Tuesday, June 2, 2009

I'm Only Sleeping

This has been a loooong few days for me. I've been traveling back and forth between Boston and New York like someone far more interesting than myself, doing a lot of socializing, and doing a ton of drinking. Finally now on Tuesday it's beginning to all catch up to me. There have been many, many mornings in which I've been tempted to tackle "I'm Only Sleeping," but this morning, as I lie here on the sofa bed in this hotel suite, feels like a particularly good one.

Though "I'm Only Sleeping" can sound like it's celebrating drug-induced stupor more than actual sleep, John really liked to sleep (an interest he and I have in common) so I'm willing to believe it either way. In fact, when Paul came over to his house to work on songs in the afternoon, he frequently had to wake John up.

Rightly so, the song is produced and performed about as soporifically as possible. The only other one that can touch it for this kind of mood is "I'm So Tired," which this song is frequently compared to, but in that song there's an underlying rage, almost, behind the sleepiness. Whereas in "I'm Only Sleeping" John and the band seem to take a certain delight in how sleepy he feels, playing with the arrangement and, most famously, a backwards guitar in order to get a pleasantly dreamy feeling going.

The backwards guitar is one of the most frequently discussed awesome touches here. I've read Paul describing the way the band first heard a tape going backwards, which was just due to an accident on the part of an Abbey Road engineer, and how they all flipped out and decided they must start doing things backwards as soon as possible. I've also read a different account of John being stoned and wandering into the studio on his own, accidentally rigging up "Rain" to play backwards, and cracking himself up-- in this version, John went in the next day to the band and insisted that they put backwards stuff on "Rain" immediately. (And I think "Rain" is, indeed, the very first Beatles song to feature backwards tracking.) Either way, playing things backwards seemed really awesome at this particular experimental moment in Beatles history. George plays the guitar solo here, and actually worked on it for several hours to get it right. With help from George Martin, he wrote out how it should go, then wrote that line out backwards, then recorded the backwards line, and then played back the backwards line backwards again, to achieve the completely weird distorted line that you hear in the solo on the finished track. Then he did the whole thing again and added fuzz effects, and threw that in there too. Isn't the result amazing? It sounds like there are gigantic bugs hovering close to your ear trying to wake you up. Lord, I hope I don't dream about that tonight now that I've brought it up.

So obviously George rocks here. But the other Beatles aren't slouching either-- Ringo keeps the drums lazily swinging, and Paul's bass solo line following the refrain is a killer touch. (That's Paul yawning, too, by the way.) John sings his verse largely on one note, letting the words kind of spill out the side of his mouth, and when he hits the long high held note on "upSTREEEAM" it feels like sleepy euphoria. As frequently happened, especially during this period of psychedelic Beatles, John's vocal track has been messed around with here-- I believe this is a song in which he sang his line slower than the rhythm track so that they could speed it up and get that higher, reedier timbre to his voice. (Can you believe that John messed around with his voice so much in the studio because he actually didn't like the way it sounded? Wasn't he insane? Or just insecure, I guess.)

Anyway, enjoy, and if you're not still in bed too then you have my sympathy. But I'm rolling back over until my parents wake me up. Zzzzzz.

"I'm Only Sleeping," released in the U.K. side A track 3 of Revolver, August 5, 1966; in the U.S. side A track 2 of Capitol's mutant album Yesterday and Today, June 20, 1966.


  1. The way I heard it, John took a rough mix of Rain home one night, got stoned, and put the tape on backwards. Then, of course, he went into the studio the next day and incorporated that.

    I always wanted to do a backwards guitar line, but it seemed really hard. I think I tried it once and failed, and was unwilling to keep trying. Probably it's real easy on Macs now.

  2. I wasn't sleepy, but i am now! The song is very hypnotic, too, don't you think? Also, you've chosen a perfect Fab Four pic for the summer heat of June.

  3. Yes, it's wicked hypnotic. Others read some vaguely sinister stuff into this song-- is it because of the backwards stuff?-- but not me. It's just weirdly soothing.

    And I LOVE this picture of the lads in the pool. I was looking all over the internets for this one exactly the other day.