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Defecation, guns and fetishists: Decoding The Beatles song 'Happiness is a Warm Gun'

Released in the November of 1968, The Beatles’ ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ is one of the most adventurous tracks on an album that is positively jam-packed with lyrically explorative numbers. Take ‘Revolution 9’, for example, in which Lennon sings about a “Welsh Rarebit wearing some brown underpants”. While surreal lyrics such as these may seem utterly detached from reality, in many cases, the opposite is the case. Indeed, on inspection, the lyrics to ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ reveal a wealth of stories from The Beatles career, some of which are pretty wild.

The brilliance of ‘Happiness is A Warm Gun’ is that it’s a song made up of fragments. By the time The Beatles sat down to write The White Album, Lennon had no interest in writing songs with a clearly thought out story or message. Instead, he chose to adopt the methodology of a magpie, picking up any phrases and sentences that happened to catch his eyes to use as a source of lyrical content. As John Lennon recalled in Anthology: “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.”

But while that particular issue of The American Rifleman inspired the song’s title, the majority of the lyrics were actually dreamt up during an acid trip shared by Lennon, Derek Taylor (The Beatles’ publicist at the time), Neill Aspinall, and Pete Shotton – one of Lennon’s childhood friends. According to Taylor, the opening section, in which Lennon sings: “She’s well-acquainted with the touch of the velvet hand,” was inspired by a holiday he took with his wife to the Isle of Skye, where they met a fetishist with a taste for velvet gloves: “I told a story about a chap my wife Joan and I met in the Carrick Bay Hotel on the Isle of Man, Taylor began. “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.”

Taylor’s unrestrained imagination also birthed one of the song’s most abstract lines: “A soap impression of his wife which he ate/And donated to the National Trust.” As Taylor would later explain, the origins of this particular lyrical offering have roots in the Beatles’ native Liverpool: “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.” Mess indeed.

The amazing thing is that the BBC banned ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ because they thought it was about heroin. If they’d known the truth, I imagine the BBC censors would have found any talk of shooting up comparatively tame. As Lennon later recalled, the repeating refrain: “Mother Superior jumped the gun” was about his and Yoko’s apparently very active sex life, with ‘Mother Superior’ being Lennon’s pet name for Ono: “Well, by then I’m into double meanings. The initial inspiration was from the magazine cover,” Lennon conceded. “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.”

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