The Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun” and the Shocking Magazine Cover That Inspired John Lennon to Write It

When The Beatles first released “Happiness is a Warm Gun” in 1968, many assumed the track was about sex, drugs, or both. But in reality, the inspiration came from something far less illicit: an American Rifleman magazine cover. 

Videos by American Songwriter

Of course, in typical John Lennon fashion, there were multiple sources of inspiration for the track that closed Side One of the Beatles’ eponymous album (known as the “White Album”). Those sources included a shoplifter, a peeping Tom, Lennon’s sexual relationship with Yoko Ono, and rampant public defecation.

But the hook? Well, that was lifted word for word from the NRA’s monthly magazine.

The Magazine Cover That Inspired “Happiness is a Warm Gun”

“Happiness is a Warm Gun” is a psychedelic, rambling track that switches subject matter almost as much as it changes time signature. The second half of the song builds anticipatory tension that explodes into the song’s main hook: Happiness is a warm gun, bang, bang, shoot, shoot. As Lennon later explained, he picked up the line from a cover of the U.S. National Rifle Association’s monthly publication, The American Rifleman.

“George Martin [the Beatles’ producer] showed me the cover of a magazine that said, ‘Happiness is a warm gun.’ I thought it was a fantastic, insane thing to say. A warm gun means you’ve just shot something,” Lennon explained in Anthology (via BeatlesBible).

In the same documentary, Lennon discussed radio stations banning the song over what they believed to be its references to heroin. “They said it was about shooting up drugs,” the musician recalled. “But they were advertising guns. I thought it was so crazy that I made a song out of it. It wasn’t about H at all.”

John Lennon Also Took Inspiration From His Partner, Yoko Ono

In a 1980 interview with Playboy magazine, Lennon addressed the assumptions that “Happiness is a Warm Gun” yet again. He clarified that he had never read the article in The American Rifleman but that he “took it as the terrible idea of just having shot some animal.” The lyrics immediately after the title hook, When I hold you in my arms, and I feel my finger on your trigger, had a far more intimate inspiration.

Lennon explained that he wrote the song “at 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.” The song’s previous references to Mother Superior jumped the gun also alluded to Ono, whom Lennon called Mother or Madam as terms of endearment. “The rest doesn’t mean anything,” Lennon told Playboy. “It’s just images of her” (via BeatlesInterviews).

Other Sordid Sources of Inspiration for “Happiness is a Warm Gun”

Lennon took inspiration from several conversations with Apple publicist Derek Taylor for the first half of “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” For example, Taylor’s story about meeting a fetishist who enjoyed wearing moleskin gloves prompted the line, She’s well acquainted with the touch of a velvet hand. The next lyric, like a lizard on a windowpane, referred to Taylor’s time in Los Angeles. 

Lying with his eyes while his hands are busy working overtime, on the other hand, had to do with a story Turner told Lennon about a shoplifter who used prosthetic hands to lift merchandise from shops without clerks knowing. The man in the crowd with the multicolored mirrors on his hobnail boots referenced a news story of police arresting a Manchester man for affixing mirrors on his boots to peep up women’s skirts. 

The final line of the song’s first verse came from a stomach-turning conversation about the prevalence of public defecation in northwest England. If someone defecated on public property owned by the National Trust, they were said to have donated their meal to the National Trust. Thus, the line A soap impression of his wife which he ate and donated to the National Trust was born.

As Taylor described it to Steve Turner, author of A Hard Day’s Write, “John put it all together [and] created a series of layers of images. It was like a whole mess of colour” (via BeatlesBible). And indeed, “colorful” is quite the appropriate term to describe this multifaceted track.

Photo by Don Paulsen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Leave a Reply

Hozier, Janelle Monáe to Headline All Things Go: How To Get Tickets