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Notes on "Glass Onion"


Notes on ... Series #132 (GO)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: a minor
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Verse | Refrain | Verse | Refrain |
                  | Bridge  | Verse | Refrain | Outro (fade-out)
        CD: "White Album", Disc 1, Track 3 (Parlophone CDS7 46443-8)
  Recorded: 11th-13th September, 10th October 1968, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 22nd November 1968 (LP "White Album")
US-release: 25th November 1968 (LP "White Album")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note In spite of its short length, compact form, frugal material, and casual production values, this talking-blues/patter-song packs a surprising amount of novelty, especially in its underlying musical structure.
  Next note The form has a schematic stick-figure feeling about it. This is caused by the lack of an intro, the almost completely unrelieved series of verse / refrain pairs, and the way in which musical phrases are immediately repeated in each of those sections. The non-sequitur outro serves to counteract what otherwise could have been a fatal complacency.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note As is common in bluesy tunes that are set in a minor key, the tune here leans heavily on the flat fifth scale degrees, which coincides with the (E-flat) top note of the F7 chord.
  Next note The harmony throughout is restless and meandering, never clearly coming to a point. You could almost claim that the song is "atonal", not in the sense of being twelve-tone music, but because it is without a clearly defined home key.
  Next note As home key a minor asserts itself even though you'll search in vain for any clear cadences (V -» I, IV -» I) that officially establish it as such. Okay, you've got flat-VII -» I implied by the way in which the start of each new verse is set up, but that's a relatively tenuous way in which to define the home key.
  Next note A small though strange group of chords is used; in order of their appearance: a-minor, F7, g-minor, C and D7. Only a-minor and C-Major are diatonically indigenous to a minor. The F chord almost would be, if it weren't sporting that flat seventh. The g-minor chord taken in concert with C-Major points in the direction of a modulation to F Major. Similarly, the D7 hints at a modulation to the key of G, though the arrival on G can be ambiguously taken as a V chord hint at a modulation to the key of C. I told you the sense of home key was at least slightly unclear!


  Next note On an otherwise somewhat heavily overdubbed and indistinct backing track with a double-tracked lead vocal and shaking tambourine, several details are worth your straining to hear:
  • The opening "three-four-one"drum motif used throughout but mixed the first time around with the reverb split onto the left track.
  • The glissando of bowed strings every time the g-minor -» C chord progression appears; shades of the fireman's bell in "Penny Lane".
  • A phantom wisp of falsetto backing vocal at the very end of the second verse.
  • An electric piano glissando near the end of the bridge.
  • A palpable instant of deafening clean silence in between the end of the bridge and the start of the final verse.
  Next note The way in which the "Fool On The Hill"'s recorder lick is delayed until the phrase after it is mentioned, and the phantom continuation of it that can be barely heard mixed way the hell back in the phrase following that.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note The verse has an unusual length of nine measures. The third phrase is one measure longer than the others, though all four are at least loosely related to each other. I'd call the poetic pattern AA-A'A'' because the first two phrases are identical and the last two phrases, while derived from the first one, are more closely related to each other even though they do not make quite an identical pair.
       ------------- 2X --------------
      |a           G  |F7          G  |
   a:  i               VI

      |a              |g7             |C              |
       i               ii-of-VI        V-of-VI

      |g7             |C              |
       ii-of-VI        V-of-VI

   [Figure 132.1]
  Next note The harmony leans heavily toward a modulation to F but never quite makes it.
  Next note The early outtake of this song heard on "Anthology", Volume 3 makes explicit a G chord on the final beat of measures 1 and 2, though this is not so clear on the official version.


  Next note The refrain is only six measures long with an AAA' phrasing pattern in which the final phrase differs from the previous two only in the way it harmonically leads to G instead of D:
       ------------- 2X --------------
      |F7             |D7             |
   a:  VI              V-of-flat-VII

      |F7             |G              |
       VI              flat-VII

   [Figure 132.2]


  Next note The bridge is ten measures long, eight of which are played over a pedal harmony on a-minor, and the final two of which echo the refrain ending:
 Middle voice: |E           |-           |F           |-           |
       Chords: |a           |-           |-           |-           |
            a:  i

               |F#          |-           |G           |-           |
               |-           |-           |-           |-           |

               |F7          |G           |
                VI           flat-VII

   [Figure 132.3]
  Next note 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.
  Next note There is something ironic in the way this bridge relieves the surrounding monotony of verse refrain section pairs even though the bridge, per se, only serves to reiterate and intensify the same overall mood of the piece. You'll notice that John pulls essentially the same stunt in "Dear Prudence".


  Next note The final eight measures overlap with the downbeat of the final measure of the refrain and present the followings strange chromatic chord stream of dominant sevenths repeated twice into a fade-out during which the tape is treated to an increasing amount of wow and/or flutter:
    1   2   3  4   1   2   3   4    1
   |G   F7        |-       E7  Eb7 |D7            |-      Eb7 E7 |

   [Figure 132.4]
  Next note Just like the surprise ending in a good mystery novel, the ending here works as effectively as it does, not because it appeared totally out of the blue, but precisely because, on later reflection, it only seemed to have done so.
  The chord progression outlined at the end by the string ensemble turns out to be the refrain opening in slight disguise, and the glissando execution of chords was anticipated earlier in the second half of the verses.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note Lewisohn describes this song as John's goofing on "those despised people who dissected his lyrics ...", but I think you could also call it self-parody in equal measure. While this one is certainly not as heavily invested as, say, "Strawberry Fields ..." or "... Walrus", you cannot help notice that several of the same techniques and gestures made famous by those songs are found here as well.
  Alan (071497#132)
Copyright © 1997 by Alan W. Pollack. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.