1. Back in the U.S.S.R.
Primary Songwriter: McCartney
Recorded: August 22-23, 1968 at Abbey Road
It’s hard to think of any better way to start The Beatles than with jet engines, social commentary, and a portrayal of the band’s American influence with a hard edge. Had “Back in the U.S.S.R.” been written stateside during this period, it couldn’t have been taken as parody, but Britain had blood-red communists roaming its everyday streets, and this was Paul McCartney’s brilliant political commentary and quite possibly one of the best songs he ever contributed to the Fab Four.
A perfect case of tragedy meets comedy in the popular music realm, “Back in the U.S.S.R” is almost a contradiction of sorts. It was obvious the U.S. had a conflict with the Soviets during this period, and it’s rather interesting that McCartney arranged the song to share Beach Boys surf-guitar kicks and vocal harmonies circa 1965. Let’s also not forget that the title is a play on Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA”, and its hook carries the same punch that Berry’s compositions often did. It seemed like the entire band was having fun in a time of personal turmoil—everyone except for Ringo Starr, who stormed off mid-session after arguing with McCartney over the drum part. McCartney, being the perfectionist he is, laid down a fiery drum performance that was just what the doctor ordered.
John Lennon and George Harrison played two of the better guitar performances, sharing the lead spot and chugging along with fast-driven chord breaks. It’s hard to judge Lennon’s character at this time during the Beatles, considering he wrote some of his most controversial tunes for the band during the “White Album” sessions—but as he seemed largely to show little interest in McCartney’s pop compositions during this period, “Back in the U.S.S.R.” was right up his alley. Lennon even found himself playing solid rock ‘n’ roll tunes with the Plastic Ono Band, and whether he would come to admit it or not, this is one of the last truly great Lennon-McCartney partnerships.
There are many people that claim there is no place for satire in rock music, and although McCartney’s image has been somewhat tarnished by the media in recent years, he still remains one of the masters at tackling serious issues in a comedic fashion. As the rest of the Westernized world worried about Nuclear power subsiding in the Soviet Union, here’s McCartney claiming things such as “Well the Ukraine girls really knock me out / They leave the West behind / And Moscow girls make me sing and shout / That Georgia’s always on my my-my-my-my-my-my-my-my mind!” A Beach Boys-style anthem just went from surfing to skiing and furry hats are now all the rage. Nuclear bombs? No way. Nuclear women? You got it, boys. There had to be some Lennon input here subconsciously, because McCartney tuned in one of the best hard rock vocal delivered from below the belt.
“Back in the U.S.S.R.” is not only a political and social commentary, but it’s also a step forward for the Beatles during a period of turmoil in their career. Starr aside, they all put their troubles away and delivered one of the most fierce and joyful performances of their career. Forty years later, it sounds as fresh and fun as it did at the time of release. It may be time to pull this one out again during a time of conflict in the same region, and help people realize again exactly what the Beatles’ made people see during the height of their career: that music truly can change the world.
2. Dear Prudence
Primary Songwriter: Lennon
Recorded: August 28-30, 1968 at Abbey Road
“Dear Prudence” is a sunrise of a song, a description of the perfect day that sets the Beatles experience to a specific place and time. Like much of The Beatles, “Dear Prudence” was born in India and of the Beatles’ 1968 visit to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Lennon’s distinctive guitar finger-picking is widely believed to have been taught to him by Donovan, who was also in India to meditate with the Maharishi. Prudence is Prudence Farrow, sister of Mia and such a fanatical devotee to the Maharishi that she spent much of the retreat locked away in her room. At the tail end of a demo version of “Dear Prudence”, Lennon cheekily explains, “All the people around her were very worried about the girl because she was going insane. So we sang to her.”
During the recording of The Beatles, a gap began to open between Lennon and McCartney, both personally and in their musical styles. Although most of the Beatles’ catalog is credited to the pair, they didn’t always write that way. Often one would write a piece of a song and the other would help to finish it. By the time they recorded The Beatles, however, the relationships between the Beatles had changed and the collaboration between Lennon and McCartney had eroded.
Lennon was falling in love with Yoko Ono, who suddenly appeared inside the recording booth. As Harrison explains in the Anthology, “there was a lot of ego in the band”. Instead of making decisions within the group, the writer of each song determined how it would sound. Like “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, the drumming on “Dear Prudence” is widely credited not to Starr, but to McCartney.
The record opens with “Back in the U.S.S.R”, a high-concept rave-up that sets the tone for McCartney’s other contributions to the record. “Dear Prudence” follows, and does the same for Lennon. Some of his contributions to the The Beatles are in stark contrast with the optimism of “Dear Prudence”. But all of the songs share a raw intimacy.
“Dear Prudence” exudes a vulnerability that Lennon doesn’t bother to hide behind musical embellishments. He is more direct here than in any other song on The Beatles—including “Julia”, which clearly has a more personal subject. The lyrics are simple and sweet and it’s more than a little ironic that, besides the Beatles, the group most identified with “Dear Prudence” is Siouxsie & the Banshees. The punk band’s 1983 cover version of the song was their biggest hit.
On “Dear Prudence”, Lennon’s request builds from a quiet entreaty to a full-blown petition. In the song’s final minute, as Lennon’s voice breaks on the refrain, he is, for all intents and purposes, Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything, holding a boombox under a window. It’s hard to imagine how Prudence could resist coming out to play.
Glass Onion, Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
3. Glass Onion
Primary Songwriter: Lennon
Recorded: September 11-13 and October 10, 1968 at Abbey Road
In his Chronicles, Bob Dylan wrote, “A song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true. They are like strange countries that you have to enter.” By that definition, “Glass Onion” is an epic songwriting achievement. And yet, Lennon, the song’s author, dismissed it as “a throw-away song”. Fans and critics alike argue whether, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, “there is any there, there”, but as I explain below, despite Lennon’s protestations, “Glass Onion” holds significance that elevates it above many of the “better” songs in the Beatles oeuvre.
One can begin with the title, about which—no surprise—there isn’t any firm agreement. Lennon stated that a glass onion is an object that, after multiple layers were peeled away, would reveal a void core. Utter transparency through and through. The Emperor without any clothes. This interpretation suited Lennon’s belief that over-zealous fans had taken to over-analyzing every Beatle lyric—the urban legend of McCartney’s death and its resulting hysteria, being a primary exemplar. This was why he said he teased listeners with:
I told you about the walrus and me, man
You know that we’re as close as can be, man.
Well here’s another clue for you all:
The walrus was Paul.
On the other hand, didn’t “glass onions” also refer to caskets with glass covers? Thus, wouldn’t such a title fuel the “Paul Is Dead” fable?
The epitome of “a John song”, “Glass Onion” is labyrinthine, layered, challenging, confounding, ironic, jarring, dreamy. As one of rock’s first “post-modern” compositions, it boasts inchoate intertextuality and rampant self-referentiality; licentiously mixing past and present, it blurs image and reality, juxtaposes surface and depth, and decomposes truth through allusion to other pieces of a pre-existing puzzle (of which it forms a part). The song verily winks at its listeners: challenging them, in the final verse (“Trying to make a dove-tail joint, yeah”), to connect the dots. And how? By employing a glass onion—which also can mean “monocle”, a device that helps us to see more clearly.
The obvious dots are the litany of Beatles songs—eight in all—which are referenced: “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “I Am the Walrus”, “Lady Madonna”, “The Fool on the Hill”, and “Fixing a Hole”, overtly; “There’s a Place”—in the lyric “Well here’s another place you can go”—likely; “Within You Without You”—possibly—in the word “flow”; and “She Loves You”—I would aver—in Lennon’s intentional repetition near the end of (the differently inflected) “Yeah, yeah, yeah”.
Although “Glass Onion” is the third cut on the album, it was the first to feature Starr on drums. Thirty-four takes of the drum track were recorded and a second was laid two days later. A tambourine, piano, and eight strings were added in subsequent sessions. The return of Starr is significant because it best captures the degraded spirit underlying these sessions: personnel feeling slighted, roles minimized or usurped, contentious bickering, the principals sometimes recording in separate rooms—in the case of McCartney, working solo.
Legend has it that much of the discord was Lennon’s fault: committing the sacrilege of inviting Ono into the midst. Lennon, himself, suggests that the Walrus line had its origins in the new dynamic:
At that time I was still in my love cloud with Yoko. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just say something nice to Paul, that it’s all right and you did a good job over these few years, holding us together’... The line was put in partly because I was feeling guilty because I was with Yoko and I was leaving Paul…
Only…it wasn’t just that line. A careful reading suggests that the entire song is an ode to McCartney, homage to a deep friendship from a time now passed. Hence the references to a common Liverpool past (“cast iron shore”) and the early songs composed together (“She Loves You”) at Paul’s home (“There’s a Place”). Once distinct talents perfectly complemented one another, souls were hermetically linked. The joint held fast.
And by twisting McCartney’s own lyrics, Lennon was able to chart the group’s evisceration. McCartney playing wet nurse to the fragmenting family (“Lady Madonna trying to make ends meet—yeah”), band members pleading for reconciliation or accord (“trying to make the dove-tail joint”); but, ultimately being unable to patch the irreparable (“fixing a hole in the ocean”). Metaphoric tears become a torrent precipitated by the iterated peeling of onion skin: layers of years, layers of accumulated scar tissue.
Lennon’s artistic gift lay in how he externalized his internal. The world he reduced to meaningful song was one of attachments forged and broken. Leaving McCartney, cutting out on the Beatles, would require externalization: explanation, justification, apology. In “Glass Onion” we encounter a lover’s confession, a partner’s admission of infidelity. There is morning-after remorse, but also open-eyed realization that a threshold of no return has been crossed. As the final stanza fades, George Martin’s staccato strings declare inertia in decline, with the final pulses mimicking a terminating heartbeat. “Glass Onion” verily pronounces: “Paul, we are dead. I want a divorce”.
As paean to Lennon’s lost love for his Beatles, “Glass Onion” should be regarded not only as one of the more important Beatles songs on the album, but in the band’s entire catalogue. As deep archeology, it stands as a musical cipher, enabling us to decode the human dynamics and political-historical back-story of the formation and impending demise of rock’s greatest band.
4. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Primary Songwriter: McCartney
Recorded: July 3-5, 8-9, 11, and 15, 1968 at Abbey Road
The Beatles can be regarded as rock’s first truly sprawling double album mess-terpiece, eschewing any singular sound in favor of stream-of-consciousness genre-hopping. That is, of course, what makes it so exciting: the total abandon of thematic unity altogether is the theme. It’s not just unfocused—it’s brilliant. But the line between genre exploration and parody, paying tribute and mocking, is awfully thin—just ask Ween—and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” deserves some of the blame.
Sure, “Back in the U.S.S.R.” is a Beach Boys/Chuck Berry knock-off, and “Yer Blues” spoofs British blues, but “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, a McCartney-penned foray into reggae-tinged novelty territory, is the least straight-faced of them all. For one thing, it has the distinct honor of regularly appearing on lists of the worst songs of all time, including Blender‘s “50 Worst Songs Ever”. (The rest of the band despised the track, and vetoed McCartney’s request to release it as a single. Lennon famously referred to it as “Paul’s granny shit”—until he got stoned to the gills and recorded the almost willfully obnoxious honky-tonk piano. McCartney had spent something to the tune of 40 hours trying in vain to record a good take, working with much slower tempos.) It’s also the only Beatles track ever to feature a reggae skank, the rhythmic accent on the off-beat. Hell, how many Beatles fans even recognize that word (skank) in a musical context?
If I’m being indirect, it’s because “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is at once the worst and the most fun track on the album. Of all the Beatles’ songs, no other so openly embraces the corniness of a readymade karaoke tune. What makes it even more hilarious is Starr’s(?) seeming inability to inject into his drumming any of the funk that reggae syncopations demand—but hey, life goes on, bra. I’m reminded of my childhood summer camp, where “Ob-La-Di” was a regular camp-wide sing-along. It was always the hippest counselors who faithfully recited those cute little elements from the recording that don’t appear on a lyric sheet: the creepy laughter, the infectious horn breakdown during the bridge, the badass piano riff at 2:32. Other little accidental sounds are all over the recording, giving it the screwing-around-in-the-studio vibe of the Beach Boys’ Party! album. It’s whimsical, and certainly tons more fun than the Offspring’s insipid tribute, “Why Don’t You Get a Job?”
The title isn’t drug-addled gibberish, by the way. Nigerian singer and congo player Jimmy Scott took credit for the phrase (basic translation: “Life goes on, bra!”), and went so far as to sue McCartney for its use. Scott reportedly dropped charges after McCartney helped him with alimony payments. The song is an ode to starting a family, touching or trite, depending on your mood. Desmond, the song’s protagonist who presents Molly with a “20-carat golden ring”, is a reference to reggae legend Desmond Dekker. As for the name mix-up in the last verse (“Desmond stays at home and does his pretty face/ And in the evening she’s a singer with a band”), McCartney intended to sing Molly’s name, yet left the mistake in for confusion’s sake.
Ultimately, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is a prelude to the inevitable Lennon-McCartney musical divorce. Lennon hated the song; he was drifting towards a solo career highlighted by “Imagine” and the deeply personal catharsis of Plastic Ono Band, in which there is no room for throwaway reggae tributes. McCartney was drifting towards…pop. It’s still comforting to know that the Beatles didn’t take themselves too seriously, and if that puts “Ob-La-Di” on some Worst Songs Ever poll—and more than a few karaoke machines—then so be it.
Wild Honey Pie, The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
5. Wild Honey Pie
Primary Songwriter: McCartney
Recorded: August 20, 1968 at Abbey Road
At first, it sounds like notes selected at random, a near-atonal haywire melody that might come from plucking a rubber band around a lidless cigar box. It’s like a surging swarm of Jew’s harps sounding each of the metronomically alternating notes. Then we settle uneasily into the song’s fumbling staccato rhythm, which could only have been discovered by accident, a plodding stomp with no hint of backbeat that works itself out awkwardly and improbably in seven measures rather than the eight you’d expect. A hobo chorus of ragged falsetto voices sing the phrase “honey pie” as a derelict war cry rather than a term of endearment; when one of them warbles “I love you” at the end of the track’s minute of maundering, it sounds more lecherous than sincere. Then almost before we have a chance to process all that we’ve heard, a florid flamenco guitar figure ushers us into the world of “Bungalow Bill”. So it goes with McCartney’s “Wild Honey Pie”.
As a mid-album-side palate cleanser (especially necessary after the inane “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”—dismissed by Lennon as “granny shit”), “Wild Honey Pie” is peculiarly aggressive, about as far from the syrupy ballads on which he’s made his fortune. On the track, McCartney works as a one-man band, and it’s palpable how much this suits and pleases him at this point in the Beatles’ disintegration. The amount of fun he seems to be having with himself is almost antisocial, and it’s plain that McCartney no longer needs collaboration to stoke his creativity.
“Wild Honey Pie” presents McCartney at virtually his most unfettered; nothing else he would make for the Beatles would be as strange (assuming you don’t count the Magical Mystery Tour film). In Barry Miles’s biography, McCartney remembers the song as “a little experimental piece”:
It was very homemade; it wasn’t a big production at all. I just made up this short piece and I multitracked a harmony to that, and a harmony to that, and a harmony to that, and built it up sculpturally.
As a kind of deliberately arty aural sculpture, “Wild Honey Pie” functions as the dialectical response to his nostalgic, music-hall ditty “Honey Pie”, illustrating the two McCartneys that were beginning to diverge at this point in his career. One is the Mr. Mellow who is stolidly wedded to traditional forms and continually sought to outdo himself in mawkishness—the evil McCartney that would spew out “The Long and Winding Road” and “My Love” and ultimately “Ebony and Ivory”. The other McCartney, though, is a restless artiste heedlessly chasing his muse into playful self-referentiality and an odd, madcap minimalism. This McCartney would give us the sublime Ram (1971) and the 1990s techno experiments of “the Fireman”.
Unlike Lennon, whose experimentalism manifests in the arbitrary tape-loop cacophony of “Revolution 9”, McCartney seems more interested in testing the limits of hookiness than testing listeners’ patience and freaking them out. The freakiest thing that happens during “Wild Honey Pie” is hearing how the incongruous elements gel in 52 seconds flat to become coherent and memorable, a sui generic minor McCartney miracle. His first solo album would end up being full of these homespun throwaway scraps that defy you to forget them.
6. The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
Primary Songwriter: Lennon
Recorded: October 8, 1968 at Abbey Road
Even on the most spiritual of journeys, whenever there’s a crowd involved, you are guaranteed to have at least one asshole in the mix.
That, in perfectly blunt terms, is the general crux of “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”. As legend has it, when the Beatles were on their much-publicized stay with the recently-departed Maharishi Mahesh Yogi for a transcendental meditation retreat at his ashram, one of their fellow students was a wealthy American woman by the name of Nancy Cooke de Herrera, whose son, Richard A. Cooke III, made a most controversial visit to the camp to see his mother. Apparently both were big fans of the Beatles, and were said to have had friendly relations with all of them but Lennon, who maintained a cynical and distant rapport with them, because they were rich white Americans at an Indian transcendental meditation camp, and apparently doubted that the intentions of their presence were wholly sincere.
Well, as is interpreted by Nancy Cooke de Herrera in her book about her experiences with the Maharishi, Beyond Gurus, Cooke III, who also went by the name Rik, and his mother joined a group from the camp on a tiger hunting excursion on elephant. However, when one of the tigers charged at the herd of elephants, it was Rik who shot it dead in a kneejerk reaction and got all puffed up over it, going so far as to take a photograph of him standing over his trophy kill to brag over with his frat buddies back in the U.S.
When the party returned from their adventure, Lennon quickly called out Rik on his decision. “Wouldn’t you call that slightly life-destructive?” he quizzed sardonically, mindful of his surroundings at the ashram. To be publicly lambasted by a Beatle, on a spiritual journey no less, surely must have been a low point in the life of Richard A. Cooke III. Meanwhile, Lennon chose to write this silly campfire sing-along in response to the situation, a song that certainly appealed more to children than the adults actually going out to their local Korvette’s and picking up The Beatles back on Thanksgiving week in 1968.
“The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”, at 3:05, recounts the story of the tiger hunt in Lennon’s own scathingly English way. “It was written about a guy in Maharishi’s meditation camp who took a short break to shoot a few poor tigers, and then came back to commune with God,” he told Playboy magazine.
“Bungalow Bill”—also the only Beatles track to feature a female lead vocal, with Ono squeaking out the line, “Not when he looked so fierce”, the sheepish call to Lennon’s snide response, “His mummy butted in”—might not be the most beloved Beatles song. Critic Clark Collis took a swipe at it in a review of the new Oasis album in Entertainment Weekly just recently, calling Dig Out Your Soul “more ‘Bungalow Bill’ than ‘Eleanor Rigby’”. But if you were a little kid born between 1968 and 1975, there’s a pretty sporting chance you know the lyrics to “Bill” better than “Ba Ba Black Sheep”.
While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Happiness Is a Warm Gun
7. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Primary Songwriter: Harrison
Recorded: July 25, August 16, and September 3 and 5-6, 1968 at Abbey Road
My introduction to the Beatles came through my mother who happened to have been born at an ideal time to appreciate every stage of their evolution: she was young enough in 1964 to join the legions of screaming girls across America, singing along to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on The Ed Sullivan Show yet mature enough to appreciate the group through their more artistic, studio-hermit years. An important aspect about her influence on my experience with their music is the fact that she always cited Harrison as her favorite Beatle. For me, the fact that such a powerful force in my young life felt a certain way about a band whose albums I began to immerse myself in at a very young age augmented my experience with a heightened level of intrigue into all things George. The Harrison compositions became my typical starting point for discovery into any Beatles album.
Choosing a favorite Harrison Beatles song is as utterly trivial as determining the best song on The Beatles. Upon first listen, however, no song in either category struck me with such brilliant immediacy as “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. It is an emotionally, melodically, and structurally complex masterpiece. Although it received limited attention upon release, the song has since gained status a guitar rock staple, as a certifiable major Beatles work, and as perhaps the definitive statement of Harrison’s career.
The supposed inspiration for Harrison’s first composition on the Beatles’ historic double album came about through his studies of the I Ching, an ancient Chinese classic text, which Harrison—as quoted in the 1980 book of his recollections, I Me Mine—described as seemingly “based on the Eastern concept that everything is relative to everything else, as opposed to the Western view that things are merely coincidental”. The legend of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is that Harrison, while visiting his parents’ home, committed to writing an entire song by applying this theory of relativism to randomly chosen words out of a randomly chosen book; those words happened to be “gently weeps”.
Harrison first wrote “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” as an organ-accompanied, acoustic guitar composition. His fellow Beatles were rumored to have approached this initial incarnation with complete indifference. The level of annoyed displeasure with early takes among the band is believed by many to be the only documented occasion in which Harrison’s actions were a primary source of inner Beatle turmoil. After a failed electric reworking, Harrison invited Eric Clapton to assume lead guitar for the recording session which, according to Harrison, “was good because that then made everyone act better…they all took it more seriously”. The session ended up producing the official album version after, as admitted by Harrison, Clapton’s great yet “not Beatley enough” guitar work had to be put “through the ADT to wobble it up a bit”. (Due to legal reasons, Clapton’s guest appearance was uncredited.)
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, compared with other Beatles compositions, is superficially familiar in its verse, bridge, verse, guitar solo, bridge, verse, outro structure. The uniqueness of the composition lies in the melodic and lyrical structures of the verses and bridges. The downbeat, minor-keyed, four-line verses transition into the pleasantly sublime, major-keyed bridges. Wide-ranging, pessimistic observations make up the odd lines of each verse while the even lines are the familiar refrains of “While my guitar gently weeps” and then “Still my guitar gently weeps”. The most distinctive aspect of the composition lyrically is the fact that the words of the bridge are completely changed from its first occurrence to its second while the aforementioned single-line, inner-verse refrains represent the sole lyrical consistency throughout the track.
The actual content of the lyrics of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” can most easily be interpreted as a lament of love lost, not particularly on a personal level, but more in a global sense. The opening line of the song, “I look at you all / See the love there that’s sleeping”, implies a sense of large-scale desensitization. The opening line of the second verse, “I look at the world, and I notice it’s turning”, evokes negative sentiments toward the ostensible indifference shown by some in acknowledging such a loss of compassion. The constant refrain about the perpetual, gentile weeping of his guitar puts Harrison’s real power to change things into an existential perspective. Even as part of the most influential artistic force in the world, he is still simply a musician. His greatest weapon against the ills of the world is his music which, in the grand scheme of things, only amounts to a gentle weep.
8. Happiness Is a Warm Gun
Primary Songwriter: Lennon
Recorded: September 23-25, 1968 at Abbey Road
The Beatles’ first side ends with an intricate masterpiece that represents a united—and unusually wonderful and weird—effort amidst so much individuality. Reportedly McCartney’s favorite “White Album” song, “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” is also classic Lennon: a lyric mixture of the psychedelic (“She’s well acquainted with the touch of the velvet hand / Like a lizard on a window pane”), the distinctly British (“Lying with his eyes while his hands are busy working overtime / A soap impression of his wife which he ate and donated to the National Trust”), the obviously sexual (“When I hold you in my arms / And feel my finger on your trigger”), the personal (“I need a fix”, reflecting Lennon’s drug dependency), and the political (“Happiness is a warm gun” came from a magazine article about the American gun lobby).
But beyond its potent poetry of religion, sexuality, violence, and vision, “Happiness” is one of the Beatles’ most musically sophisticated tunes. It is not built on verses and choruses but rather from four or five distinct sections that build in intensity. Lennon claimed it as a miniature history of rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s fair enough. It opens with a delicate verse of guitar and voice only, shifting upward as bass and drums enter. There is a sudden change to 3/4 time for a brief, guttural blues guitar solo that precedes “I need a fix”. Just as suddenly, the triple meter double-times to 6/8 while Lennon starts to sing “Mother Superior jump the gun”, slowing to 3/4 on the second half of the phrase. Which happens six times. But with a measure of 4/4 on the end of the every other repetition. Got it? Needless to say, the familiar doo-woppy “Happiness is a warm gun / Bang-bang, shoot-shoot!” is back in 4/4 again, but Lennon’s spoken interlude (“When I hold you…”) is in 3/4 again.
All this intricacy might sound like symphonic prog-rock run amok, except that it takes a scant 2:43, with each section as concise as a dot of color in a Seurat painting. And the wonder of the song is precisely this almost shocking brevity and incongruity: no section repeats, and each part seems like a new world, a revelation. While it is clear that “Happiness” glues together several different tunes, there is also flat-out artistry in how these disparate pieces echo off each other. The toggling between duple and triple meter gives the tune balance, even as the intensity of each section ramps ever upward. There is also a balancing of romantic imagery (starting with a girl and a man) and violent imagery, allowing Lennon to be alternately provocative (“Mother Superior” mixed together with “gun”) and playful (is it the woman’s trigger or the gun’s trigger he has his finger on?). As always, Lennon is aware of how the commodification of the Beatles can be exploited: the title of the song is a bitter joke about the gun lobby, but also a reference to the cuddly catch-phrase from Peanuts of the time, “Happiness Is a Warm Puppy”. The joy of this play is that it is also sonic: the beautiful reverb on the opening guitars doesn’t even last a minute, but the vocal falsetto doubling that starts with “I need a fix” is its own kind of candy, which then develops into the mocking harmony of “Bang-bang, shoot-shoot”.
All of which is to say: Wow. Only five years had passed since “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, yet the Beatles were now writing and recording complex poetic suites rather than verse-chorus pop tunes. Radiohead apparently found “Happiness” of inspiration when working on its own multi-part tune, “Paranoid Android”, for OK Computer. But what had not changed for the Beatles was their keen awareness that rock ‘n’ roll—the sublime art of the three-minute symphony—was worth an investment of great wit and passion. “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” is catchy like a pop song, provocative like protest art, effortlessly complex and yet off-the-cuff funny. Which is to say: it is the apotheosis of “Beatle-esque”.