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“I’M ONLY SLEEPING”
(John Lennon – Paul McCartney)
The Beatles were the first at a lot of things, especially in regard to recording techniques. Becoming easily bored in the studio, they were eager to try new things. One of these was recording guitar backwards, which they did in 1966 with the song “I’m Only Sleeping.” The eerie drone that resulted became irresistible to recording artists the world over, everyone wanting to give it a try. Popular examples include “Are You Experienced?” by Jimi Hendrix, “Cosmic Dancer” by T. Rex, “Book Of Saturday” by King Crimson and even “Give It Away” by The Red Hot Chili Peppers, among many others.
Although the resulting sound is mostly representative of the psychedelic era, to play it accurately and to good effect is an art. It takes much more than to just play a guitar with the tape reversed and then turn it around to the proper direction. Although the Beatles were the first to attempt it, they worked to perfect it right from the beginning, taking as much time as needed to do it right. Although they did use backward recording on other instruments (and vocals) periodically throughout the rest of their career, it was done rather sparingly. Their desire for experimentation, with the help of the EMI staff, went in many other directions, and we can be very grateful for their thirst as to ‘pushing the envelope.’
Actual handwritten lyrics to "I'm Only Sleeping"
In 1972, John told Hit Parader Magazine that he wrote “I’m Only Sleeping” himself, adding in a 1980 interview “That’s me dreaming my life away.” Corroborating this point is the Evening Standard article written by Maureen Cleave (which also included the “more popular than Jesus” statement) from March of 1966 which states: “He (John) can sleep almost indefinitely, is probably the laziest person in England. ‘Physically lazy,’ he said. ‘I don’t mind writing or reading or watching or speaking, but sex is the only physical thing I can be bothered with any more.’”
“The song was written and arranged in one writing session, co-written but from John’s original idea.” So claims Barry Miles in his book “Many Years From Now,” which also relates more details of the inspiration. He states: “Often Paul would be John’s morning alarm call. Living at Wimpole Street…meant he got up earlier than John and packed more into each day. John led a more relaxed suburban life but if he went to dinner in London or to a club, living so far from town meant that he returned home very late. Paul would arrive at midday or the early afternoon and wake him up, which was where John got the idea for ‘I’m Only Sleeping.’”
Claiming his collaboration on the song, Paul himself explains, “One day I led the dance, like ‘Paperback Writer,’ and another day John would lead the dance, like ‘I’m Only Sleeping.’ It was nice; we weren’t really competitive as to who started the song.” While the dreamy ‘floating-like’ recording made for the “Revolver” album may instill thoughts of drug use, Paul insists on a much more innocent interpretation. “It was a nice idea, there’s nothing wrong with it. I’m not being lazy, I’m only sleeping, I’m yawning, I’m meditating, I’m having a lay-in – the luxury of all of that was what it was about.”
Taking a look at the actual lyrics John jotted down when the song was written also depicts the simple images of wanting to sleep. Actually, this manuscript actually gives us a big clue as to when the song was written. The original lyrics were written on the back of a letter from the Post Office reminding him that he owed 12 pounds and three shillings for an outstanding radiophone bill. The letter was dated March 22nd, 1966, so the song was undoubtedly conceived very shortly thereafter. As to whether John ever paid his bill, no one knows. However, this actual letter, with his scribbled and crossed-out lyrics on the back, fetched over a half a million dollars on auction in December of 2010.
The Beatles in EMI Studios, Spring 1966
On April 27th, 1966, which was the fourteenth day of recording sessions for what became their “Revolver” album, the Beatles entered EMI Studio Three to start work on “I’m Only Sleeping.” Before recording began, however, they were present in the control room to oversee multiple mono mixes of three recently recorded songs, none of which made it onto the finished album. It wasn’t until 11:30 pm that they found their way into the actual recording studio to begin working on the new song, their actual tiredness possibly contributing to the dreamy results in the finished product.
No doubt starting with some rehearsals, they laid down eleven takes of the rhythm track, which consisted of John and George on acoustic guitars, Paul on bass and Ringo on drums. No vocals were recorded on this day, the beat during the breaks in the song being kept by someone snapping their fingers (which can quietly be heard just before the first bridge in the finished recording). With an air of experimentation running high in the studio, engineer Geoff Emerick recorded this rhythm track at 56 cycles per second with the intention of it sounding more labored and sleepy-sounding when played back at the normal 50 cycles. The eleventh take was found to be best and, by 3 am, it was time for the group to go home and do some actual “sleeping.”
It appears, though, that the group wasn’t quite happy with the results so far and wanted to start again fresh. So two days later, on April 29th, 1966, they entered EMI Studio Three at 5 pm to take another crack at the song with a much different approach. The first job of the day, however, was laying down some vocal overdubs onto the recently recorded “Eleanor Rigby” and then, after this was complete at approximately 7 pm, they returned their attention to “I’m Only Sleeping.”
“I believe we taught George Martin how to keep the tape rolling,” Ringo remembers about the sessions of those times. “He lost that old attitude that you only press the button when you are going to do the take. We began to have the tape rolling all of the time.” Mark Lewisohn, in his book “The Beatles Recording Sessions,” explains further about this practice as one of the new recording techniques they began early in 1965, saying they would “rehearse songs with a tape machine running, spooling back to record properly over the rehearsed material.”
The April 29th, 1966 recording session for “I’m Only Sleeping” is the only released evidence of this practice as available on the “Anthology 2” album. The Beatles ran through a good degree of taped rehearsal of the song with acoustic guitar, drums and vibraphone (probably played by Paul). They then decided that they were ready to start taping a new version of the song so, having spooled the tape back, proper recording began. They apparently decided to drop the vibraphone idea and started fresh with a simple acoustic guitar and tambourine arrangement with full vocal harmonies from John and Paul recorded live. Five takes of this were recorded, the first of which began with John exaggeratingly calling out “I’m Only Sleeping, take one” although, of course, there were already eleven takes in existence. He undoubtedly felt they didn’t count since they were starting to record the song all over again. After all five takes were completed, the tape then revealed the remainder of the rehearsals with the vibraphone, only about a minute or so left. Both take one and the vibraphone rehearsal is included on “Anthology 2.”
As it turned out, this whole exercise was deemed unsuitable and a decision was made to return to the recording made two days previously. They made use of the remaining time in the studio on this day to overdub John’s lead vocals onto the previously recorded ‘take eleven,' clipping off a brief acoustic guitar introduction in the process. “We tried to get the vocals to sound like somebody’s asleep, which is very difficult,” George Harrison explained.
More ‘vari-speed’ experimentation ensued, the rhythm track being played back at 47 ¾ cycles which slowed down the original recording tremendously since it was recorded at 56 cycles as previously noted. John’s vocals were then recorded at 45 cycles so that it would come through with a higher tonality when played at regular speed. While this sounds confusing, the resulting effect is especially noteworthy on the finished product, the rhythm track being recorded faster and being slowed down while the lead vocals were recorded slower and sped up. This puts the finished song in the very odd key of E-flat minor (instead of E-minor as probably originally played). Finally, by 1 am the following morning, the lead vocals of “I’m Only Sleeping” was complete.
Their next recording session was on May 5th, 1966 in EMI Studio Three which began at 9:30 pm. This five-and-a-half hour session (ending at 3 am the next day) accomplished only one thing, but it was well worth the time spent. The very first backwards guitar solo in recording history was written, arranged and performed on this day, the results turning the world on its ear!
According to George Harrison, they actually experimented with backwards guitar during the making of the song “Rain” on April 14th of that year, although the results were either omitted or buried somewhere in the mix. “We turned the tape over and put it on backwards, and then played some guitar notes to it,” he remembers, “just playing little bits, guessing, hoping it fitted in…We were excited to hear what it sounded like, and it was magic.”
However, Paul remembers things a little differently. He recalls that George was attempting to record the guitar solo to “I’m Only Sleeping” on May 5th when the tape operator inadvertently put the tape on ‘tails out,’ which created quite a stir when the Beatles heard it played back to them. “It played backwards,” Paul explains as if this was the first time they heard backward guitars. He continues: “and, ‘What the hell is going on?’ Those effects! Nobody knew how those sounded then. We said, ‘My God, that is fantastic! Can we do that for real?’ So George Martin, give him his due, being amenable to ideas like that, being quite experimental for who he was, a grown-up, said, ‘Yes. Sure, I think we can do that.’ So that was what we did and that was where we discovered backwards guitar. It was a beautiful solo actually. It sounds like something you couldn’t play.”
Author Mark Lewisohn describes that, instead of just playing a guitar solo normally and then turning the tape around, George Harrison wanted a precise melody line that he had written played backward. This involved “working out the notation forwards, writing it out backwards, then playing it as the notation says, so that it comes out back to front. This way, although the sound still has the aural attraction of a backwards tape the instrument is actually playing a melodic run of notes.”
You can probably guess who was asked to transcribe his melody line backward so that he could play it that way. George Martin became the man who was up to the task. With the notes transcribed for him, George Harrison took the entire day to record, not one, but actually two guitar solos on top of each other with two different melody lines. One of the solos was using his “fuzz box” and one with a regular electric guitar.
Engineer Geoff Emerick, in his book “Here, There And Everywhere,” recounts this day in Studio Three: “There was one especially tedious session where we all wished we had never come up with the concept of backwards sounds. The song was ‘I’m Only Sleeping,’ and George Harrison was determined to play a backwards guitar solo on it. At the best of times, he had trouble playing solos all the way through forwards, so it was with great trepidation that we all settled in for what turned out to be an interminable day of listening to the same eight bars played backwards over and over and over again.
“Phil McDonald told me later that his arms were sore for days afterward from having to repeatedly lift the heavy tape reels off the machine and turn them over. I can still picture George – and later, Paul, who joined him to play the backwards outro in a bizarre duet – hunched over his guitar for hours on end, headphones clamped on, brows furrowed in concentration. George Martin conducted them from the window of the control room, using grease pencil marks I had put on the back of the tape on each beat as a reference.”
From the above eyewitness account, we learn that Paul was also involved with this overdub during the conclusion of the song. Also recorded on this day were little snippets of backward guitar lines peppered throughout the verses. All of this day’s work was put on a separate track of the tape so that it could be faded up during the mixing stage where they saw fit. Since there were four different mixes (two mono and two stereo) that ended up being released in the US, examination shows that each one contains different alterations of the backward guitar overdubs. These will be reviewed below.
The next day, May 6th, 1966, saw the group enter EMI Studio Two at 2:30 pm for their last session concerning “I’m Only Sleeping.” The overdubs performed on this day concentrated solely on additional vocals, John double-tracking his lead vocals intermittently (such as “I’m still yawning” and “float upstream”) and Paul and George adding harmony vocals. It was during this session, no doubt, that Paul’s ‘yawn’ was added just before the last bridge, preceded by John’s instruction “yawn, Paul” which can quietly be heard in the finished recording.
After this was complete, reduction mixes were made to the master tape with the intention of creating an open track for further overdubs, which weren’t done. Nonetheless, these reduction mixes took the song from ‘take 11’ to ‘take 13’ from which all the existing mixes were made. By 1 am this session, and therefore the song, was complete, although the production staff continued on until 2:15 am to create four mono mixes of the song, none of which were ever used.
On May 12th, 1966, the first usable mono mix (remix 5) was made of “I’m Only Sleeping” in the control room of EMI Studio Three by George Martin, Geoff Emerick and 2nd engineer Jerry Boys. Since Capitol Records in the US put in an application for three new songs to compile a new album to be entitled “Yesterday…And Today,” EMI proudly offered this song as one of the three. These mixes were quickly made and were unique to this American album, since they went back later to give the song a better mono mix for its eventual British release on “Revolver.”
The unique features of this mono mix mostly comprise the backward guitar overdub, which are heard as follows: There are no backward guitars heard in the first verse, but they first appear at the end of the first bridge during the words “taking my time” and then in the third verse during the words “staring at the ceiling.” The backward guitar solo continues into the words “please don’t spoil” that are sung afterward. Finally, during the songs’ conclusion, the backward guitar is faded up just after the triplet-strums of John’s acoustic guitar.
On May 20th, 1966, George Martin, Geoff Emerick and 2nd engineer Phil McDonald got together in the control room of EMI Studio One to make the first stereo mixes of the song. I say “mixes” because one was made for the stereo version of Capitol’s “Yesterday…And Today" album and the other was made for the British “Revolver” album. The one intended for Capitol wasn’t initially used by them, most likely because it didn’t arrive in the US in time. Therefore, they created a “duophonic stereo” version from the mono mix they received earlier. Some later pressings of the album, such as distributed through the Capitol Record Club since 1968 and from the Winchester pressing plant since 1973, contain this stereo mix, although the old “duophonic” version was still included on the album all the way up until records stopped being made around 1988.
The unique features of the backward guitar on this US stereo mix are as follows: It appears first in the second verse on the lines “running everywhere at such a speed” and “till they find there’s no need,” however, it does not appear in the third verse as the US mono version does. The backward guitar solo fades in a little later in this version but continues into the word “please” after the instrumental section ends. Also, the backward guitar conclusion begins directly after the word “sleeping” at the end of the song.
The second stereo mix made on this day, which was used on the British “Revolver” album and is the common mix heard to this day, is identical to the US version except for the following feature: The backward guitars begin immediately when the instrumental section starts and concludes precisely when this section ends.
The final two mixes that were made of “I’m Only Sleeping” were both mono mixes, the second of which was used on the British mono “Revolver” album. (They mistakenly numbered these mixes 5 and 6 instead of 6 and 7.) This version actually has the most backward guitar of any version. The backward guitar features include the following: The second verse during the words “where at such a speed” and “there’s no need,” the third verse during the words “staring at the ceiling,” they end when the instrumental section concludes and they begin early during the conclusion right after the final word “sleeping.”
Song Structure and Style
While a “chorus” was something that Lennon and McCartney used quite sparingly in their formative writing years, it was becoming more frequent as time went on. Not only does “I’m Only Sleeping” make use of a chorus, it actually has TWO choruses, both heard twice in the song. So, not only were the Beatles in an experimenting mood in the studio, they also manifested this spirit in their compositions.
The general framework of this song is “verse/ chorus/ verse/ chorus/ bridge/ verse (including solo)/ chorus/ bridge/ verse/ chorus” (or ababcabcab). No introduction is deemed necessary but a unique, fading “psychedelic” conclusion is employed.
With an upward strum on John’s acoustic guitar, we are ushered headlong into the first nine-measure verse. John’s vocals begin right on the downbeat as if suddenly woken from a deep sleep. Jangly acoustic guitars rule the day with John singing solo until the ninth measure where Paul answers his final line “float upstream.”
The first chorus then appears which is only six measures long, two measures short from the expected and uniform eight-measure length we’re used to hearing. Paul and George’s background vocals hover as a backdrop to John’s pleas to leave him alone while Ringo slams away drearily as if also in a dream-filled haze. The length of this chorus is appropriately shortened as Lennon seems to wearily begin to shut his eyes after the word “sleeping,” as if a desire to do just that is coming over him. His guitar playing even stops as do all the instruments except for Paul’s tip-toeing bass guitar. In fact, every time the word “sleeping” occurs in the song, John appears to drift off to one degree or another as if fighting off a long night out.
Lennon then jolts back into consciousness, as does the rest of the group, for the second nine-measure verse which is identical in structure to the first. As he explains how the rest of the world needlessly runs “everywhere at such a speed,” we hear how those “sleepy feelings” keep creeping in on him, symbolized by the recurring backward guitar phrases that keep blurring his train of thought.
A new chorus with a completely different set of lyrics comes next, but this time when he says “sleeping,” he and the band actually appear to nod off momentarily, signaled by another upward strum on John’s acoustic guitar. Paul is the only one still barely awake as his sleepy bass line plays two harmonized notes that act as a glass of cold water to wake John up for his next thought in the bridge. Because of their giving in to sleep, this chorus is extended to a more arbitrary eight measures.
This bridge is only four measures in length and, although only half of what is usually used by the group, is similar to what is employed in “She’s A Woman” for instance. An interesting element here is how John’s rising and falling syncopated melody line is accentuated by Paul’s inventive harmony on the words “going by my window,” which ascends while John descends. John keeps alert for the ‘Beatles break’ in the fourth measure with the words “taking my time,” which close the bridge.
A third nine-measure verse is then heard, although the last five measures comprise the instrumental section of the song. The winding, backward-slurping effects of both guitar overdubs do well to signify “the moment before you’re falling asleep – that little twilight moment,” as Paul described his state of mind when he came up with the idea for “Yellow Submarine.”
The second chorus is then repeated which also ends with them briefly falling asleep, Paul again being the one to barely keep awake, even giving an audible yawn. After being startled awake for the repeat of the bridge, John repeats the first verse with impatient syncopated stabs at his acoustic guitar in anticipation of getting it over with to get back to rest. The first chorus is then heard to round things off and, after the word “sleeping” is said, he gives in for good. The swirling backward guitars take over his conscience and subconscious mind to transport him into a much desired state of bliss.
Although Paul did collaborate to an unknown degree, John owns the show on this track. His sped-up bleary-eyed vocals dominate your attention as does his acoustic rhythm guitar work. George definitely breaks new ground as his intricately delivered backward guitar runs seep into the mix which command recognition. He also can always be counted on to fill in the odd third harmony when needed.
Paul keeps to his ever faithful Hofner violin bass to provide the soft patter required for this song, relinquishing any temptation to overdub an ‘in your face’ bass part as done in the recently recorded “Paperback Writer” and “Rain.” His always impeccable harmony vocals are also on display, as are his collaborative backward guitar accentuations on the song’s conclusion. While only simple drum fills were called for, Ringo puts in a lazily appropriate performance with some highly compressed cymbal accents that ring out in the seventh measure of the longer choruses of the song.
While John may have done much experimentation with drugs by this time, the lyrics of “I’m Only Sleeping” seem to simply depict his love for being lazy. He may wake up “early in the morning,” but he’s “still yawning” when he lifts his head, so he’d rather just “float upstream” into dreamland once again. As if expressing anger at Paul for waking him up for a writing session, he pleads “please don’t wake me, no, don’t shake me. Leave me as I am.” After all, nothing is wrong, “I’m only sleeping” anyway.
In actuality, it appears that Lennon was always chided about his inactivity. When it came to his school grades as a youngster, to his wanting to sit back and enjoy his fame in the blitz of “Beatlemania,” to his subsequent retirement in the late 70’s, “People say I’m crazy doin’ what I’m doin’,” as he expressed in his posthumous top ten hit “Watching The Wheels.” This time, though, he “thinks they’re crazy” for “running everywhere at such a speed.” Why should he work so hard pumping out songs for the next Beatles album? Why can’t he just enjoy the rest from all the craziness of touring, recording and movie making? He’d rather be “miles away” in sleep.
Not that he’s unaware of what’s going on around him. He’s “keeping an eye on the world going by,” just as he was “watching the wheels go round and round” in his later life. In 1966 he was “lying there and staring at the ceiling,” while in 1979 he was “doing fine watching shadows on the wall.” In any event, John was apparently a man who needed some space, not pushed. “Taking my time”: that’s evidently all he wanted to do.
On June 20th, 1966, nearly seven weeks earlier than in Britain, the US got to hear “I’m Only Sleeping” as a standout track on the makeshift Capitol album “Yesterday…And Today.” Even though EMI prepared a stereo mix especially for this American release, Capitol couldn’t wait for it and, instead, prepared a “duophonic” stereo mix from the mono version that they had earlier received. As indicated above, all through the years that the album was in print, most copies of the album have this fake stereo mix of the song. (Incidentally, all of the tape versions of the album, be it cassette, 8-track, 4-track and reel-to-reel, have the true stereo mix, as do the Capitol Record Club and Winchester pressings of the album.)
This mix became so well know in the US that, on March 28nd, 1980, Capitol included the common British stereo mix of “I’m Only Sleeping” on their “Rarities” album. While this now is the version that most people know, the original fake stereo mix on “Yesterday…And Today” is undoubtedly considered the “rarity” today.
On April 30th, 1987, American audiences finally got acclimated to hearing “I’m Only Sleeping” where it duly belonged, on the “Revolver” album. This is the date that the original British version of the album was released on compact disc for the first time. It then was re-mastered and re-released on September 9th, 2009.
Then, on March 18th, 1996, we all got to hear some unheard studio recordings of the song on “Anthology 2.” This set included the vibraphone rehearsal as well as the first attempt at a remake of “I’m Only Sleeping” as recorded on April 29th, 1966.
Also around this same time, an “Anthology 2 Sampler” vinyl album was released to promote the commercially available set. This sampler was sent to radio stations and included the entire track, rehearsal and all.
And, since we were in the age of compact discs, an “Anthology 2 CD Sampler” was also produced at about the same time and sent to radio stations to promote the album, “I’m Only Sleeping” being contained therein as well.
Not to be forgotten, of course, is the box set “The Beatles In Mono,” which contains the British mono version having the most backward guitar of all the available mixes. This September 9th, 2009 release was the first time this mono version was made available in America.
Even though the group did finish up their touring days after the entire “Revolver” sessions were complete, they were well into the beginnings of the “studio experimental” phase of their career. Therefore, “I’m Only Sleeping” was never performed live, nor could it have been to their satisfaction.
While John Lennon was beginning to break away from the mold of writing songs about relationships on “Rubber Soul” (“Nowhere Man” and “The Word” departing entirely from the boy/girl concept), his writing on “Revolver” instituted the unpredictability he was truly capable of, as evidenced in his books. John’s contributions to this album, although acknowledging Paul’s limited hand therein, weren’t as easily definable lyrically as we were used to from him. Fans and critics alike could hardly make heads or tails out of “And Your Bird Can Sing” or “She Said She Said,” let alone “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Therefore, “I’m Only Sleeping,” so it was thought, must be about more than just celebrating a lazy day. Since “Dr. Robert” had obvious drug overtones, this song was considered by most to have been written with these indulgences in mind as well.
And so began the irresistible trend to “look for clues.”
“I’m Only Sleeping”
Written by: John Lennon / Paul McCartney
Song Written: March, 1966
Song Recorded: April 27 & 29, May 5 & 6, 1966
First US Release Date: June 20, 1966
US Single Release: n/a
Highest Chart Position: n/a
British Album Release: Parlophone #PCS 7009 “Revolver”
Key: E flat minor
Producer: George Martin
Engineers: Geoff Emerick, Phil McDonald
John Lennon - Lead Vocals, Rhythm Guitar (1964 Gibson J-160E)
George Harrison – Lead Guitar (1961 Sonic Blue Fender Stratocaster), Harmony Vocals
Paul McCartney - Bass Guitar (1963 Hofner 500/1), Lead Guitar in conclusion (1962 Epiphone Casino ES-230TD), Harmony Vocals
Ringo Starr – Drums (1964 Ludwig Super Classic Black Oyster Pearl)
Written and compiled by Dave Rybaczewski
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