The White Album: Side One

3. Glass Onion

Primary Songwriter: Lennon

Recorded: September 11-13 and October 10, 1968 at Abbey Road

In his Chronicles, Bob Dylan wrote, “A song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true. They are like strange countries that you have to enter.” By that definition, “Glass Onion” is an epic songwriting achievement. And yet, Lennon, the song’s author, dismissed it as “a throw-away song”. Fans and critics alike argue whether, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, “there is any there, there”, but as I explain below, despite Lennon’s protestations, “Glass Onion” holds significance that elevates it above many of the “better” songs in the Beatles oeuvre.

One can begin with the title, about which — no surprise — there isn’t any firm agreement. Lennon stated that a glass onion is an object that, after multiple layers were peeled away, would reveal a void core. Utter transparency through and through. The Emperor without any clothes. This interpretation suited Lennon’s belief that over-zealous fans had taken to over-analyzing every Beatle lyric — the urban legend of McCartney’s death and its resulting hysteria, being a primary exemplar. This was why he said he teased listeners with:

I told you about the walrus and me, manYou know that we’re as close as can be, man.
Well here’s another clue for you all:
The walrus was Paul.

On the other hand, didn’t “glass onions” also refer to caskets with glass covers? Thus, wouldn’t such a title fuel the “Paul Is Dead” fable?

The epitome of “a John song”, “Glass Onion” is labyrinthine, layered, challenging, confounding, ironic, jarring, dreamy. As one of rock’s first “post-modern” compositions, it boasts inchoate intertextuality and rampant self-referentiality; licentiously mixing past and present, it blurs image and reality, juxtaposes surface and depth, and decomposes truth through allusion to other pieces of a pre-existing puzzle (of which it forms a part). The song verily winks at its listeners: challenging them, in the final verse (“Trying to make a dove-tail joint, yeah”), to connect the dots. And how? By employing a glass onion — which also can mean “monocle”, a device that helps us to see more clearly.

The obvious dots are the litany of Beatles songs — eight in all — which are referenced: “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “I Am the Walrus”, “Lady Madonna”, “The Fool on the Hill”, and “Fixing a Hole”, overtly; “There’s a Place” — in the lyric “Well here’s another place you can go” — likely; “Within You Without You” — possibly — in the word “flow”; and “She Loves You” — I would aver — in Lennon’s intentional repetition near the end of (the differently inflected) “Yeah, yeah, yeah”.

Although “Glass Onion” is the third cut on the album, it was the first to feature Starr on drums. Thirty-four takes of the drum track were recorded and a second was laid two days later. A tambourine, piano, and eight strings were added in subsequent sessions. The return of Starr is significant because it best captures the degraded spirit underlying these sessions: personnel feeling slighted, roles minimized or usurped, contentious bickering, the principals sometimes recording in separate rooms — in the case of McCartney, working solo.

Legend has it that much of the discord was Lennon’s fault: committing the sacrilege of inviting Ono into the midst. Lennon, himself, suggests that the Walrus line had its origins in the new dynamic:

At that time I was still in my love cloud with Yoko. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just say something nice to Paul, that it’s all right and you did a good job over these few years, holding us together’… The line was put in partly because I was feeling guilty because I was with Yoko and I was leaving Paul…

Only…it wasn’t just that line. A careful reading suggests that the entire song is an ode to McCartney, homage to a deep friendship from a time now passed. Hence the references to a common Liverpool past (“cast iron shore”) and the early songs composed together (“She Loves You”) at Paul’s home (“There’s a Place”). Once distinct talents perfectly complemented one another, souls were hermetically linked. The joint held fast.

And by twisting McCartney’s own lyrics, Lennon was able to chart the group’s evisceration. McCartney playing wet nurse to the fragmenting family (“Lady Madonna trying to make ends meet — yeah”), band members pleading for reconciliation or accord (“trying to make the dove-tail joint”); but, ultimately being unable to patch the irreparable (“fixing a hole in the ocean”). Metaphoric tears become a torrent precipitated by the iterated peeling of onion skin: layers of years, layers of accumulated scar tissue.

Lennon’s artistic gift lay in how he externalized his internal. The world he reduced to meaningful song was one of attachments forged and broken. Leaving McCartney, cutting out on the Beatles, would require externalization: explanation, justification, apology. In “Glass Onion” we encounter a lover’s confession, a partner’s admission of infidelity. There is morning-after remorse, but also open-eyed realization that a threshold of no return has been crossed. As the final stanza fades, George Martin’s staccato strings declare inertia in decline, with the final pulses mimicking a terminating heartbeat. “Glass Onion” verily pronounces: “Paul, we are dead. I want a divorce”.

As paean to Lennon’s lost love for his Beatles, “Glass Onion” should be regarded not only as one of the more important Beatles songs on the album, but in the band’s entire catalogue. As deep archeology, it stands as a musical cipher, enabling us to decode the human dynamics and political-historical back-story of the formation and impending demise of rock’s greatest band.

tjm Holden

4. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da

Primary Songwriter: McCartney

Recorded: July 3-5, 8-9, 11, and 15, 1968 at Abbey Road

The Beatles can be regarded as rock’s first truly sprawling double album mess-terpiece, eschewing any singular sound in favor of stream-of-consciousness genre-hopping. That is, of course, what makes it so exciting: the total abandon of thematic unity altogether is the theme. It’s not just unfocused — it’s brilliant. But the line between genre exploration and parody, paying tribute and mocking, is awfully thin — just ask Ween — and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” deserves some of the blame.

Sure, “Back in the U.S.S.R.” is a Beach Boys/Chuck Berry knock-off, and “Yer Blues” spoofs British blues, but “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, a McCartney-penned foray into reggae-tinged novelty territory, is the least straight-faced of them all. For one thing, it has the distinct honor of regularly appearing on lists of the worst songs of all time, including Blender‘s “50 Worst Songs Ever”. (The rest of the band despised the track, and vetoed McCartney’s request to release it as a single. Lennon famously referred to it as “Paul’s granny shit” — until he got stoned to the gills and recorded the almost willfully obnoxious honky-tonk piano. McCartney had spent something to the tune of 40 hours trying in vain to record a good take, working with much slower tempos.) It’s also the only Beatles track ever to feature a reggae skank, the rhythmic accent on the off-beat. Hell, how many Beatles fans even recognize that word (skank) in a musical context?

If I’m being indirect, it’s because “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is at once the worst and the most fun track on the album. Of all the Beatles’ songs, no other so openly embraces the corniness of a readymade karaoke tune. What makes it even more hilarious is Starr’s(?) seeming inability to inject into his drumming any of the funk that reggae syncopations demand — but hey, life goes on, bra. I’m reminded of my childhood summer camp, where “Ob-La-Di” was a regular camp-wide sing-along. It was always the hippest counselors who faithfully recited those cute little elements from the recording that don’t appear on a lyric sheet: the creepy laughter, the infectious horn breakdown during the bridge, the badass piano riff at 2:32. Other little accidental sounds are all over the recording, giving it the screwing-around-in-the-studio vibe of the Beach Boys’ Party! album. It’s whimsical, and certainly tons more fun than the Offspring’s insipid tribute, “Why Don’t You Get a Job?”

The title isn’t drug-addled gibberish, by the way. Nigerian singer and congo player Jimmy Scott took credit for the phrase (basic translation: “Life goes on, bra!”), and went so far as to sue McCartney for its use. Scott reportedly dropped charges after McCartney helped him with alimony payments. The song is an ode to starting a family, touching or trite, depending on your mood. Desmond, the song’s protagonist who presents Molly with a “20-carat golden ring”, is a reference to reggae legend Desmond Dekker. As for the name mix-up in the last verse (“Desmond stays at home and does his pretty face/ And in the evening she’s a singer with a band”), McCartney intended to sing Molly’s name, yet left the mistake in for confusion’s sake.

Ultimately, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is a prelude to the inevitable Lennon-McCartney musical divorce. Lennon hated the song; he was drifting towards a solo career highlighted by “Imagine” and the deeply personal catharsis of Plastic Ono Band, in which there is no room for throwaway reggae tributes. McCartney was drifting towards…pop. It’s still comforting to know that the Beatles didn’t take themselves too seriously, and if that puts “Ob-La-Di” on some Worst Songs Ever poll — and more than a few karaoke machines — then so be it.

Zach Schonfeld

PopMatters