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MIAMI - FEBRUARY 16: Rock and roll band "The Beatles" talk to Ed Sullivan as they prepare for their performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" on February 16, 1964 in Miami, Florida. (L-R) Ed Sullivan, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, John Lennon, Ringo Starr (top). (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The Story and Meaning Behind The Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping” and How It’s John Lennon’s Admission of His Own Laziness

“I’m Only Sleeping” stands as one of The Beatles’ songs that was a wee bit too weird for release as a single. But as an album cut on Revolver, it’s a perfect blend of instrumental experimentation and lyrical drollery.

What is the song about? How did it reflect the way that John Lennon liked to spend his free time? And what new recording technique gave the song a boost? Read on to find out all there is to know about “I’m Only Sleeping.”

Moving Forward by Playing Backwards
By the time The Beatles settled in to make Revolver in 1966, their process in the studio had drastically changed. They were taking more and more time to make each record and were fearlessly trying new things. That evolution would really speed up once they quit touring after ’66, but they still tried a ton of new things on Revolver nonetheless.

On “I’m Only Sleeping,” The Beatles added backwards guitar by George Harrison as the key part of the instrumental break. In the book Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now, McCartney explained how the group came up with the idea to utilize what was a new technique at the time after a tape was accidentally threaded onto a player backward:

“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.”

Sleepy John
The guitar break adds to the slightly woozy feeling of the recording. Notice how Paul McCartney’s bass sort of tiptoes from point to point, while Ringo Starr keeps things gentle on the percussion, all as if they’re not trying to wake up the slumbering narrator. “I’m Only Sleeping” is also one of many Beatles tracks from the mid-‘60s where there’s a hazy drone hanging over the proceedings.

It makes for the perfect accompaniment for John Lennon’s topic. Lennon tended towards laziness when not having to fulfill his many demands as a Beatle. McCartney would often arrive at Lennon’s house for a songwriting session to find his bandmate still asleep.

In fact, Lennon would tackle the subject again from a different angle a few years later with the White Album song “I’m So Tired.” On the latter song, the narrator is frustrated by his insomnia. That’s a marked contrast from “I’m Only Sleeping,” where it halfway sounds like the protagonist is literally slumbering his life away.

What is the Meaning of “I’m Only Sleeping”?
“I’m Only Sleeping” features a narrator who begs to be left alone so that he can hit the hay whenever the mood strikes him. Please don’t spoil my day / I’m miles away / And after all, I’m only sleeping, he says, as if perhaps he gets interrupted in this quest way too often.

Lennon suggests that those who would call him lazy are the ones who need to be corrected: Running everywhere at such a speed / ’Til they find there’s no need. This fellow also insists that the world isn’t leaving him behind, as Lennon and McCartney harmonize in the bridge about Keeping an eye on the world going by my window.

“I’m Only Sleeping” carries a bit of a tongue-in-cheek vibe about it. At one point, Lennon even asks McCartney to yawn, and he obliges before the music kicks in again. It’s an off-kilter track for sure, but one, thanks to The Beatles’ ingenuity and ambition, that leaves a lasting impression.

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