Thursday, November 29, 2012

Further pretentiousness

Happiness is a Warm Gun

Is a textbook example of just what John Lennon’s genius was. For a great musician he wasn’t actually that great at music. Amongst other things he was a rhythm guitarist with a poor sense of rhythm. His talent, in terms of composition, was being able to capitalise on his lack of fluency leading him to original ideas that would not occur to more proficient musicians. The Times music journalists famously complimented Lennon on his use of Aeolian cadences, John hadn’t a clue what they were.

Working with Paul McCartney and to a lesser extent with George Martin this tendency was harnessed. As time passed Lennon and McCartney depended less each other1, John’s compositions were offered up metrically dishevelled. He began composing on piano to surprise himself. He started working from words rather than an initial musical phrase. Phrases spilled over bars, sections expanded and contracted when needed (e.g. Revolution – “we-e-ell you know”, an extra two beats latched onto a 12-bar blues). What is Happiness is a Warm Gun? Is it a suite? There’s certainly no verse-chorus structure to it. Try counting the beats at various points. It’s utterly mad and yet the song rings true.

I Want to Hold Your Hand

The blockbuster Beatles single, the vertiginous peak of a chain starting with Love Me Do. Much can be made of how early Lennon/McCartney songs were written to generate white-hot hysteria. There is a contrary undertow in several of their early lyrics.

Please, Please Me is of course about John’s passion for oral sex. Despite being palpably more manic, I Want to Hold Your Hand is lyrically chaste. Can’t By Me Love went one step further in having the singer address object of their affection as “my friend”. These are not necessarily disparate elements. There is of course a cool aspect to sexual liberation, specifically casual sex, disengaged passion. This was almost certainly not considered by John and Paul, whose lyrics at the time were place fillers.


It’s well established that Julia Lennon was her son’s muse. She was a physical embodiment of the concept of anima, Lennon’s personality reflected back in female form, a role later embodied by Yoko Ono. If you accept that theory you can see Julia cropping up time and again in John’s lyrics, as the former lover, possibly dead in Yes It Is, the symbol of bondage and suffering in Girl, the girl with kaleidoscope eyes in Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, possibly the source of rapture in Across the Universe. There are numerous Lennon-penned songs about betrayal and departure. Lennon’s grief mixed with anger at her loss. All his closest relationships were tinged with violence to some degree2.

This is John’s final song to Julia while in The Beatles. Despite being something of an exorcism, judging by the Plastic Ono Band album it clearly failed.

1. And on George Martin, who began withdrawing from production duties after Sergeant Pepper.
2. For instance it’s reasonable to speculate (while admitting there’s no definitive proof) there was at least a sexual element to John’s relationship with Stuart Sutcliffe and that John felt a degree of guilt over his death from a brain haemorrhage, having had a violent brawl with Sutcliffe years earlier.

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