I’m Only Sleeping (1966)

The Beatles

Written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
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I'm Only SleepingWhat were The Lettermen thinking in 1972 when they covered the John Lennon-penned “I’m Only Sleeping”? The smooth, homogenized harmonizers of the prep set found themselves in territory as unfamiliar as that found by Hansel and Gretel when they wandered off the path to the witch’s house in the forest.

“I’m Only Sleeping” is not only one of the very first decidedly psychedelic songs (see “Eight Miles High” profile), it is intricately instrumented via double tracking, one of George Harrison’s guitar tracks being played backwards so it accords perfectly with the same melody line played forward.

I'm Only sleeping john on grassJohn Lennon’s dreamy but defiant vocals add a specificity of time and place to the song – the 1960s were in their explosive first years of musical productivity and inventiveness. Pop had changed into art.

Amidst all of the hullabaloo and high energy of 1966 (the year that gave us The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer In The City,” Tommy James And The Shondells’ “Hanky Panky” and “Wild Thing” by The Troggs) Lennon treated us to a quiet celebration of sleeping. All evidence to the contrary, some critics then and now have ventured it was about drug experiences. It is not. It’s about the big snooza-palooza.

Keepin’ an eye on the world goin’ by my window…

There was even a hint of defensiveness in Lennon’s lyrics.

Everybody seems to think I’m lazy
I don’t mind, I think they’re crazy
Running everywhere at such a speed
Till they find there’s no need (There’s no need)

Please, don’t spoil my day, I’m miles away
And after all I’m only sleeping

In fact, journalist Maureen Cleave, who reported Lennon’s infamous “We’re more popular than Jesus Christ” line, said that the Beatle was “probably the laziest person in England.” (Although speculative to this day, it has often been rumored that Cleave and Lennon had a thing briefly and the song “Norwegian Wood” refers to their fling-time together.)

Only Sleeping for a cause. The Toronto Bed-In, March, 1969

Sleeping for a cause. The Toronto Bed-In, March, 1969

For a pioneering effort, “I’m Only Sleeping” is curiously rooted in the musical past. It can best be described as a quick-time waltz. The choruses are punctuated by a set of heavy-lidded, Doo Wop style ooo-oo-wah-oo’s. There is also a bit of the shuffling feel of soft shoe dancers as The Beatles might have experienced at English music hall performances after World War II. To add some flourish, the Ringo-syncopated beat has a number of short rests populated with a mellow but cheery bass line by Paul McCartney. It then picks up with the famous lines:

Keeping an eye on the world
going by my window
Taking my time

In another age, Keats would have written An Ode To Sleep. A writer might might have pulled together Let Us Now Praise Famous Beds. As it stands we have a marvelously simple but intricate tune that melds hybrid traditional music with what was then a supremely ingenious use of tape recorder technology along side George Martin’s production concepts that called for the double tracking/backwards playing of Harrison’s lead.

At bottom, given the revolutionary results across his career, we can scarcely believe John Lennon was the laziest man England. The rest of the group and producer Martin must have been pretty wide-awake, as well, given the final result.

mangoids
  • As complex as the sound of “I’m Only Sleeping” is, John, Paul, George and Ringo play on it exclusively.
  • During the “lazy” interview, Cleave also describes Lennon as “imperious, unpredictable, indolent, disorganized, childish, vague, charming and quick-witted. He is still easy-going, still tough as hell.”
  • It took George Harrison 11 hours to complete the self-duet of the two guitar leads. Those present said it was the hardest day they’d ever spent in a studio.

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