"Happiness is a Warm Gun" is the eighth track on the Beatles' White Album, released in 1968 on November 22 in the UK (November 25 in the US). Formally credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, it was in fact written by John, with a little help from his friends.
Yoko Ono? Yoko - oh yes!
Mother superior, jump the gun
John: "I call Yoko Mother or Madam just in an offhand way. The rest [of the song] doesn't mean anything. It's just images of her."
John first met Yoko Ono on November 9, 1966, at London's Indica Gallery. John had been invited to the gallery to have a private viewing of Yoko's work, which was being exhibited there the following evening.
They made an impression on each other, and over the next year or so, Yoko sought John's patronage. As we all know, she found so much more.
John and Yoko finally consummated their relationship as dawn broke on May 20, 1968, after spending the night recording what would later be released by the pair as Two Virgins.
John and Yoko became inseparable from then on, and when the Beatles convened at Abbey Road on May 30 to commence recording The White Album, Yoko was by John's side.
At least three of John's songs from the White Album sessions were inspired, at least in part, by Yoko's presence in his life ("Happiness is a Warm Gun", "Julia" and "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey"), and a couple even featured Yoko's singular vocal talents ("The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill" and "Revolution 9").
The lyrical conceit
She's well acquainted with the touch of the velvet hand like a lizard on a window pane
The man in the crowd with the multicoloured mirrors on his hobnail boots
Lying with his eyes while his hands are busy working overtime
A soap impression of his wife which he ate and donated to the National Trust
Derek Taylor, the Beatles' press officer, recalled dropping acid with John, Neil Aspinall (the Beatles' personal assistant) and Pete Shotton (John's friend) and free-associating random memories into lyrics.
Derek had already provided the song's opening line, "She's not a girl who misses much"; "a lizard on a window pane" was a memory of Derek's from Los Angeles; "the man in the crowd" with mirrors on his boots was a popular anecdote doing the rounds concerning a man who'd look up girls' skirts at football matches.
I need a fix cos I'm goin' down
Down to the bits that I left uptown
Most people associate these lyrics with John's known heroin use. However, while Yoko introduced John to heroin around the summer of '68, he didn't become a fully-fledged user until the following year.
In any case, John was unequivocal: "No, it's not about heroin."
A history of rock and roll
Happiness is a warm gun
When I hold you in my arms
And I feel my finger on your trigger
I know nobody can do me no harm
So what is the song about? Well, there's the title, and then there's the song itself.
As for the title, John recalled: "A gun magazine was sitting there with a smoking gun on the cover and an article that I never read inside called "Happiness Is a Warm Gun." I took it right from there. I took it as the terrible idea of just having shot some animal."
John took the idea of a gun and turned it into a sexual metaphor: "It was at the beginning of my relationship with Yoko and I was very sexually oriented then. When we weren't in the studio, we were in bed."
Regarding the song, in terms of its musical structure, John claimed that it was merely a "history of rock and roll", in which he pieced together three stylistically different genres into one whole. Beginning with some Doors-y psychedelia, the song quickly moves into the heavier, avant garde-leaning areas then popularised by bands like the Mothers of Invention, the Fugs and the MC5, before reverting to a doo-wop pastiche.
She's not a girl who misses much
Around the third week of May 1968, the Beatles gathered at Kinfauns, George Harrison's bungalow in Esher, Surrey, south-west of London, to run through some embryonic songs in preparation for their imminent recording sessions at Abbey Road. At least twenty-seven song ideas were recorded on George's Ampex four-track, including John's "I Need a Fix/Mother Superior" (this can be heard on the Beatles' Anthology 3).
However, "Happiness is a Warm Gun" (as it was later retitled) was not formally approached until September 23, the twenty-fourth song to be laid down of the thirty-two tracks completed for The White Album and its attendant single (Hey Jude/Revolution). In the meantime, John had worked up the lyrics with his mates, experienced the inspiration with Yoko, and determined the song's layout on his own.
On September 23, the band recorded to eight-track tape forty-five takes of the rhythm track, comprising bass (Paul), drums (Ringo), lead guitar (John) and fuzzed lead guitar (George). The following evening another twenty-five takes were recorded. The first half of take 53 and the second half of take 65 were determined to be the finest cuts, and were summarily spliced together, at the 1:34 mark.
If you've never heard "Happiness is a Warm Gun", you may be wondering why it took the band so long to nail the rhythm track. However, this song is probably most notable for its rhythmic structure - the most rhythmically fucked-up piece of music the Beatles ever made. Here's a section-by-section analysis of the time signatures:
I need a fix cos I'm goin' down... (0:45-1:13):
- She's not a girl who misses much... (0:00-0:14):
- She's well acquainted with the velvet touch... (0:14-0:45):
- 1 bar of 4/4
- 1 bar of 2/4
- 5 bars of 4/4
- 1 bar of 5/4
- 1 bar of 4/4.
Mother superior, jump the gun... (1:13-1:35):
- twice through a 3 bars/4 bars/4 bars series of 3/8 (i.e. 22 bars of 3/8).
Happiness is a warm gun... (1:35-2:43):
- thrice through a bar each of 9/8 and 10/8.
- 4 bars of 4/4
- 3 bars of 12/8 (with the drums doing 4 bars of 4/4 and 1 bar of 2/4!)
- 5 bars of 4/4 (the final bar entering free time)
- 1 bar of 2/4 (in free time)
- 5 bars of 4/4
On September 25, vocals were recorded, including John's double-tracked lead vocals, as well as his cutesy "bang bang, shoot shoot" backing vocals (with Paul and George). Organ, tuba, piano, a snare drum beat and a tambourine were also added to the recording. Following the session, the completed recording was mixed to mono.
All told, it took fifteen hours and ninety-five takes to perfect the song, but this is evidence of the fact that the group dug the song.
Pretty much everyone else does, too! It's amazing what bands could do in under three minutes back in the day. Two minutes, forty-three seconds! It's phenomenal, what the Beatles packed into that little package...
Happiness is a warm - yes it is - gu-ooh-wa
Well, don't you know that happine' is a warm gun, mama