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Notes on "Happiness Is A Warm Gun"


Notes on ... Series #136 (HIAWG)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: C Major, converged upon from a minor
     Meter: Various
      Form: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 |
                   | Part 4 (Finale) with complete ending
        CD: "White Album", Disc 1, Track 8 (Parlophone CDS7 46443-8)
  Recorded: 23rd-25th September 1968, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 22nd November 1968 (LP "White Album")
US-release: 25th November 1968 (LP "White Album")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note This song represents a most intriguing formal experiment, one that you might describe as a "teleological 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!
  Next note In contrast to the "Abbey Road" 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".
  Next note 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.
  Next note In both his "Recording Sessions" and his liner notes to "Anthology", Volume 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

  Next note The song finishes up in a mid-fifties cliché-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 seventh which, just like its close cousin, the C Major added sixth, 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".
  Next note Also note the extent to which the melodic material frequently incorporates pentatonic-like riffs that couple the two related triads together; dig the second and third parts in particular.


  Next note The sequential nature of the form carries through to the handling of the instrumentation:
  • First part, first section: Features plucked guitar arpeggios, bass guitar, and single track vocal. A drum crescendo starts from nothing in last measure and leads into next section.
  • First part, last section: Adds percussion and chordal chops on guitar. The vocal overdub in the last two phrases sounds like John.
  • Second part: 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.
  • Third part: Adds tambourine. Vocally starts off with John single tracked but with Paul joining him in the second phrase.
  • Fourth part: Features a trio of backing vocals, some of whose phrases make for clever by-play 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 a lot like a bowed bass fiddle; perhaps I'm hearing the tuba part that Lewisohn says was mostly mixed out.
  Next note 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


First Part: "She's Not A Girl Who Misses Much"

  Next note 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 hear 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

   [Figure 136.1]
  Next note 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       |-       |
   a:  iv                         i

      |d       |-       |a       |-       |
       iv                i

      |d       |-       |a       |-       |
       iv                i

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

   [Figure 136.2]
  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.
  Next note You might argue that what I've labeled a d-minor chord above is more to be more precisely analyzed as a half-diminished seventh 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.
  Next note 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.

Second Part: "I Need A Fix ('Cause I'm Going Down)"

  Next note We transition from the ranting march-beat rhetoric of the last section of the first part into a heavy-but-flowing, bluesy waltz in which the same eleven-measure phrase is repeated twice.
  Next note 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 |
 Chords: |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

   [Figure 136.3]
  Next note 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.

Third Part: "Mother Superior Jumped The Gun"

  Next note This third part 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 two triplets (i.e. 6/8), or a pair of measures are accented as if they were three measures of 2/4. If you're at a loss for a pop-music precedent, try "America" from Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story".
  Next note This part is built out of three 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          3/4
      |a           |C           |-           |
   a:  i            III

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

   [Figure 136.4]
  Next note Notic how this part resonates subtly-if-not-surprisingly with the last section of the first part both in terms of mood as well as melodic emphasis on the "B-A" motif.
  Next note The individualized, unique contribution of this part is the introduction of the flat-VII chord.

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

  Next note By virtue of its full-fledged, albeit clichéd, 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 multi-faceted introduction. And based on all the preceding material, who, indeed, would have expected this doo-wop, harmonic cliché as our ultimate destiny?
  Next note 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:
     4/4 --------- 2X ----------------
      |C   |a       |F       |G       |
   C:  I    vi       IV       V

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

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

      |f   |-       |-       |-       |

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

   [Figure 136.5]
  Next note 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.
  Next note 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 four measures I've given it above.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note 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.
  Next note It's an effect that uncannily reminds me of the sound you hear in recordings of eighteenth century keyboard music performed on very large period harpsichords; the kind with two 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.
  Next note And lest you think this association has nothing to do with the Beatles, I should point out that François Couperin Le Grand, a composer whose keyboard pieces count among some of the most idiomatically indigenous 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 (110997#136)
Copyright © 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.