She's not a girl
who misses much.
She's well acquainted with the touch
of a velvet hand
like a lizard on a window pane.
Man in the crowd
with the multicolored mirrors
on his hobnail boots
Lying with his eyes
while his hands are busy
A soap impression of his wife
which he ate
and donated to the National Trust.
I need a fix ‘cause I'm going down,
down to the bitch that I've left uptown.
I need a fix ‘cause I'm going down.
Mother Superior jumped the gun. (6x)
Happiness is a warm gun.
(bang bang shoot shoot ) (2x)
When I hold you in my arms
and I feel my finger on your trigger
I know nobody can do me no harm
Happiness is a warm gun. (4x)
By late 1968 there had been a number of songs that were composed of various fragments. John Lennon had written such a work with I Am the Walrus. I think too of Pete Townshend’s operettas, A Quick One While He’s Away and Rael, the Doors’ The End and When the Music’s Over, the Airplane’s Rejoyce, Neil Young's Here We Are In The Years, and several Incredible String Band compositions. And there was of course Frank Zappa of the Mothers of Invention, with Brown Shoes Don’t Make It, the group that Happiness is a Warm Gun seems to parody. It’s fair, since the Mothers of Invention’s most successful album had been We’re Only in It for the Money, a parody of Sgt. Pepper. The parody in Happiness allows Lennon space for some bawdy humor and some heretofore unheard of use of a word that previously been censored as taboo. The Mothers (directly inspired by ostracized comedian Lenny Bruce) had played with some taboo language in their albums, usually through scatological humor, “pooting” and such. (Lennon uses scatological humor too, turning the “clean” image of a “wife” into shit by consuming and excreting her.) On the printed lyrics, the singer goes “back to the bits I’ve left uptown”, but it makes more sense as “bitch”, and I believe this to be the actual lyric. I can’t help but think that the Beatles’ acceptance of the taboo language in Zappa’s lyrics, largely tolerated only by an “underground” audience at the time, greased the wheels for future freedom of speech which would burst upon the scene in 1969 with such songs as We Could Be Together by the Jefferson Airplane.
Two things set Happiness is a Warm Gun apart from most previous psychedelic pastiches. One is that the song is produced without apparent splicing. I Am the Walrus had been studio wizardry; Lennon now subscribed to the aesthetic that a group should appear to produce complex works in real time. Studio tricks were somehow dishonest (though smooth overdubbing was used, drawn from various recording sessions for Happiness, in a manner inaudible to the listener). According to the online Beatles Bible the song has so many time signature changes that it took the group 15 hours and 95 takes to get it right. As far as I know, of the other pop pastiches, only The Who’s A Quick One could be performed in real time. It sounds like Happiness could have been performed onstage by four musicians. Another thing that sets Happiness apart is its brief duration, so that five song fragments are run through in less than three minutes. It helps that only the B section has density of meaning, and most of the remaining melodies are built from brief repetitions, but somehow the listener doesn’t feel rushed through the variety of changes.
Happiness is a Warm Gun opens with a deceptively romantic folk melody, but shifts within seconds into a chugging rock section dense with imagery. The sexual tone of the B section suggests a prostitute, and includes criticism of her trick. (Zappa often wrote during this time humiliating lyrics about lewd johns.) After a grinding guitar introduction, the third section seems to connect sex and heroin addiction: “I need a fix!” The D section then is only one line repeated six times; to me, the “mother superior” image conjures up a vision of Lennon’s new love, Yoko Ono. As “mother superior” the person had control of guilt and forgiveness. “Jump the gun” introduces the image which is central to the E section; that is, the gun that brings happiness. The metaphor is ambivalent—Lennon on the White Album had embraced peace and he ridicules the use of guns in Bungalow Bill (What did you kill?). So he might be making a sarcastic comment about rednecks and soldiers. On the other hand, the implicit meaning is genital, in which case the singer is boasting about keeping his woman happy. A third layer of interpretation isn’t out of the question, either. The gun might signify the needle for a heroin fix. The doo-wop ending is an explicit reference to the Mothers of Invention, for at the time (even though Cream had begun their career with do-wop in 1966) the Mothers were the only rock group recording do-wop songs, usually for laughs.