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 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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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 John Lennon on lead guitar and guide vocals, Paul McCartney on bass guitar, George Harrison on fuzz lead guitar, and Ringo 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.