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The Beatles Songs: I'm Only Sleeping

The history of this classic Beatles song

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The Beatles Songs: I'm Only Sleeping

The original UK sheet music for "I'm Only Sleeping"

rarebeatles.com

I'm Only Sleeping

Written by: John Lennon (80%), Paul McCartney (20%)
(credited to Lennon-McCartney)
Recorded: April 27, May 5-6, 1966 (Studio 2, Abbey Road Studios, London, England)
Mixed: May 6, 12, 20, June 6, 1966
Length: 2:58
Takes: 13

Musicians:

John Lennon: lead vocals (double-tracked), acoustic rhythm guitar (1963 Gibson "Super Jumbo" J-200)
Paul McCartney: harmony and backing vocals, bass guitar (1964 Rickenbacker 325)
George Harrison: harmony and backing vocals, lead guitar (1965 Epiphone E230TD(V) Casino)
Ringo Starr: drums (Ludwig)

Available on: (CDs in bold)
Revolver (UK: Parlophone PMC 7009; PCS 7009; US: Capitol (S)T 2576; Parlophone CDP 7 46441 2)
"Yesterday"... and Today (US: Capitol (S)T 2553)

History:

  • The idea for "I'm Only Sleeping" was John's, who rather cleverly worked his natural love of staying in bed -- even when not sleeping -- into a symbol of cultural rebelliousness. On April 25, 1966, John wrote the verse and chorus, jotting down lyrics on the back of an envelope from the post office reminding him to pay his "radio licence." (The UK charges a tax on owning radios and televisions, in order to offset public television station costs.) The original lyrics contain a repetition of the phrase "Got to get to sleep," left out of the final version, and the phase "float downstream," which Lennon, who loved surreal wordplay, later changed to "float upstream."
  • Two days later, he begun recording the song with the band, in their usual configuration, but with an unknown member on vibes. (At this time, the song was completed; Paul is thought to have contributed the idea and melody for the bridge "Keeping an eye on the world going by my window.") After laying down 11 takes, John left the song alone, unsatisfied with the results. Two days later, the band attempted to re-record the song, beginning work just after final overdubs on "Eleanor Rigby." Five takes were done, but ultimately the group decided to overdub onto the final, 11th take done two days earlier. (The attempted remake was mostly taped over, but a fragment exists on Anthology 2).
  • On April 5, John (or George, or George Martin, depending on whom you believe) decided that a backwards guitar solo was needed -- the first of its kind on any recording. Supposedly this idea came about because John had threaded the master tape in the wrong way and the song came out backward, but this seems unlikely, as John had recorded the b-side "Rain" a few weeks earlier, and the whole ending of the song was reversed at that time. (Indeed, the story of John threading the tape backwards has been attributed to that song, as well). Whatever the reason, it was decided that, in order to make the solo come out correctly on top of the chords, George would write a solo that sounded good backwards, then reverse the notes, learn it, and play it forward! This arduous process took one whole 14 hour session, as George actually recorded two solos -- one with "fuzz" effects, one without -- and laid them down on top of each other. When the tape was reversed, the solo fit perfectly. On May 6, vocal parts were laid down, and the song was finished.
  • Perhaps in order to achieve the dreamy effect John felt he wasn't getting in the first 11 takes, the instrumental track for "I'm Only Sleeping" was slowed down during production, dropping it from its key of E minor to a key approximating Eb. Then, John's artificially double-tracked vocal was recorded even slower and sped up to match the instrumental tracks. The effect is disorienting.

Trivia:

  • There are five different mixes for this song: the original mono and stereo mixes, the US mono and stereo mixes, done for the compilation album "Yesterday"... and Today, and a "mono rechanneled into stereo" mix, laden with heavy reverb, used on the first pressing of the US stereo Yesterday, album, but deleted thereafter. (There are actually two other rough mixes made that never made it to record.) "I'm Only Sleeping" is unique among Beatles songs in this regard: the famous backwards solo drops in and out of various places during each mix!

    The UK stereo mix brings the backwards guitar in on the words "everywhere at such a speed" and "find there's no need," leaves it out entirely in the third verse, and comes back after the last "sleeping" in the last chorus. The UK mono mix brings the verse 2 guitar in early, on "where at such a speed" and "there's no need," brings it back in during verse 3, on "staring at the ceiling," and otherwise follows the stereo mix. The US stereo brings the verse 2 guitar in early, on "running everywhere at such a speed" and "till they find there's no need," fades the guitar back in just after the solo, and otherwise matches the UK stereo. Finally, the US mono leaves the backwards guitar out of verse 2, brings it on "time" and "ceiling" in verse 3, lets the solo bleed into the beginning of the last chorus, and waits four beats to come back in after the word "sleeping" in the last chorus. The US 8-track also reportedly has the entire backward guitar track delayed one second during the entire solo.

  • Just after the second chorus, John can be heard, very faintly, saying "yawn, Paul." And he does -- the yawn is very audible just before the second bridge.

Covered by: The Vines, Rosanne Cash, Lobo, America, The Lettermen, Azalia Snail, Suggs, Quorthon, Straylight Run, Stereophonics/Oasis

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