What John Lennon Was Singing About on ‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun’
If you wanted to pick the most baffling Beatles song, “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” should be a contender. Whether you go by the shifting musical styles, the obscure lyrics, or the insane final passage (“Bang, bang! Shoot, shoot!”), John Lennon just about emptied the tank writing this one.
The Beatles themselves loved the track. John spoke of what fun they had recording it, and his bandmates spoke glowingly of it. In fact, as The White Album was headed to record stores, Paul McCartney said he wanted to talk about it because it was a favorite of his.
But when talking about the song’s meaning, there was little consensus. Some said the title came from an NRA magazine; Paul said it came from a gun advertisement. And to confuse things further, John said “I need a fix” wasn’t a drug reference.
But another quote from Paul, when he described it as “just good poetry,” might come the closest to getting it right.
John started by connecting random ideas from the Beatles’ publicist
Though John later insisted that the song wasn’t about drugs, he did write many of the lyrics while on LSD. Derek Taylor, the publicist for Apple (and organizer of Monterey Pop), told the story in Steve Turner’s A Hard Day’s Write.
“John said he had written half a song and wanted us to toss out phrases while Neil [Aspinall] wrote them down,” Taylor said. One came from a couple Taylor met on holiday. The man told Taylor he wore moleskin gloves because he liked “the sensation when I’m out with my girlfriend.”
That suggestion turned into someone “acquainted with the touch of the velvet hand.” When Taylor brought up a man arrested for looking up women’s skirts with mirrors attached to his shoes, John turned it into “a man in the crowd with multicolored mirrors on his hobnail boots.”
The night’s conversations also gave John the idea for the soap impression someone “ate and donated to the National Trust.” (This was a reference to public defecation around Liverpool.) As for the part when John sang, “Mother Superior jumped the gun,” that was John’s nickname for Yoko Ono.
The title and chorus came from ‘American Rifleman’ magazine
As for the unusual song title, John pulled that verbatim from yet another source. Someone had a copy of American Rifleman magazine in the recording studio and it was opened to an article under that headline.
“It said, ‘Happiness is a warm gun,” John recalled in Beatles Anthology. “I thought it was a fantastic, insane thing to say.” Despite writing “the junkie” next to his second section of lyrics, he maintained the references weren’t to heroin.
“They said it was about shooting up drugs,” John said. “But they were advertising guns and I thought it was so crazy that I made a song out of it.” So why did he sing the last section with that over-the-top vocal? Next to the final section of lyrics, John wrote “satire of ’50s rock ‘n’ roll.”
“It was such a great line that John sort of took that and used it as a chorus,” Paul said in Many Years From Now. “It’s just good poetry.” Later, he described where John’s mind was at. “It’s a piss-take of all the people who really do think happiness is a warm gun.”