Thursday, April 16, 2009

Glass Onion

"Glass Onion" offers a window into John's strange brain, I think, because it was written to kind of insult his fans-- as in "I Am the Walrus," John wrote this one trying to deliberately flummox listeners. But, see, if you're going to walk around and say you're a genius (which he did), then why get irritated that people try to approach your music with the interpretive, analytical ear that your sense of your own genius would seem to demand? It's in keeping with John's impatience for any intellectual high-fallutin' bullshittiness, but I think he's capable of taking it to the point of not making any sense. You know what else doesn't make sense? Many of the lyrics to "Glass Onion."

When I was young, I had a lot of fun counting the references to other Beatles songs here, as does everyone who first encounters it. And I particularly like the mockery of "The Fool on the Hill," complete with hollow-sounding recorder. (By the way, did you ever notice that the recorder doesn't just go away, but actually keeps playing in a weird repetitive kind of way but very, very undermixed? When I first noticed that I remember thinking it was kind of cool, like John was smothering the Fool out completely. And a good thing too.) Note that the recorder isn't the only musical quotation used to bolster the lyrical quotation: I hear the thick string glissandos as quotes of "I Am the Walrus," specifically the opening thereof, which makes sense to me because that string sound that was so prevalent on their music of 1967 tended to be frowned upon by the time of 1968's White Album sessions.

Those touches like the recorder and strings pop out when you listen, because the rest of the texture kind of thickens into one effective monosound. Well, not too thick-- I actually think that Ringo sounds as though he's leading everyone along, totally in charge with those dead-on drum whiffs. The bits in between verses when the other instruments cut out and his drums come in on -3-4 almost sound like a count-off and restart. And we shouldn't be too surprised if Ringo was giving his all, since he was freshly back in the studio from a brief hiatus. Here's a fun trivia fact for you: Ringo was the very first Beatles to quit the Beatles. It just didn't stick. He stormed out during some particularly nasty moments of the White Album sessions, leaving Paul to handle drumming on "Back in the U.S.S.R." and "Dear Prudence." Since this was the first time (and trust me, there would be others) someone had up and left, it kind of freaked everyone else out, and when they got Ringo to come back he was welcomed with flowers all over his drum kit.

Anyway, as for the content of what John was trying to say in "Glass Onion," I'm actually completely okay with him joking me. I prefer to think it was a little more gentle, but you can never be sure with John. In fact, I like to read it as a cornerstone of John's aesthetic: John likes nonsense, period. He just does. You get this from reading his poetry books, too, this sense that what matters most is the musicality of the words, and whether or not it's funny. The rest is meaninglessness, or perhaps obfuscation, but either way he sees it as a waste to try to figure out any other meanings. And that's cool. As a former Earnest English Major, I don't totally agree, but the thing is that I think "Glass Onion" is a cool song (if kind of a minor cool song from John), and I don't want to fight it. Let's just groove to it.

"Glass Onion," released in the U.K. side A track 3 of The Beatles a.k.a. the White Album, November 22, 1968; in the U.S. November 25, 1968.


  1. Ooh! I didn't know that about Dear Prudence.

  2. If memory serves, Ringo stormed out because Paul was being particularly demanding about how the drumming should be on Back To The USSR. Ringo wasn't meeting Paul's "standard." Am i right about this, Megan? Then when Ringo didn't return to the studio the next day, they all felt like, hmm, guess Ringo's really upset, eh? Getting back to Glass Onion, i particularly like the drumming on it. Once again, Megan, your musical insights are such a delight to read.

  3. I believe that's right, Frank-- I don't entirely remember the details, but there was definitely a storming out, and he didn't come back for a good several days. It definitely bugged them out.