In the studioGeorge Harrison, whose complicity effectively endorsed the song’s sentiments, even if he appeared outwardly unmoved in the filmed footage of the sessions. Lennon was evidently impressed with Harrison’s playing, saying: “That’s the best he’s ever fucking played in his life! He’d go on forever if you’d let him.”
More critical of the song’s lyrical content was Ringo Starr. One of the visitors to the studio during the song’s recording, he attempted to prevent in some of Lennon’s more vicious sentiments.
Roughly half the lyrics were by Lennon, with the rest contributed by Yoko Ono and Allen Klein. One witness to the song’s recording was Felix Dennis, one of the publishers of Oz magazine who was staying at Tittenhurst Park at Lennon’s invitation following the magazine’s infamous obscenity trial.
They were writing the song as they performed it. And as these lyrics emerged, I remember Ringo getting more and more upset by this. He was really not very happy about this, and at one point I have a clear memory of his saying, “That’s enough, John.’ There were two magnificent studio musicians, and they too were not very happy about it, but as usual, Lennon plowed his own furrow and he just didn’t give a shit whether people liked it or not. It is absolutely true to say that Yoko wrote many of the lyrics. I watched her writing them and then watched her race into the studio to show John – which would often annoy the musicians, but she would race in there anyway, waving a piece of paper and show John she’d had an idea. He would say ‘Great’ or whatever, and he would add something to it, then he would come back and relax in the control room for a bit and they would confer together. They’ve both got appalling handwriting, writing in a great hurry.
He would think of a lyric, and then she would think of a lyric, and then they’d burst out laughing, they’d think that was absolutely hysterical. Some of it was absolutely puerile, thank God a lot of it never actually got recorded because it was highly, highly personal, like a bunch of schoolboys standing in the lavatory making scatological jokes and then falling about with laughter at their own wit. That was about the level of it but thank goodness in the end somebody obviously talked some sense to them, or they’d talked sense to each other. Maybe Ringo had got on to them and told them not to be so brutal. Some of the lyrics were a lot ruder than you will find on the final version.
To counterbalance that, even if it might have been very hurtful to Paul McCartney, I think that the mood in which it was written should be borne in mind, which was one of schoolboy for the hell of it. It’s quite obvious that Paul must have been some sort of figure of authority in Lennon’s life, because you don’t take the piss out of somebody that isn’t a figure of authority. The mood there wasn’t totally vindictive. As I felt it, they were taking the piss out of the headmaster. A lot of giggling, a lot of laughing. They had one line about Paul’s Little Richard singing. I don’t know if this is true that Paul was always quite proud of his ability to sing like Little Richard; they were making reference to that. It never ended up on the final cut. Phil Spector never said a single word about the lyrics, but Ringo and other musicians there would remonstrate with him and say, ‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, John, that’s a bit much, you know!’ Sometimes he would agree and cross it out. All I can say, if he’d wanted to write something to really hurt Paul’s feelings, they certainly compiled enough material to do so. If he’d had someone he could confide in, other than Yoko, I think they would have persuaded him to leave it in the vaults for posterity. It was a bit of a shame he ever let it out.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
‘How Do You Sleep’ was recorded at Ascot Sound Studios, Tittenhurst Park on 26 May 1971, in eleven takes.
On the eight-track tape, tracks 1 and 2 contained Klaus Voormann’s bass guitar and Alan White’s drums respectively.
Tracks 3 had George Harrison’s electric guitar, and 4 had the same by Lennon.
On track 5 there were acoustic guitars by Rod Lynton and Ted Turner, piano by John Tout, and a vocal overdub by Lennon.
Track 6 had Nicky Hopkins’ electric piano, and 7 and 8 had more vocal overdubs by Lennon.
The strings were taped on 4 July 1971 at New York’s Record Plant.
For his part, McCartney wisely chose not to issue a counterattack in song. His peace offering was ‘Dear Friend’, a track on Wings’ 1971 album Wild Life.
When John did ‘How Do You Sleep?’, I didn’t want to get into a slanging match. And I’m so glad now, particularly after his death, that I don’t have that on my conscience. I just let him do it, because he was being fed a lot of those lines by Klein and Yoko, I had the option of going for equal time and doing all the interviews or deciding to not take up the gauntlet, and I remember consciously thinking, No, I realty mustn’t. Part of it was cowardice: John was a great wit, and I didn’t want to go fencing with the rapier champion of East Cheam. That was not a good idea. And I also knew that those vibes could snowball, and you start off with a perfectly innocent little contest and suddenly you find yourself doing duel to the death with the Lennon figure and it’s, Oh, my God, what have I carved out here? But it meant that I had to take shit, it meant that I had to take lines like ‘All you ever did was ‘Yesterday’.’
I always find myself wanting to excuse John’s behaviour, just because I loved him. It’s like a child, sure he’s a naughty child, but don’t you call my child naughty. Even if it’s me he’s shitting on, don’t you call him naughty. That’s how I felt about this and still do. I don’t have any grudge whatsoever against John. I think he was a sod to hurt me. I think he knew exactly what he was doing and because we had been so intimate he knew what would hurt me and he used it to great effect. I thought, Keep your head down and time will tell. And it did, because in the Imagine film, he says it was really all about himself.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
Lennon and McCartney later reconciled, although it took many years for their relationship to return to an even keel. By 1974 were on good terms once again, although their friendship never recovered the warmth of the 1960s. They met for the last time in April 1976.
I realised that I couldn’t always ring him up to ask about business, which was my main priority at the time. It was better to talk about cats, or baking bread, or babies. So we did that, and I had a lot in common with him because we were having our babies and I was into a similar sort of mode. So the air cleared and I was able to speak to him and go and see him.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles