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Notes on "Happiness Is A Warm Gun"

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This article is from Alan W. Pollack's groundbreaking series "Notes on the Beatles". Links in the orginal article is written in this colour: index to the series, while links I have added appears as standard links. Go here for more information on my site about the song

Notes on "Happiness Is A Warm Gun"

KEY C Major, converged upon from a minor

METER Various

FORM Part 1 -> Part 2 -> Part 3 ->
   Part 4 (Finale) w/complete ending

General Points of Interest

Style and Form

This song represents a most intruiguing formal experiment, one that you might describe as a "teliological medley." It manages to project an integrated impression in ironic spite of its acyclical form, and varied sequence of styles, and meters. The Beatles' ultimate grand example of this formal approach is, of course, the "Huge Melody" that ends Abbey Road, but, it's *this* track on which you hear it first!

In contrast to the AR medley, where most of the sections could survive extraction from their immediate context to serve as an independent "numbers" per se, you find here, with perhaps the exception of the final "title" section, that the individual components are quite fragmentary and rely heavily on immediate repetition of a single idea to establish any sense of formal autonomy. There's not quite enough substance in any of them to stand on their own; otherwise you just might go as far as calling this a "suite;" which latter term, now that I think of it, *would* be appropriate for Abbey Road.

The primary force that holds it together and prevents it from otherwise sounding like a random grab bag is the modulated development of intensity and mood created by the specific sequencing of the sections; each new section builds on what has preceded it while adding something new. Secondarily, the changes of meter either between or within every section establish themselves as a kind of leitmotif.

In both _Recording Sessions_ and his liner notes to Anthology 3, Lewisohn blithely asserts that this track is made up of three songs. From where does he get it? I count four, at least.

Melody and Harmony

The song finishes up in a mid-50s cliche-saturated dialect of C Major. The introductory three sections establish the relative minor key of 'a' in droning, modal-rather-than-tonal harmonic terms. Note how the opening chord of the piece is an a minor 7th which, just like its close cousin, the C Major added 6th, combines the triads of both the Major key and its relative minor in a single chord; see our comments on this phenomenon back in the likes of such early efforts as "Ask Me Why," "Do You Want to Know a Secret," and the forever emblematic "She Loves You."

Also note the extent to which the melodic material frequently incorporates pentatonic-like riffs that couple the two related triads together; dig parts 2 and 3 in particular.


The sequential nature of the form carries through to the handling of the instrumentation:

Part 1a -- Features plucked guitar arpeggios, bass guitar, and single track vocal. A drum crescendo starts from nothing in last measure and leads into next section.

Part 1b -- Adds percussion and chordal chops on guitar. The vocal overdub in the last 2 phrases sounds like John.

Part 2 -- Is characterized by the fuzz guitar and cymbal slashes, the latter falling on every second measure The vocal overdub here sounds like it could be Paul.

Part 3 -- Adds tambourine. Vocally starts off with John single tracked but with Paul joining him in the second phrase.

Part 4 -- Features a trio of backing vocals, some of whose phrases make for clever byplay with lead vocal; sometimes as counterpoint, sometimes as a sustained background wash, and even sometimes making a hocket with lead. At the very bottom of the instrumental track there is what sounds alot like a bowed bass fiddle; perhaps I'm hearing the tuba part that Lewisohn says was mostly mixed out.

It's no surprise that the ensemble should sound a bit rickety-ragged in places, given the constant changes of meter and use of unequal phrasing.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough

Part 1: She's Not A Girl Who Misses Much

The track opens with two phrases that project an 'AA', even-lengthed symmetry. I analyze them as though they were clearly in the home key of a minor, but this is an after-thought considered in light of the rest of what follows. In all honesty, you probably here this opening as if it were a Plagal (i.e. iv->i) cadence in a home key of e minor:

 --------------- 2X --------------
 |a7 |- |e |- |
a:       i               v

This placid opening is counter-balanced by a definite increase intensity and an implied transposition of the opening iv-i chord progression to the key of a minor; not to mention our first example in the track what the old computer game, Adventure, described as twisty passages, "all different":

 |d |- |- |a |- |
  iv       i

 |d |- |a |- |
  iv      i

 |d |- |a |- |
   iv              i

 |d |- |-   |a      |-       |
  iv                   i

Granted, the *middle* two phrases of this quatrain are four- square, but the first phrase is longer by a full measure, and the final one is extended in its middle by a half-measure. This particular sequencing cleverly deprives the section of all symmetry, in spite of the fact that two phrases are identical to each other! To understand this a bit more clearly, contemplate how much more symmetry *could* be added here if the identical phrases were deployed in either in any of the following positions: 1/3, 2/4, 1/2, 3/4 -- instead of the 2/3 configuration we are given.

You might argue that what I've labelled a d minor chord above is more to be more precisely analyzed as a half-diminished 7th chord on b in its "first" (or "6/5") inversion; i.e. ii6/5, instead of iv. However, I'm parsing it with d as the root because I hear the root movement in terms of iv->i; especially because of the way it parallels the first sub-section above.

The very last measure of this section is *one* of the more conspicuous rough edges in the ensemble playing, as if one or more of the players was already shifting into 3/4.

Part 2: I Need A Fix 'cause I'm Going Down

We transition from the ranting march-beat rhetoric of section 1b into a heavy-but-flowing, bluesy waltz in which the same eleven- measure phrase is repeated twice.

This time our sense of differing twisty passages comes from both the wobbly "3+4+4" phrase structure, and the fact that the vocal line does not literally repeat the guitar line. You might say the vocal variation is the one that more clearly projects the pseudo ABA inner structure of the eleven measure phrase:

guitar  |E G E |C A C |E DCA |
vocal   |E G E |C A C |E DCA |
 |a     |-     |-     |
a:  i

 |E G E |C A C |E G   |EDE   |
 |E G E |C A C |E G   |E G   |
 |-     |-     |-     |-     |

 |G     |C A C |E DCA |-     |
 |E G E |C A C |E DCA |-     |
 |c     |-     |a     |-     |
  III           i

There's a quarter-tone-flat blues spin applied to several of the E naturals in this section; an effect that appears nowhere else in the song.

Part 3: Mother Superior Jumped The Gun

This section is characterized by a special rhythmic effect that occurs in the first measure of every phrase, technically referred to as a "hemiola." The term is applied to any situation in which a phrase of music written in a ternary meter (e.g. 3/4) contains one or more instances where either an isolated single measure is accented as if were 2 triplets (i.e. 6/8), or a pair of measures are accented as if they were 3 measures of 2/4. If you're at a loss for a pop-music precedent, try "America" from Leonard Bernstein's _West Side Story_.

The section is built out of 3 phrase pairs, the second of which is consistently one beat longer than the first; is it John or Mr. Martin who proposed such details?

 6/8|a       3/4|C         |-       |
a:          i           III

 6/8|a       3/4|G         4/4|-       |
            i           flat-VII

This section resonates subtly-if-not-surprisingly with section 1b both in terms of mood as well as melodic emphasis on the B->A motif.

The individualized, unique contribution of this section is the introduction of the flat-VII chord.

Part 4: Happiness Is A Warm Gun (Bang-Bang, Shoot-Shoot)

By virtue of its full-fledged, albeit cliched, harmonic progression, the song finally arrives in this section for its big finish; the rest of the track to this point left to serve a a multi-faceted introduction. And based on all the preceding material, who, indeed, would have expected this doo-wop, harmonic cliche as our ultimate destiny?

So here, in spite of all strangeness, we find the old "I-vi-IV-V" over and over and over (again), with one penultimate tip of the hat to the dramatic (but equally "old") minor iv chord:

    --------------- 2X --------------
 4/4|C |a |F |G |
C:          I    vi      IV      V

    --------------- 3X --------------
 3/4|C |a |F |G |
            I    vi      IV      V

    --------------- 2X --------------
 4/4|C |a |F |G |
            I    vi      IV      V

 4/4|f |- |- |- |

    --------------- 2X --------------
 4/4|C |a |F |G |
            I    vi      IV      V

The three phrases in 3/4 here are the are the most raggedly performed in the entire track; poor Ringo particularly sounds like he's struggling.

The phrase on the f minor chord sounds almost as though performed ad libitum, but I believe on hears it as if it fills approximately the 4 measures I've given it above.

Some Final Thoughts

During the last seconds of the finished mix, the engineer suddenly lifted the faders just before the final chord had completely died away, thus adding punctuation-like heft to the one last drum beat.

It's an effect that uncannily reminds me of the sound you hear in recordings of 18th century keyboard music performed on very large period harpsichords; the kind with 2 keyboards and still more registers and color stops. The performer holds down the keys to the final chord, waiting for the sound to fade almost completely away, and then releases the all the keys at once, allowing the jacks to make their own hefty "thunk" as they fall upon the damped strings.

And lest you think this association has nothing to do with the Beatles, I should point out that Francois Couperin Le Grand, a composer whose keyboard pieces count among some of the most idiomatically indgenous music written for such large harpsichords, held a long term post as the official court keyboard teacher to the household of The Sun King.


Alan (

"...and by the way, what's that?"
"My name's Betty... Do you want a punch up your frogged tunic?"

Copyright (c) 1997 by Alan W. Pollack

All Rights Reserved

This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.

These articles were originally posted in the News Group The content from this newsgroup is archived at, and Alan W. Pollacks "Notes On" series can be found at

. I used to link to the versions published in Soundscapes before I decided to include them on my own site.

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Artist: Dominic Pedler

Arranged by The Beatles

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