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"HAPPINESS IS A WARM GUN"
(John Lennon – Paul McCartney)
"The 'White Album' was the tension album. We were all in the midst of the psychedelic thing, or just coming out of it. In any case, it was weird. Never before had we recorded with...people visiting for hours on end, business meetings and all that. There was a lot of friction. It was the weirdest experience because we were about the break up; that was tense in itself."
This Paul McCartney quote from 1987 is typical among the rest of the band and all onlookers at the time, the message being made loud and clear that the making of The Beatles “White Album” was the most strained experience in their relatively short career as a group. First hand accounts of arguments, screaming, refusing to cooperate, paranoia, and temper tantrums resulted in engineer Geoff Emerick walking out midway through the sessions and even Ringo Starr himself quitting the band for a time.
Despite the emotional strain that developed throughout the making of the album, there were at least moments of fun and camaraderie among The Beatles during this time. One such occasion was the recording of the song “Happiness Is A Warm Gun.” All four Beatles have been quoted as saying they liked the song, Paul even naming it as the best on the whole album. “I like to talk about this,” Paul stated about the song, “because I like it. It's a favorite of mine.”
The germ of "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" took root in Rishikesh, India in the spring of 1968 as The Beatles were studying with the Maharishi and practicing Transcendental Meditation. It appears that the bulk of the song was written after John had returned home from this trip, but one element that did result from his India trip was the finger-picking work that starts out the song, this style of guitar playing being taught to John by fellow TM student Donovan and/or his friend Gypsy Dave. John uses this same guitar style in two other "White Album" tracks, namely "Dear Prudence" and "Julia."
The finished song can be divided up into three disjointed parts, the second of which was the first to be formulated by John and previewed to the band during their demo session on May 28th, 1968 at George's home in Esher, Surrey. This part comprises the “I need a fix...Mother Superior” section of the song, this being all he had of the song by that time. According to the demo recording, the song initially included a small section that contained the lyric “Yoko Ono, oh no / Yoko Ono, oh yes” which was eventually dropped.
“Mother Superior was Yoko,” John related in a 1970 interview. “She was rabbiting on in the car one day, and I said, 'mother superior jumped the gun again,' because she's always one jump ahead. So that was Yoko really. It was camp.”
Although John would deny that “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” had any drug connotations, his “I need a fix” segment of the song says otherwise. “He was getting into harder drugs than we'd been into,” Paul states in his book “Many Years From Now,” “and so his songs were taking on more references to heroin. Until that point we had made rather mild, rather oblique references to pot or LSD. Now John started to be talking about fixes and monkeys and it was a harder terminology which the rest of us weren't into. We were disappointed that he was getting into heroin because we didn't really see how we could help him...It was a tough period for John, but often that adversity and that craziness can lead to good art, as I think it did in this case.”
The next part of the song that was written was the final section, which was based on something that John had seen in print. “'Happiness Is A Warm Gun' was from the cover of a gun magazine that George Martin had in the studio when we were making the double album,” John recalled, “and it had 'Happiness Is A Warm Gun' on the cover. On this cover it had a picture of a gun that had just been shot and was smoking, you know. I thought, 'Wow! Incredible,' you know, the fact that happiness was a warm gun that had just shot something or somebody...I thought it was a fantastic, insane thing to say." The phrase in the magazine was actually a humorous but dark take-off on the Peanuts cartoon phrase “Happiness Is A Warm Puppy.”
Paul remembers about the magazine, “It was, kind of, saying, 'Get ready for the long hot summer,' with rifles, you know, 'Come and buy them now!' It was an American gun magazine, and it was so sick, you know, the idea of 'Come and buy your killing weapons.' It was such a great line...that John, sort of, took that and used it as a chorus...It's not deadly serious. It's just words, and I think if you really taxed him on it, and said, 'Would you be willing to die for these words?' I'm sure he wouldn't. They're good words and I'd stick up for them to anybody who worries about them. It's just good poetry.”
The irony of John's choice in subject matter didn't escape many people's notice as the end of 1980 came around, least of which was Paul. “I was thinking the other day how poignant it was that John, who was shot in such tragic circumstances, should have written this song.”
As for other lyrics used in this section of the song, John relates: “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.” These sexual thoughts resulted in the lines, “When I hold you in my arms, and I feel my finger on your trigger...” Coincidentally, John ad libbed similar 50's style pop song lyrics on his May 1968 demo for his song “I'm So Tired,” these lines being, “When I hold you in your arms, when you show each one of your charms, I wonder should I get up and go to the funny farm.”
Continuing the 50's pastiche of this section of the song, John recalls: “That bit at the end, 'Shoot shoot, bang bang,' was instead of 'Shoop shoop, doowah, doowah.' The fact that the song was about a gun, we sang 'Shoot shoot, bang bang.' We were cracking up when I was doing all that. You know, 'When I hold you in my arms,' very funny.”
Then came the first section of the song, which was actually written last. As described in Steve Turner's book “A Hard Day's Write,” this section was written during “a night of acid tripping with Derek Taylor, Neil Aspinall and Pete Shotton at a house Taylor was renting from Peter Asher in Newdigate near Dorking in Surrey.” Derek Taylor remembers: “John said he had written half a song and wanted us to toss out phrases while Neil wrote them down. First of all, he wanted to know how to describe a girl who was really smart and I remembered a phrase of my father's which was 'she's not a girl who misses much.' It sounds like faint praise but on Merseyside, in those days, it was actually the best you could get.” John, however, claimed authorship of this line, stating: “The first half, 'She's not a girl who misses much,' was just something I was writing vaguely connected with Yoko just after first meeting her.”
Derek Taylor continues his recollection of the genesis of the rest of the lyrics to this section of the song. “Then I told a story about a chap my wife Joan and I met in the Carrick Bay Hotel on the Isle of Man. It was late one night drinking in the bar and this local fellow who liked meeting holiday makers and rapping to them suddenly said to us, 'I like wearing moleskin gloves, you know. It gives me a little bit of an unusual sensation when I'm out with my girlfriend.' He then said, 'I don't want to go into details.' So we didn't. But that provided the line, 'She's well acquainted with the touch of the velvet hand.' Then there was 'like a lizard on a window pane.' That, to me, was a symbol of very quick movement. Often, when we were living in L.A., you'd look up and see tiny little lizards nipping up the window.”
Taylor continues: “'The man in the crowd with the multicolored mirrors on his hobnail boots' was from something I'd seen in a newspaper about a Manchester City soccer fan who had been arrested by the police for having mirrors on the toe caps of his shoes so that he could look up girls' skirts. We thought this was an incredibly complicated and tortuous way of getting a cheap thrill and so that became 'multicolored mirrors' and 'hobnail boots' to fit the rhythm. A bit of poetic license.”
“The bit about 'lying with his eyes while his hands were busy working overtime' came from another thing I'd read where a man wearing a cloak had fake plastic hands, which he would rest on the counter of a shop while underneath the cloak he was busy lifting things and stuffing them in a bag around his waist.”
“I don't know where the 'soap impression of his wife' came from but the eating of something and then donating it 'to the National Trust' came from a conversation we'd had about the horrors of walking in public spaces on Merseyside, where you were always coming across the evidence of people having crapped behind bushes and in old air raid shelters. So to donate what you've eaten to the National Trust (a British organization with responsibilities for upkeeping countryside of great beauty) was what would now be known as 'defecation on common land owned by the National Trust.'
“When John put it all together, it created a series of layers of images. It was like a whole mess of color.” John elaborates: “These were all different segments of songs that I wrote altogether and stuck them all in one piece. Just like a collage, instead of an album like 'Pepper.' This was all done in one song and it went through all the different styles of rock'n'roll...I love it. I think it's a beautiful song. I like all the different things that are happening in it. I had put together three sections of different songs. It seemed to run through all the different kinds of rock music.”
Since the writing of the song began in India but was done in various stages, the time of writing would have to stretch from February to September of 1968. And, as stated above, Paul relinqueshes all authorship to John, not taking any credit for this “Lennon/McCartney” collaboration. Arguably, maybe it should be considered more of a “Lennon/Taylor” song!
George and John at "Kinfauns," circa 1968.
On May 28th, 1968, just two days before the group was to begin recording the "White Album," The Beatles met at George's "Kinfauns" home in Esher, Surrey to record demos of recently written songs. Among the first songs recorded on this day was a piece of John's that could easily have been titled "I Need A Fix," this eventually becoming the middle section of "Happiness Is A Warm Gun."
Only John is heard on this demo, which was recorded on an Ampex 4-track machine, him singing and playing acoustic guitar simultaneously. Not too much of the song had been formulated at this point, John struggling with the chord changes at times (even exclaiming “Oh sh*t, wrong chord” at one point). A small segment even mentions Yoko Ono by name, as mentioned above. In any event, he appeared far from ready to bring this composition into the recording studio, this not happening until nearly four months later.
Sometime after this, John recorded a home demo of himself playing guitar in the finger-picking style he learned in India, this bit eventually being used as the introduction to what became the finished recording of “Happiness Is A Warm Gun.” The only vocalization heard by John in this home demo is the recognizable “doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo” as eventually repeated in the finished song, as well as him saying to Yoko, “Mama, you're so beautiful this morning, I'd like to grab your weave!”
With only about three weeks left until the completion of the “White Album” was due, John had now finalized his composition “Happiness Is A Warm Gun In Your Hand,” as it was titled at first, and brought it into the studio for The Beatles to begin working out the arrangement and then recording it. September 23rd, 1968, was the first day they attempted the song, they all arriving in EMI Studio Two sometime after the usual 7 pm to, first of all, learn the song and then to start hashing out the arrangement they would use.
After they worked out some ideas, 45 takes of the song were recorded. Chris Thomas, who was acting as producer in the absence of the vacationing George Martin, remembers: “'Happiness Is A Warm Gun' went to a great many takes. We used to make jokes out of it. 'Take 83!'” These takes consisted of John on electric rhythm guitar with guide vocal, George on fuzzed lead guitar, Paul on bass and Ringo on drums. The tape captures much discussion between the group about how to tackle the complicated time signature changes as well as comparing the difficulty of certain sections of the song with others. By 3 am the following morning, however, the all left for the day without anything usable committed to tape.
Later that evening, September 24th, 1968, the group reconvened at EMI Studio Two at around 7 pm for another go at the song. With the same instrumentation as the previous day, the group tried 25 more takes of the rhythm track. This time they nailed down what they felt could be used as the rhythm track for the finished song, this being 'take 53.' However, they decided that the final section of the song, the “happiness is a warm gun...” chorus section, was performed better on 'take 65.' So a decision was made to slice these two takes together to create the perfect rhythm track for adding overdubs. Being that it was now 2 am the following morning, everyone decided that the editing of these two takes as well as the overdubs would be tackled at the next session. So everyone went home...or at least somewhere else.
The next session was later that day, September 25th, 1968, again at EMI Studio Two, this time beginning at 7:30 pm. First on the agenda was an edit of the first two sections of the song from 'take 53' and the third section from 'take 65' (the result of which they still called 'take 65'), created by producer Chris Thomas and engineers Ken Scott and Mike Sheady. Onto this newly created rhythm track, The Beatles overdubbed the remaining elements that would be featured on the released version of “Happiness Is A Warm Gun.”
These overdubs consisted of John's remarkable lead vocal, John, Paul and George's extensive backing vocals, Ringo on tambourine as well as added snare drum beats, Paul adding an additional bass guitar as well as a piano, John on organ and, very surprisingly, Paul playing a tuba that happened to be in the studio that day. The enjoyable time they had performing these overdubs, understandably, were what caused John, George and Paul to all claim that this song was their favorite on the “White Album.” By 5 am, the group left for the morning satisfied that yet another track for the album was 'in the can.'
The lights in EMI Studios weren't exactly turned off quite yet though. Between 5 and 6:15 am, the same engineering team of Thomas, Scott and Sheady worked at creating a usable mono mix of the song, two attempts being made during these early morning hours. These weren't deemed usable, however, but acetates were created of one of these mixes for The Beatles to hear, the acetate discs being labeled with what was still considered as the songs' title, “Happiness Is A Warm Gun In Your Hand.”
Paul was eager to play the acetate of this exciting new song to his recently acquired new girlfriend Linda Eastman (soon to be his Mrs.) who had just moved in with him at that time. However, it was decided that some of the overdubs needed tweaking which facilitated new mono mixes being created. The same engineering team of Thomas, Scott and Sheady got to work on this later that same day in the control room of EMI Studio Two starting at about 7 pm on September 26th, 1968. A decision was now made to shorten the title of the song to "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" since the documentation on this day reflects this change. The tuba was placed lower in the mix this time around, as was the organ overdub. Also, John had originally sang his “I need a fix...” verse twice, the first being heard simultaneously with George's lead guitar solo. On this new mix, they faded out John's vocals the first time around to accentuate George's lead guitar. It took the engineering team ten tries to master the mono mix, the results being what appears on the finished mono album.
The stereo mix wasn't created until October 15th, 1968, this being done by the returning George Martin along with engineers Ken Scott and John Smith in the control room of EMI Studio Two between 6 and 8 pm. Four attempts were made at this stereo mix but they nailed it sufficiently for the released album. George Martin inadvertently faded up John's omitted “I need a fix...” vocal line a little early on this stereo mix, the listener being able to hear the last word “down” on top of George's last lead guitar solo note. The organ notes in the first section of the song are much quieter in the stereo mix and are faded out a little earlier, while the bass guitar in the “I need a fix...” section of the stereo mix is also lower in volume. The slight laughter that is heard just before the final drum beat of the song in the mono mix is removed in the stereo mix, thanks to the perfectionist George Martin.
Song Structure and Style
"Happiness Is A Warm Gun" is structually a very unique song for The Beatles in that, with the exception of their sound collage "Revolution 9," it is the only Beatles track that does not have a definanable structure. In fact, the song doesn't have any repeated elements at all. It simply meanders from one song idea to the next and from one time signature to the next, adding beats-per-measure whenever it suited John's fancy. Lennon's descritpion of the song as depicting the "history of rock 'n' roll" may be an overstatement but, upon inspection, it actually comes pretty close. No wonder it took the group 70 takes in two days to just get a usable rhythm track!
The first section is in a standard 4/4 time signature and can easily be divided into to smaller sections, the first comprising the first four measures of the song. These measures contain mostly elements from John, these being rhythm guitar (utilizing his newly acquired finger-picking style), lead vocals and subdued organ notes. Paul and Ringo appear in the fourth measure playing sixteenth notes on the bass and snare drum respectively.
The rest of this section comprise eight measures which are mostly also in 4/4 time, the only exceptions are the first measure which is in 6/4 time and the seventh measure which is in 5/4 time. These different time signatures are deemed necessary due to the extended syllables in the lyrics at those parts of the song. John continues his rhythm guitar and organ as well as lead vocal. Ringo plays a standard drum beat throughout, providing simple drum fills in measures two, six and eight. Paul plays a simple bass pattern throughout while he and George add harmonies to John's vocals in measures five through eight. George adds distorted guitar chops on most of the even numbered beats of each measure, strategic places receiving held out guitar chords instead of just staccato chops. George compensates for the extra beat in the seventh measure in 5/4 time, since the even numbered beat then becomes an odd numbered beat. Follow me?
Then comes section two. This also can be divided into two smaller sections, the first being completely in 3/4 time and lasting a total of 21 measures. The drum beat is simplified for Ringo in these 21 measures, he only needing to accent the downbeat of each measure by alternatively crashing a cymbal with the kick drum and then a snare beat with the kick drum. John abandons the finger picking guitar work for a simple chording pattern and sings a low lead vocal in measures twelve through twenty-one. George puts in a menacing lead guitar part in measures one through eleven which mimics John's vocal melody line as will appear afterward. Paul mostly plays an “oom-pah” style bass pattern throughout these measures, these being mimicked on tuba as an overdub. Paul also sings along with John on the second half of this part, him singing the same notes only a full octave higher. This part ends suddenly at the 21st measure as all instruments ring out during the final words “going down.”
The second smaller part of section two is 18 measures in length and is mostly in 3/4 time. The difference here is that every sixth measure is in 4/4 time for some reason (or how John heard it in his head). You'll notice that on every even numbered time the lyric "jumped the gun" occurs, the word "gun" is spread out into four syllables. The third and fourth syllable of the word "gun" appears in the measure that is in 4/4 time, this happening three times in this section of the song. Clear as mud?
The elements contained in this section of the song consist of John on lead vocal and rhythm guitar, Paul on bass on harmony vocal sung an octave higher than John (with the exception of the first "Mother superior jumped the gun" which is sung by John alone), George playing a lead guitar part, and Ringo playing a complicated drum pattern to compensate for the time signature changes as well as an overdubbed tambourine.
This segues nicely into the third and final section of the song, which also takes some complicated turns. The first four measures are in 4/4 time, measures five through ten being in 6/8 time, measures eleven through fourteen also being in 4/4 time, this being followed by a dramatic fifteenth measure of no set time frame, and finally the song ending with a return to 4/4 time for measures sixteen through twenty.
This final section, referred to by many as the chorus, is the 50's pastiche part of the song where the title of the composition is heard repeatedly. The elements consist of John on exuberant lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Paul on bass and overdubbed 50's style piano and Ringo on drums. Extensive background harmony vocal overdubs abound here from John, Paul and George, Paul even adding in some low "doo-wop" style moaning in between vocal phrases.
The interplay between John's lead vocal lines “when I hold you in my arms...” and the harmony hi-jinks of “ooooh, oh yeah” work to great effect in the 6/8 measures of this section. And because of the mathematical symmetry between the 4/4 and 6/8 measures, Ringo doesn't even let up on playing a simple 4/4 drum pattern throughout, with the exception on the fifteenth measure where all instrumentation stops to allow John to deliver his striking vocal climax to the song. The final comedic word is actually in the last two measures of the song with the background vocalists chiming out “is a warm gun, yeaaaaah” into the track's complete ending with faint chuckling (mono version) and Ringo's final drum flam to end the song as well as side one of the album.
November 25th, 1968 was the release date of "The Beatles," the first and only double-album of new material by the band, the album affectionately known as the "White Album." John was proud enough of "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" to include it as the closing track of side one, a spot that would definitely be noticed by their listeners. The album was first released on compact disc on August 24th, 1987, then as a 30th Anniversary limited edition CD on November 23rd, 1998, then as a remastered CD on September 9th, 2009. The mono printing of the vinyl edition of the album didn't get released until November 9th, 2014.
The short-lived format called “Playtapes,” which were manufactured for a short time in the later half of the 60's mostly for special portable tape players, included a release entitled “The Beatles Vol I” featuring five songs from the “White Album.” “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” was one of these songs, there being a total of five “Playtapes” created that featured selections from this album. These tapes were released sometime in 1969 and are quite collectible today.
On October 28th, 1996, the compilation album “Anthology 3” was released which contains a good portion of the above mentioned 'Kinfauns' demo of “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” that John recorded on May 28th, 1968.
The box set “The Beatles In Mono” was released on September 9th, 2009, which features the entire mono Beatles catalog. This was the first time the mono “White Album” was made available in America, “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” being included therein.
Many listeners at the time were suspicious of drug references in the lyrics of "Happiness Is A Warm Gun," even insisting that the "warm gun" itself referred to a needle used for shooting heroin. John was emphatic throughout the years that there were absolutely no intended drug connotations in the song. "They said it was about drugs but it wasn't," he stated. "No one believes me about that. It's just camp, you know...It was also about a gun and not about heroin or anything. In those days I had no idea about heroin. I'd never seen it or knew anybody that had touched it or taken it...(The song) was another one which was banned on the radio - they said it was about shooting up drugs...It wasn't about 'H' at all."
However, as testified by Paul's quote above, John indeed was involved in heroin by this time as he and Yoko were living in a London apartment rented by it's owner Ringo. Since they apparently were taking heroin in pill form instead of by injection, this fact could easily be the reason why John always insisted that the song wasn't about drugs, the “warm gun” meaning a real gun and not a heroin needle. The innuendo was sexual, not drug related.
The fact that “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” was indeed about drugs, at least in part, and that John was fully aware of it right from the beginning, is proven by a document that was reproduced in the book “Beatles Anthology.” This publication contains a copy of the lyric sheet from the “White Album” that is sectioned off by John himself, identifying the three sections of the song. The first section he indicates as the “Dirty old man” section, and the third part he calls “the gunman (satire of '50's R&R).” Interestingly, however, John identifies the song's middle section as “the junkie.”
Notwithstanding the inspiration, critics and fans alike overwhelmingly think the world of “Happiness Is A Warm Gun.” Author John Robertson writes: “Musically, the track was a tour de force, albeit without the theatrics and orchestration of the 'Pepper' album." Ian MacDonald: “It packs a considerable punch, working on an emotionally allusive level few songwriters have been aware of, let alone succeeded at.” Chris Ingham: “Certainly one of Lennon's final masterpieces for The Beatles.” David Quantick: “The Beatles buried their differences in one of their best musical, Beatles-as-band collaborations.”
“Happiness Is A Warm Gun”
Written by: John Lennon / Paul McCartney
- Song Written: February – September, 1968
- Song Recorded: September 24 & 25, 1968
- First US Release Date: November 25, 1968
- First US Album Release: Apple #SWBO-101 “The Beatles”
- US Single Release: n/a
- Highest Chart Position: n/a
- British Album Release: Apple #PCS 7067-7068 “The Beatles”
- Length: 2:47
- Key: C major
- Producer: Chris Thomas
- Engineers: Ken Scott, Mike Sheady
Instrumentation (most likely):
- John Lennon - Lead and Background Vocals, Rhythm Guitar (1965 Epiphone ES- 230TD Casino), Organ (Hammond RT-3)
- Paul McCartney - Bass (1964 Rickenbacker 4001 S), Piano (Hamburg Steinway Baby Grand), tuba, backing vocals
- George Harrison - Lead Guitar (1961 Sonic Blue Fender Stratocaster, painted psychedelic), backing vocals
- Ringo Starr - Drums (1964 Ludwig Super Classic Black Oyster Pearl), tambourine
Written and compiled by Dave Rybaczewski
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