The Beatles, “I’m Only Sleeping” from Revolver (1966): Deep Beatles

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Revolver marked an important milestone for the Beatles: It represents the group at their most experimental to date. Backwards guitars, eerie sound loops, surrealist lyrics: nothing was off-limits for their 1966 masterpiece. A perfect example of this early innovation is “I’m Only Sleeping,” the primarily John Lennon-penned track that features sound effects, a stellar Lennon vocal, and an unusual Harrison guitar solo.

While many fans believe “I’m Only Sleeping” refers to drugs, the words also refer to Lennon’s habit of sleeping late. In his infamous interview with journalist Maureen Cleave on March 4, 1966, he claimed that he was “physically lazy. … 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.” Cleave even mentioned that “he can sleep almost indefinitely, is probably the laziest person in England.”

According to other sources such as Rolling Stone and the Beatles Bible, the story may also derive from John Lennon’s annoyance at Paul McCartney waking him up for a songwriting session. Lennon scribbled the initial lyrics on the back of an envelope, although McCartney mentioned in a 1994 interview that he helped revise the words.

Recording began on April 27, 1966, the same day that George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick completed mono mixes of “Taxman,” “And Your Bird Can Sing,” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.” The session involved rehearsals, with the Beatles experimenting with different instruments and arrangements.

A particularly intriguing early backing track included vibraphones (it is unclear who played them); another featured Lennon accompanying his lead vocals with acoustic guitar. These fascinating versions eventually surfaced on bootlegs and on the Anthology 2 compilation:

After rehearsing “I’m Only Sleeping,” the Beatles laid down 11 takes of the song. John Lennon played acoustic guitar, Paul McCartney performed bass, and of course Starr played drums. The final version was deemed best, although it contained a significant quirk. The Beatles performed the song in E minor, but for unknown reasons the tape machine was running fast, so it sounded slower and a semitone lower on playback, according to the Beatles Bible. Not satisfied with their initial efforts, the Beatles made a second attempt at the backing track two days later.

After five takes (only one complete) featuring percussion, acoustic guitars, and Lennon and McCartney on vocals, they decided to abandon these efforts and return to take 11. Thus, the group overdubbed more instruments and Lennon’s lead vocal onto this version. Once again, the tape machine was running at a different speed, thus the final take of “I’m Only Sleeping” contains a faster tempo and higher tone. The clip below approximates what the Beatles’ original version may have sounded like:

Next came a crucial element to the track: the backwards guitar solo. The Beatles met at Abbey Road on May 5, with Harrison recording two solos. Here the story becomes murky. John Lennon claimed he had accidentally threaded the master tape the wrong way, resulting in the song being played backwards. Loving the sound, Lennon supposedly informed George Martin and George Harrison that he wanted to reproduce the effect in “I’m Only Sleeping.” Other accounts have Martin and/or Harrison suggesting the backwards looping.

Despite these conflicting stories, all agree that Harrison had to carefully plan and execute the solos to create the desired dreamlike effect. The lead guitarist wrote an Indian-inspired part that sounded good played backwards; next, he had to reverse the notes, then learn how to play the previous “backwards” solo normally. George Martin then had to conduct Harrison beat by beat, with the guitarist ultimately recording two separate solos — one with “fuzz” effects or distortion, and one without. Martin then laid the tracks on top of one another, reversed them, and the final version was born. According to Geoff Emerick, the entire process took nine hours.

The clip below reverses the guitar sections, giving an idea of Harrison’s original playing:

May 6, 1966 marked the final day of work on the complicated song, with George Harrison, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney overdubbing additional vocals. George Martin and Geoff Emerick created two reduction mixes, combining the second mix with the backwards guitar solos. The next two weeks involved competing mono and stereo mixes. Ultimately, five mixes were created: the ordinal mono and stereo mixes, the US stereo and mono mixes, and according to Robert Fontenot, a “mono rechanneled into stereo” mix; this reverb-heavy version appeared on the first pressing of “Yesterday” … and Today, but was replaced with another stereo mix in subsequent editions.

In addition to these complicated effects, “I’m Only Sleeping” is notable for what would become a recurrent theme for John Lennon: dreaming. In his 1980 Playboy interview, Lennon described the track as “me dreaming my life away.” In this song as well as later compositions such as “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Watching the Wheels,” and, to some extent, “Imagine,” he extols the virtues of daydreaming. Here, Lennon answers his critics who call him lazy — he retorts that people who are “running everywhere at such a speed” are “crazy.”

In contrast, he is taking time to simply observe and enjoy diving into his dreams. For him, sleep is an escape from tedium, and it transports him to another world where he can “float up stream.” Why he feels the need for such mental excursions — the prison of fame, the grind of daily writing and recording, endless touring — is left to the listener’s imagination.

Today, “I’m Only Sleeping” still sounds like no other song in the Beatles’ catalog. Its hallucinogenic quality, vivid yet surreal lyrics, creative guitar solo, and unusual recording effects (such as the thudding of Ringo Starr’s drums) were ahead of their time, and provided a hint of further sonic experiments to come.

Listen for a particular “Easter Egg” at the two-minute mark, when Paul McCartney can be heard yawning.

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole is a lifelong music enthusiast who maintains a stand-alone music blog called Listen to the Band. In addition, she is the internet columnist and a contributing editor for Beatlefan magazine. She also holds an Ed.D. in Instructional Technology. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Kit O'Toole
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