Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Happiness Is a Warm Gun

It's not that I'm feeling that dark today necessarily, I just love this particularly dark John Lennon song. What the hell is it actually about, you say? I don't know. But I don't think it's about anything good.

Man, this has just always been one of my top 10, probably. Just killer. Paul thought he was so awesome and weird with his Abbey Road B-side medley, but John is clearly beating him to it here on the White Album with a shorter but far more twisted mini-medley. To his credit, Paul always really loved this song, and so did the others. In a relative rarity for the White Album, all four of the band members played important roles in the very very involved recording of this one-- which is nice for us fans who might love the White Album but wish that our four favorite people might have, you know, liked each other a little bit more while they were working on it. The recording was so involved, of course, because there's just so much darned STUFF in "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," and all of it is awesome.

Some intrepid YouTuber set scenes from Hans Richter's 1928 short film, Vormittagsspuk, to "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," which seems neat and demented enough for me to present it to you below. (According to IMDB, the film stars Paul Hindemith AND Darius Milhaud! This is truly bringing together classical music and the Beatles in a way I never would have expected.)

The title of the song came from the headline to an ad for the NRA that John happened to see in a gun magazine. (Remember this the next time you hear an NRA apologist complaining that the NRA isn't actually pro-gun, but pro-Second Amendment, and why is it so misunderstood? or whatever the heck they say-- at one point they actually ran an ad THIS deranged.) The derangement spoke to John, and off he went to write a song that pushes derangement to eleven. There might be deeper meanings to the lyrics-- I've seen readings that make the whole song into a come-on to Yoko, which are maybe backed up by his noodling around her name on the demo that's on Anthology 3-- but since John had a great love of nonsense and preferred in this period to eschew deliberate meanings, especially in his more disturbing songs (e.g. "I Am the Walrus"), I prefer to think that the words are only themselves, and they're plenty effective that way, at least to me.

So let's get into the music. I (as well as the critics that I just took the ten seconds to check out) mentally divide this into four sections: #1 with the "she's not a girl who misses much" and so on, #2 is "I need a fix," #3 with the "Mother Superior," and #4 doo-wop sha-bop "Happiness is a warm gun mama." John, after the fact, called the song a "history of rock & roll," but I don't quite hear it-- it might be a collage of some hip rock sounds of 1968, but even that's a stretch. The sections are just all different, is all. The opening couple bars features a really fuzzy electric guitar that sounds like it's being picked in a folksy kind of way-- if you were straining, you could say it sounds like folk-rock or something, except that it doesn't very much. Added to that, after a moment, comes this tremendous buildup of drums and a sneering guitar chord, and then the texture gets even thicker with Paul (I think) singing a harmony line. Ringo keeps up some truly spectacular drumming in this section. (By the way, there's definitely no point in looking for meaning in these lyrics, because I remember quite clearly that John wrote this part on acid while tossing nonsensical lines back and forth with, if memory serves, Derek Taylor.)

Then the guitar-- which has so far been only occasionally jabbing through the layers of sound, rather like someone nasty would jab a toothpick under your fingernail-- plays the most sinister solo line ever into the "I need a fix cause I'm going down" vocal part, which, by the way, has moved into a lazy triple time, and stays mostly on just one chord for the maximum in droney, coming-down-from-a-buzz feel. (I don't know who's playing that guitar-- Ian MacDonald credits both John and George with lead guitars here, but the whole song is edited together from multiple takes and I'm not sure who plays what on the final track.) I really dig the OOM-pa-pa thing the rhythm guitar and bass are doing in this section, by the way. But we don't stay here too long-- we get jarred into the scary voices singing "Mother Superior jump the gun" as if we've just been zipped around a particularly sharp turn on a roller coaster. And THEN we get zipped again into the '50s doo-wop song from hell. And this is where the lyrics get REALLY creepy, don't they? There are lots of Beatles songs that make me want to, I don't know, do it in the road with them or something, but the way John sings "and I feel my finger on your trigger" makes me feel all icky and foul and like I kind of want to throw up. But he is LOVING singing this way. I love the way John sells this so completely, and just owns his sleazy self and throws his whole being into this weirdo persona. And it might just be me, but I swear the others on the "bang bang shoot shoot" back up line might be on the verge of cracking up.

This makes me think a little of two other John Lennon songs that I happen to have listened to fairly recently here at A Year in the Life-- "Good Morning Good Morning" for the way it plays with multiple meters, and "Julia" for the way it hews fairly closely to the natural rhythm of speech. In "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," there are multiple meters because he wants the song to echo natural speech. In the first section, for instance, beats are added here and there to stretch out the lyrics, and in the fourth section John stretches the "when I hold you" lines over longer bars for the same reason. (The weird thing here is that Ringo actually maintains the same meter while the others all go into a a triple feel, which is totally beyond amazing, and which is why it kind of hurts your brain to listen to.) And in the third section I don't even know what John's doing-- I can't quite hear the hemiola that Alan W. Pollack swears is there, but, I don't know, maybe his explanation works for you. However John has parsed the meter, suffice it to say that it's nuts. But it sounds fairly natural, if unusual, because it's following the text. Speech doesn't conform nicely to the metrical rhythms that we like to impose on our music, after all.

Isn't "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" the weirdest song ever? It's absolutely the product of a demented, ingenious mind-- only John Lennon could have written this. And with a song this good and interesting, it's no wonder the other Beatles were actually psyched to put in all this work and play the holy hell out of it. Pheeeew.

"Happiness Is a Warm Gun," released in the U.K. side A track 8 of The Beatles, a.k.a. the White Album, November 22, 1968; in the U.S. November 25, 1968.


  1. I grew up listening to Beatles tapes in the car, which was a great way to get into the band. But some songs were AWKWARD to listen to in the car with my family; young though I was, I vaguely got the suggestive nature of some songs ("I Want You" and "Why Don't We Do It In the Road" and this one spring to mind) just enough to cringe...in pretty much the the exact way I'm cringing now as I think about it. Small price to pay for a decent musical upbringing, I s'pose.

  2. Mark Twain:

    The perfection of wisdom, and the end of true philosophy is to proportion our wants to our possessions, our ambitions to our capacities, we will then be a happy and a virtuous people.Nice Comment!