Happiness Is A Warm Gun

The Beatles (White Album) artworkWritten by: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: 23, 24, 25 September 1968
Producer: Chris Thomas
Engineer: Ken Scott

Released: 22 November 1968 (UK), 25 November 1968 (US)

John Lennon: vocals, backing vocals, lead guitar
Paul McCartney: backing vocals, bass
George Harrison: backing vocals, lead guitar
Ringo Starr: drums, tambourine

Available on:
The Beatles (White Album)
Anthology 3

Featuring one of John Lennon’s best vocals on the White Album, Happiness Is A Warm Gun was made up of four distinct song fragments, and took its title from a gun magazine, The American Rifleman, which John Lennon saw in the studio at Abbey Road.

George Martin showed me the cover of a magazine that said, ‘Happiness is a warm gun’. I thought it was a fantastic, insane thing to say. A warm gun means you’ve just shot something.
John Lennon
Anthology

'Happiness Is A Warm Gun' feature from American Rifleman magazine

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The first section of the song was made up of phrases thought up by Lennon and Apple’s publicist Derek Taylor during an acid trip the pair experienced along with Neil Aspinall and Lennon’s childhood friend Pete Shotton.

The opening line was a Liverpudlian expression of approval, and the ‘velvet hand’ line was inspired by a fetishist Taylor and his wife met on the Isle of Man.

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’.
Derek Taylor
A Hard Day’s Write, Steve Turner

The lizard on the window pane was a recollection from Taylor’s days living in Los Angeles. The man in the crowd, meanwhile, was from a newspaper report about a Manchester City football fan who had been arrested after inserting mirrors into his footwear in order to see up the skirts of women during matches.

The hands busy working overtime weren’t masturbating, however, but referred to a story heard by Taylor about a man who used false hands as an elaborate shoplifting technique.

The final part of the verse was perhaps the most abstract, but came from earthy origins.

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 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 colour.
Derek Taylor
A Hard Day’s Write, Steve Turner

The second part of the song (‘I need a fix ’cause I’m going down’) contains Lennon’s clearest reference to heroin while in The Beatles, although he later denied the line was about drugs.

Happiness Is A Warm Gun was another one which was banned on the radio – they said it was about shooting up drugs. But they were advertising guns and I thought it was so crazy that I made a song out of it. It wasn’t about ‘H’ at all.
John Lennon
Anthology

The double-speed ‘Mother Superior jump the gun’ section, meanwhile, was inspired by his infatuation with Yoko Ono. Mother Superior was a name he used for her, and ‘jump the gun’ could be interpreted as a sexual metaphor.

On, well, by then I’m into double meanings. The initial inspiration was from the magazine cover. But that was 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.
John Lennon
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

An early acoustic version of the song, recorded at George Harrison’s home in Esher, Surrey in May 1968 found Lennon reworking the words and chords of this section, at one point simply singing Ono’s name.

The final part introduces the title phrase over the conventional doo-wop chord sequence (I-vi-IV-V) and a number of changes between 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4 time signatures. The song’s complexity led to The Beatles spending 15 hours and recording 95 takes before being satisfied.

In the studio

On 23 September 1968 The Beatles began recording the song, with the working title Happiness Is A Warm Gun In Your Hand. They taped the first 45 takes of the song, with Lennon on lead guitar and guide vocals, McCartney on bass, Harrison on fuzz lead guitar and Starr playing drums.

The following day the group recorded takes 46-70. At the end of these it was decided that the first half of take 53 and the second half of take 65 were the best, and the two were edited together on the evening of 25 September.

With the edit in place, the group began overdubbing later that night. Lennon’s lead vocals were supported by backing vocals from Lennon, McCartney and Harrison. Other additions were an organ, piano, snare drum, tambourine and bass.

During the mixing stage it was decided that the first instance of the ‘I need a fix’ line should be left out. The word ‘down’ can be heard on the final version, however, when the vocals were faded up slightly too early.

43 responses on “Happiness Is A Warm Gun

  1. B,n

    you have the time signatures wrong, this is correct:

    * She’s not a girl who misses much… (0:00-0:14):
    o 4 bars of 4/4.
    * She’s well acquainted with the velvet touch… (0:14-0:45):
    o 1 bar of 4/4
    o 1 bar of 2/4
    o 5 bars of 4/4
    o 1 bar of 5/4
    o 1 bar of 4/4.
    * I need a fix cos I’m goin’ down… (0:45-1:13):
    o twice through a 3 bars/4 bars/4 bars series of 3/8 (i.e. 22 bars of 3/8).
    * Mother superior, jump the gun… (1:13-1:35):
    o thrice through a bar each of 9/8 and 10/8.
    * Happiness is a warm gun… (1:35-2:43):
    o 4 bars of 4/4
    o 3 bars of 12/8 (with the drums doing 4 bars of 4/4 and 1 bar of 2/4!)
    o 5 bars of 4/4 (the final bar entering free time)
    o 1 bar of 2/4 (in free time)
    o 5 bars of 4/4

    1. Kristel Gray

      I listened again last night to HIAWG, and I really think that that’s Paul on the drums, he sounds a lot like Ringo, but this is more like Paul, as, say, Birthday and USSR sound like on the White Album. Anyone know for certain?

    2. Greg

      Just took a listen and heard that the first “I need a fix..” which was edited out by turning down the sound, then bringing the level up was slightly messed up because you can hear the ending “…down” before the “I need a fix…” comes in. Sure enough, it is only a mistake in the stereo and not the mono mix. The Beatles themselves along with George Martin all worked on the mono mixes and they are more tightly edited and correct.

      1. Greg

        BTW, if you happen to have a bootleg of Happiness from the bootleg album Alternates volume 2, take a listen and you can hear the organ prominently throughout much more of the song. I can see why they would have wanted it out for the most part, it crowds the sound of the song too much. I am still not sure if it is an outfake, but after reading this, I think it might not be.

  2. Mark G.

    A long time ago, I read that John Kelly, the photographer who shot the four portraits of the four Beatles that came as inserts with the White Album, met with Paul McCartney around the time of finishing that album (presumably to shoot Paul’s portrait). Paul told him to listen to a tape of “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” According to Kelly, McCartney told him something to the extent of “listen to this, it’s the best thing I’ve ever heard.”

    1. Tweeze

      Paul, and George, really liked this song. Having multiple tunes, themes, textures, etc., appealed to Paul. I believe this contributed to his later extension of that into his solo work – ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’, ‘Band On The Run’, ‘Venus And Mars’.

    1. Joe Post author

      Where, precisely? I’ve listened closely and cannot hear an organ, electric piano or Mellotron anywhere in this song. There was an organ part recorded along with a piano part, but they were left out of the final mixes.

      1. Rocky0912

        There is an organ or mellotron part that you can hear at the beginning of the mono mix. It is either very low or not included in the stereo mix. On the mono mix, it is most audible just after the first line “She’s not a girl who misses much.”

      2. BOYER

        At the very END, I can hear something that sounds like a keyboard : when John sings his last “warm gun mama”, there is a sort of trill (the notes c and d played alternatively very fast during the F chord, and then the notes b and c during the G chord). It’s on the right channel (the same as the guitar solo).

      1. Rocky0912

        thanks for the info!! :D

        any idea why they chose him to produce? he was only hired as an errand boy, if what i read is true…
        sry for all these questions, its just i cant seem to find much info on the subject

        1. Joe Post author

          I don’t think he was hired as an errand boy. He was GM’s assistant, so was probably mentored by him with a view to becoming a producer himself. Either way he was a talented musician and went on to produce in his own right (ie not as GM’s stand-in).

      2. Deadman

        Chris Thomas received a £36 bonus registered as four keyboard session fees, according to Billboard (March 6, 1993), p. A-22. That would be harpischord on Piggies, Mellotron on The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill, Piano on Long, Long, Long and Harpsichord on Not Guilty. So, I conclude, he did not play on HIaWG.

  3. BOYER

    I guess John starts playing guitar with his fingers (arpeggios), and then takes his plectrum in the gap between “I need a fix cos’ I’m going down…” and “Mother superior…”.
    Anyway, that’s how I have to do if I want to play his part “as it is”.
    I can’t think of any others songs where he does this. Am I wrong?

  4. Till There Was You

    This has got to be one of my favorite Lennon tracks–ever. I think his vocals were great, and the music is interesting. As for the lyrics, I never really looked into it all that much, mainly becuase they probably would have some drug influence.

    1. Schminking of gin

      You don’t get into the lyrics if they may have drug implications? Boy oh boy you must have trouble listening to their ’66-’67 output

      1. Till There Was You

        No. I know what most of their songs are about at those times–and that drugs influenced them. And I obviously know that they took drugs. It’s just, I try not to emphasize on that, and just enjoy the music as a whole. I think I worded this weirdly, but I hope you get what I mean.

  5. Mads Nørregård

    There is an organ in the beginning. It blends very smoothly with Lennon’s appegio guitar. The Piano was in the chorus in the end of the song but it was wiped in the mix.In some of the bootlegs of the song, you can hear it clearly.

  6. frankdialogue

    Interesting reading Derek Taylor’s account of what the lyrics were on about…

    I always felt ‘the donation to the National Trust’ involved something other than a sculpture!

  7. JDP

    I am sure that the ‘childs’ voice towards the end of this track is Yoko. I read it some where a long time ago and if you listen to it again there is a hint of a japanese accent. Surprised she isn’t listed on this page.

  8. JDP

    I thought ‘donated to the national trust, was a reference to Across the Universe (about Cynthia) which was actually donated to the national trust hence the flock of birds at the start of the rarities track.

  9. Nicolás

    This site is new for me, I’m from Argentina and I’ve just discovered it, thank you for so much information!

    I was always intrigued about the last shout “Guuuuuuun!!!” of this song. Is that Lennon? I think that the tone is so high that maybe it was sung by McCartney, despite it sounds strange. I’m a Beatles fan since I was a little boy and I’m pretty sure that that tone and the beginning of “Mr. Moonlight” are the highest-pitched achieved by Lennon with a clear voice (that means, not distorted or broken like in Twist and Shout and those rock’n’roll songs). The “gun” in this song is even higher than Mr. Moonlight’s, it’s amazing if John could really get that tone.

    Thank you!

    1. Velvet Hand

      Hi there! I’m quite sure it’s John, singing falsetto. I guess he was just on a roll when they recorded that – the whole vocal ist just so… awe-inspiring.

      1. Daniel

        Anyone know what instrument is playing after the line “a soap impression of his wife, which he ate and donated to the National trust?” What is that?

        1. Chris

          It is a distorted guitar. Great string bends. The distortion may be from the amp cranked way up coupled with a direct line to the mixing desk for extra “tone/fuzz. The opening of Revolution was done in this fashion too.

  10. swann

    I’m writing a song-by-song blog on the Beatles (in spanish, sorry) and run after every single piece of information. But there’s something even greater. Let me tell you. My 12-years-old son became crazy about “Happiness…” about two weeks ago. Yesterday he started saying: “Dad… the very last sound of this song is exactly the same as another Beatles song ending”. I didn’t appreciate too much his words for the first hundred times… But finally I sighed, put my brain on it and… My God! It’s “She loves you”. Can’t you hear it? I’m so very proud!!!

  11. carlos

    I wonder about the electric piano in the part “I need a fix … ” John or Paul ? Did anybody find out how John imitates Mick Jagger in the last verse ? (Especially while singing “When I hold you in my arms … ” Great Lennon

  12. bixente

    In France, many books tell that this song talks about oral sex. I listened to the song thousands of times and still can’t understand why, maybe because i’m from southern france. Could anyone confirm and tell me please??

  13. david annderson

    Does anyone else think that he’s really saying ‘happiness is a warm girl’ in the last section when he sings ‘happiness is a warm gun’? I mean, he sings it in a real, well, passionate way, and that line ‘when I hold you in my arms’… you don’t hold a gun in your arms, you hold a girl in your arms, you hold a gun in your hands! And the other sexually-themed lines all through the song, it just seems appropriate….
    I’d much rather hold a girl anyway, I’m sure John would agree with me!

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