Playboy interview, Lennon commented "It never dawned on me that Lewis Carroll was commenting on the capitalist and social system. I never went into that bit about what he really meant, like people are doing with the Beatles' work. Later, I went back and looked at it and realised that the walrus was the bad guy in the story and the carpenter was the good guy. I thought, Oh, shit, I picked the wrong guy. I should have said, 'I am the carpenter.' But that wouldn't have been the same, would it?" 

In 1969 the ‘Paul is Dead’ conspiracy theory started spreading. This theory held that Paul McCartney had died in 1966 during the making of Sgt Pepper and that a lookalike had been substituted. Conspiracy theorists looked for clues in the music that they were right. They found lots, including clues in the Abbey Road album cover, commented on in a previous post.  Glass Onion was also used as support:

     John sings “Here’s another clue for you all”. 

     There was a rumour that “walrus” was Greek for “corpse” (incorrect).

    Saying “The walrus was Paul” was therefore a coded message that Paul was dead. 

Most people had assumed that John singing “I am the Walrus” meant that he was the Walrus. In the 1967 album Magical Mystery Tour, the Beatles had appeared in costume: Ringo as a chicken, George as a rabbit, Paul as a hippo and John as a walrus. In the 'I Am The Walrus' segment of the Magical Mystery Tour film, the walrus is sitting at the piano singing the song just as John was at the start of the song. 

In John Lennon’s first solo album (1970) after the breakup of the Beatles, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, he sings in the song “God” that he does not believe in various idols, just in self and Yoko as love. He sings 

I was the dream weaver 
But now I'm reborn 
I was the Walrus 
But now I'm John 

How then to explain a statement in Glass Onion that the Walrus was Paul? 

We have Lennon’s own explanation for that: 
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. I was having a laugh because there'd been so much goobledygook about Pepper—play it backwards and you stand on your head and all that. 
In a 1971 Rolling Stone interview he clarified it further: 
'I Am the Walrus' was originally the B side of ‘Hello Goodbye’. I was still in my love cloud with Yoko and I thought, well, I'll just say something nice to Paul: "It's all right, you did a good job over these few years, holding us together."  He was trying to organise the group, and organise the music, and be an individual and all that, so I wanted to thank him. I said 'The Walrus is Paul' for that reason. I felt, "Well, he can have it. I've got Yoko, and thank you, you can have the credit."
There has been speculation that because he later commented that the Walrus in The Walrus and the Carpenter was the bad guy, he was actually making a hostile comment about Paul but this is not generally accepted. Lennon was not aware of that fact in 1968 when the song was written with McCartney. 

Years later, after the breakup, he did make some cutting observations and comments about McCartney in “How Do You Sleep?” from the 1971 Imagine album: 

Those freaks was right when they said you was dead
The one mistake you made was in your head
How do you sleep?
Ah how do you sleep at night? ...

A pretty face may last a year or two
But pretty soon they'll see what you can do
The sound you make is muzak to my ears
You must have learnt something all those years 

Which brings us to Glass Onion. 

There have been various suggestions as to what the term means in English slang and usage: a glass topped coffin (supporting the Paul is Dead conspiracy theories); a monocle; a drinking glass aboard early ships. 

The more likely, and generally accepted, view of the term is that it refers to over analysing something, of peeling away layer after layer to find the hidden meaning, hidden truth, when all along it was clear and visible that the something wasn’t there. 

That means that the lyrics to Glass Onion are another joke, just as in I am the Walrus, and the lyrics deliberately include red herrings, obscure images and references to past Beatles’ songs. 

According to The Urban Dictionary, the term “glass onion” is now used to refer to the process of over analysing something: 
Originated from the Beatles song "Glass Onion" from their white album. It means to overanalyse something that is not intended to mean anything more then what it is. The entire point of the Glass Onion song was to poke fun at all the people who had looked for deep messages in previous Beatles songs. A glass onion is something that would have layer after layer peeled away, only to realise that it was transparent all along.  
"You completely glass onioned the movie Sideways
In her autobiography, "Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me," Pattie Boyd writes that they used to enjoy a restaurant in London in which the chef would do creative thing with flowers on your plate, including bending tulip petals backward. Hence, John's line, "Looking through the bent back tulips. 

By the way:

Lennon wanted to rename The Iveys, one of the bands they signed to Apple Records,“Glass Onion” but they elected to go with “Badfinger”.

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