‘Float Upstream . . .’

I woke up yesterday with the strains of the Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping” running through my head. They stayed there most of the day, and this morning – no doubt because I’ve been thinking of the tune – those strains are still there.

As is the case with most of the Beatles’ catalog, there is no video of the tune available, but I think that – like me – most fans of the band can pretty much play the tune in their heads, kind of a cranial on-demand. We’re going to go look for covers in a minute, but first, I thought I’d see what one of the books on my shelf – Beatlesongs by William J. Dowlding – has to say about the song and its recording.

Before that, though, I should note that American Beatle fans of similar vintage as I will remember the track as coming from the album Yesterday . . . and Today, an album made up of material previously unreleased in the states and several tracks from the upcoming Revolver. The three tracks thus displaced from Revolver in the American market – at least until the advent of CDs and the concurrent reissues – were “Doctor Robert,” “And Your Bird Can Sing,” and “I’m Only Sleeping.”

Thus, notes Dowlding, the U.S. version of Revolver had more of a Paul McCartney flavor than did the longer British version, as the three tunes shifted to Yesterday . . . and Today came mostly from the pen of John Lennon. “I’m Only Sleeping” and “And Your Bird Can Sing,” Dowlding notes, were entirely Lennon’s creation. As for “Doctor Robert,” Dowlding offers a quote from Lennon: “I think Paul helped in the middle.”

Dowlding says that “I’m Still Sleeping,” was recorded in late April and early May 1966. Perhaps the most notable thing about the record – beyond its utterly drowsy atmosphere – is the backward guitar section. Dowlding offers a lengthy quote from producer George Martin about how that was accomplished:

In order to record the backward guitar on a track like “I’m Only Sleeping,” you work out what your chord sequence is and write them down in the reverse order of the chords – as they are going to come up – so you can recognize them. Then you learn to boogie around on that chord sequence, but you really don’t know what it’s going to sound like until it comes out again. It’s hit or miss, no doubt about it, but you do it a few times, and when you like what you hear you keep it.

It wasn’t as easy as Martin makes it sound, according to a note from another volume on my shelf: Here, There and Everywhere by long-time Beatle engineer Geoff Emerick and collaborator Howard Massey. Emerick writes that getting that solo for “I’m Only Sleeping” made him wish “we had never come up with the concept of backwards sound.”

And then Emerick takes aim at Beatle George Harrison’s musical abilities (something he does regularly throughout the book):

At the best of times, [Harrison] had trouble playing solos all the way through forwards, so it was with great trepidation that we all settled in for what turned out to be an interminable day of listening to the same eight bars played backwards over and over again. . . . I can still picture George – and later, Paul, who joined him to play the backwards outro in a bizarre duet – hunched over his guitar for hours on end, headphones clamped on, brows furrowed in concentration.

Assessing the finished track, Dowlding offers a comment from Lennon’s long-time friend, Pete Shotton, who said the song “brilliantly evokes the state of chemically induced lethargy into which John had . . . drifted.”

Having known the track for almost fifty years – I got the U.S. version of Revolver as a birthday present in September 1970, four years after it came out – and having it run through my head for most of the last two days, I concur with Shotton’s assessment.

Since the original is not available to us this morning, let’s see about covers. Second Hand Songs lists thirty-seven covers, ranging temporally from the Lettermen’s shimmering 1972 version to a jazzy 2016 take on the tune by Brit singer Will Young. A couple of other names in the list are easily recognizable, like Lobo and Shawn Mullins, and there are a lot of names I do not know (though perhaps I should).

Another recognizable name in the list is that of Rosanne Cash, who released her version of “I’m Only Sleeping” on her 1995 album Retrospective. It showed up again on the 1999 compilation New Horizons: An Essential New Country Collection and once more on the 2005 compilation Yesterday (A Country Music Tribute To The Beatles). Here’s Cash’s version, which is not all that far removed from the original. I like it a lot.

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