‘I’m Only Sleeping’, John Lennon’s most soporific contribution to Revolver, was inspired by Paul McCartney’s habit of having to wake him up for afternoon songwriting sessions at Lennon’s house.
The subject matter was close to Lennon’s heart. His lack of routine while away from the rigours of touring left him content to while away the hours at his home in Weybridge, often under the influence of drugs.
In an interview with Lennon, published in the Evening Standard on 4 March 1966, journalist Maureen Cleave wrote of Lennon:
He can sleep almost indefinitely, is probably the laziest person in England. ‘Physically lazy,’ he said. ‘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’.
In the studio
The Beatles began recording ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ on 27 April 1966, when 11 takes of the rhythm track were put to tape. John Lennon added his lead vocals two days later.
One of the defining features of ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ is the backwards guitar. This was, in fact, two parts, conceived and performed by George Harrison during a five hour late-night session on 5 May 1966. Harrison first wrote down the notation for the solos he wanted, reversed them, and recorded them twice – one with fuzz effects, and the other unadorned.
The idea for the backwards solos came about after a tape operator accidentally threaded a tape into the machine the wrong way.
It played backwards, and, ‘What the hell is going on?’ Those effects! Nobody knew how those sounded then. We said, ‘My God, that is fantastic! Can we do that for real?’… So that was what we did and that was where we discovered backwards guitar. It was a beautiful solo actually. It sounds like something you couldn’t play.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
Listen to the section of the song containing the main solo reversed, to hear how the guitar sounded as it was recorded:
‘I’m Only Sleeping’ was completed on 6 May 1966. Lennon, McCartney and Harrison added their harmony vocals, along with a somewhat apt yawn at the two-minute mark.
The “tape operator” who threaded the tape into the tape machine the wrong way was John.
This occurence was revealed in the Special Features dvd in the Anthology series.
This is one of my favorite songs on Revolver. There are at least 4 different mixes of this song with different backwards guitar at different parts during the song. The U.K. mono edition has the most.
I’ve read three different accounts of how the backwards-recording thing came to be! (George Martin and John both take credit)