I’ve been listening to and reading about the Beatles quite a bit lately. There’s just nothing about this band that’s not interesting. I’ll go through phases where I become fascinated with different aspects of what they did, and recently I’ve been re-examining some of their songwriting. “Happiness is a Warm Gun” is a John Lennon song from the “White Album,” and everything about this tune just kills me (pun not intended).
First of all, it’s 2:43 long. In that small space of time John fits what sounds like four different songs – or at least four different sections of one song, none of which has anything to do with the other, into one cohesive piece. It shouldn’t work but it does. If you read much about the Beatles one thing you’re struck by is how much pressure they were under to constantly come up with new material. Most bands (or artists) would break under this strain, but somehow they didn’t. I think it partly had to do with how close they were (even though I don’t think they particularly liked each other after a certain point). But they continued to believe in one another until the end. And this support, along with their innate gifts, allowed them to keep cranking out new material.
One device Lennon used to write was incorporating everything he came across that caught his eye (or ear) into his tunes (hmm – see Jarmusch post), and part of his genius was the very artful way he did it. This tune is a great example. But before I go any further, we have to admire the sheer balls and audaciousness of a band, ANY band, doing a song called “Happiness is a Warm Gun!” WTF! Two years prior they were singing “I Want To Hold Your Hand!”
This tune has a ridiculous amount of time changes crammed into its 2 plus minutes. Depending on how you count it, we have 4/4, 3/4, 2/4, and 6/8. The title apparently came from a magazine article John saw. It just has everything: little details constantly shifting and changing, very evocative lyrics, and a great vocal from John Lennon – one of the great vocalists from any era. The “Bang bang shoot shoot” background vocals when Lennon sings the title at the end provides the perfect whimsical counterpart to what otherwise would be a menacing refrain. They always seemed to find the perfect balance…