“All you need is love,” The Beatles and their founding member, John Lennon, once sang on their way to the top of the charts. In fact, throughout their career, the song came to epitomise their overarching message. Written by Lennon, Ringo Starr once said of the song: “It was for love and bloody peace. It was a fabulous time. I even get excited now when I realise that’s what it was for: peace and love, people putting flowers in guns.” But that message of love didn’t extend to all of The Beatles work.
Sometimes they were mean, sometimes they were scandalous, sometimes they were even angry. When the band broke up, and the Fab Four pursued their solo stardom, the message began to fade into the distance like so much Beatlemania. One man who was more than capable of championing the benefits of peace while also delivering a scything song was John Lennon. On one piece, in particular, he even deliberately tried “to be nasty”.
‘Steel and Glass’, which has appeared on Lennon’s Walls and Bridges, Menlove Ave and John Lennon Anthology was one track in which Lennon tried to send a few shots. Usually, the target is pretty clear, but it’s a little confused about who the singer was actually aiming at on this song. One thing is for sure, though, he was trying to leave a mark: “I was trying to write something nasty, and I really didn’t feel that nasty, but there’s some interesting musical stuff on it.”
It was first released on 1974’s Walls and Bridges and it didn’t take long for people to assume the song was about his longtime songwriting partner Paul McCartney. Having already duked it out with Macca through song (see their sparring tracks ‘Too Many People’ and ‘How Do You Sleep?’), it seemed an easy fit. However, it was a notion Lennon firmly denied: “It actually isn’t about one person in particular, but it has been about a few people and, like a novel writer, if I’m writing about something other than myself, I use other people I know or have known as examples. If I want to write a ‘down’ song, I would have to remember being down, and when I wrote ‘Steel And Glass’ I used various people and objects.”
“If I had listed who they were, it would be a few people,” continued Lennon, “And you would be surprised. But it really isn’t about anybody. I’m loathed to tell you this because it spoils the fun. I would sooner everybody think, ‘Who’s it about?’ and try and piece it together. For sure, it isn’t about Paul, and it isn’t about Eartha Kitt.”
The next supposed target of the song is perhaps the most keenly obvious: Allen Klein. The music mogul had begun managing The Beatles in 1970 to oversee the band’s final moments, something Paul McCartney took a particular dislike to. Macca was forced into suing both Klein and the three other Beatles so that he could dissolve their agreement. By the time the other band members had run their course with Klein in 1973, the relationship had soured.
Lennon never confirmed who exactly the song was written about, after all, he remained friends with Klein until his tragic death in 1980. In truth, the song was likely about a composite of many different people in his life. One thing that we can be sure of is that whoever this amalgamation was, they must have really upset Lennon to turn the peace-loving man into a deliberately “nasty” songwriter.