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notes on ...

Notes on "I'm Only Sleeping"

 





Notes on ... Series #94 (IOS)
  by Alan W. Pollack
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       Key: e-flat minor
     Meter: 4/4
            ----- 2X -------
      Form: Verse / Refrain | Bridge |
                  | Verse (half Guitar Solo) / Refrain |
                  | Bridge | Verse / Refrain | Outro (fade-out)
        CD: "Revolver", Track 3 (Parlophone CDP7 46441-2)
  Recorded: 27th, 29th April, 5th May 1966, Abbey Road 3;
            6th May 1966, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 5th August 1966 (LP "Revolver")
US-release: 20th June 1966 (LP "Yesterday ... And Today")
 
1

General Points of Interest

 

Style and Form

  Next note This song is mastered in the extremely unlikely key of e-flat minor; no doubt a side effect of the extent to which the original tapes of both the backing track and vocals were manipulated on playback; in opposite directions, no less — an effect familiar to us from "Rain".
  Next note I half-wonder if the placement of this track directly following the e minor tonality of "Eleanor Rigby" was done intentionally, to highlight the half-step downward in key. But at any rate, I'm going to discuss it below in terms of e minor, simply in order maintain some semblance of orthographic legibility. If you don't think it makes a difference, try sight-reading, some time, the sections of the "Well-Tempered Clavier" written in e-flat (or even better, d#) minor :-)
  Next note We have an interesting formalistic elision here in the way that the bridge melds so seamlessly with the verse that follows it that the next verse at first sounds like the ending the bridge rather than the start of something else; and in retrospect, the bridge, per se, seems like only a fragment of something. This example, by the way, bears intriguing comparison with "She's A Woman", of all things; do check it out.
 

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The tune features a patter-song-like hammering away on the tonic note of the scale, though the verse still manages to lazily spread out over the span of a full octave. The brief bridge section features a couple of bent notes which lend a touch of the blues.
  Next note Compared to the several drone-like songs we've looked at most recently, this one has a larger number of chords in it than we've seen in quite a while, though none of them are particularly exotic choices.
  Next note The most curious harmonic feature of the song is the use of a chord stream (i.e. step-wise root movement of chords) in the refrain, the likes of which we haven't seen since the very early days of "Ask Me Why", "Do You Want to Know a Secret", and "P.S. I Love You".
 

Arrangement

  Next note What must have started out on the source tape as a backing track of relatively straightforward instrumentation was slowed down a bit to add that certain grainy/chunkiness on playback. Similarly, the speeding up of John's vocal on playback makes him sound tremulous and eerie; the latter effect being further intensified by the manner in which the automatic-double-tracking is split out onto the two stereo channels for only some of the phrases; compare this with "The Word".
  Next note The backwards-mastered guitar licks are a special effect that have nicely weathered the march of time losing none of their popularity nor their ability to transfix, though the background story regarding how George carefully practiced his guitar bits so that they would sound fine when mastered backwards after being played forwards is, by our own contemporary standards of digital control, rather quaint. True to their, by now, well-established penchant for layered arrangements, the application of the reversed guitar bits first starts in the second verse.
  Next note The backing vocals add their own little touch of surrealism to the proceedings. Their echoing of the last line of each verse and "oodle-i-doo" falsetto harmonies of the refrain have something of an Andrews Sisters/fourties kind of unsettling resonance. Only Paul's bluesy counterpoint in the bridge sounds a bit more familiar in context of the Beatles.
  Next note Paul uses walking-bass passing notes in two critical places here, thus providing a subtle effect of unification: at the end of the verse, he fills out the space between the C and a chord with a melodic B, and similarly, near the end of the short bridge, he fills out the space between the a and F chords with a G. Granted, these are exceedingly small touches, but if you "know" this song and like it well, I'd bet you've noticed them even if you haven't done so consciously. Or put it this way — try and imagine hearing the song without them!
2

Section-by-Section Walkthrough

 

Verse

  Next note The verse is a surprisingly odd nine measures in length, in spite of its obvious AA' phrasing:
 
      |e           |a           |G     C     |G     B      |
   e:  i            iv           III   VI     III   V

                                 --- 2X!! ---
      |e           |a           |G      C    |-     a      |
       i            iv           III    VI          iv

   [Figure 94.1]
  Next note Both phrases are harmonically open but in different ways. The first one ends on V, nicely begging a reprise. The second one rhetorically adds that one extra measure, and then ends on VI -» iv, thus begging for something "different" from what was heard previously.
  Next note In the always relevant department of Foolish Consistency Avoidance, we have the verse with the guitar solo filling out only the five measures of the A' section. Actually, the "real" aesthetic lesson being taught in this instance is not so much one about non-consistency, as much as it is a one regarding the Conservation of Special Effects.
 

Refrain

  Next note The chord stream of this refrain, not to mention the prominence of that juicy C-Major seventh, is a prime source of what gives this song its overall jazzy feeling.
  Next note The section is a somewhat unusual length of six measures, and its internal phrasing is remote from anything in the nature of a balanced binary form. Rather, we have a one-measure's worth of tune that chases its tail several times within a narrow range before petering out entirely before the end of the fifth measure:
 
   |G           |a           |b           |a           |
    III          iv           v            iv

   |C7          |            ||e           |-           |
    VI                         i

   [Figure 94.2]
  Next note The refrains that precede each of the two bridges are extended by an additional two measures of a time-stopping vamp on the i chord. The second one of these extended refrains (i.e. the following the guitar solo) includes some muted, errant talking in the background, followed by a strange foghorn-like electronic sound during the e-minor vamp.
  Next note The refrain is harmonically quite elliptical. Its opening measures convey intimations of a shift toward the key of G (the so-called Relative Major of e minor), though nothing approaching the finality of a complete modulation is in the offing. For that matter, the manner in which the home key of e is confirmed at section's end is also done without clear or complete cadence.
 

Bridge

  Next note No matter how you parse this section, it somehow seems to fall out as incomplete or fragmentary. Even if you add in what I call the two-measure vamp at the end of the refrains into this section, I believe there is no escape from hearing, at first, what turns out to be the first phrase of the next verse as though it were the second phrase of this bridge:
 
      |d           |E           |a           |F           |
   e:  vii
   a:  iv           V            i            VI

   [Figure 94.3]
  Next note As with the refrain, we have yet another tentative harmonic foray, this time toward the key of a minor. The formal elision between this bridge and following verse is somewhat disguised the way that this modulation fools you into hearing the first two measures of the next verse as still being in a minor, with the pivot back to e first coming near the end of the first phrase, as follows:
 
      |e           |a           |G     C      |G     B     |
   a:  iv           i            VII   III     VII
                                           e:  III   V

   [Figure 94.4]
 

Outro

  Next note As an "outro", per se, this one is rather unusual in both form and substance. At the end of the final refrain, where previously we have had the C-Major seventh / e-minor bass arpeggio, this time the backing abruptly, even awkwardly, just stops, leaving the backwards lead guitar to "noodle" all alone into a fade-out.
3

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note This song belongs to a special category of Beatles' songs in which "content" plays a secondary role to "gesture". I define "content", in this context, as the relative level of special care and quality lavished on the basic musical elements of tune, chord, and form; and "gesture" as a focus on the bedazzling and disorienting overall effect to be achieved by the incongruous combination of familiar yet disparate stylistic clichés that are not usually found under the same roof, plus the overlay upon one or more of these elements of surreal special recording studio effects.
  Next note That the Beatles were great innovators of new styles synthesized from among the elements of disparate influences is widely celebrated. But the kind of gesture we're dealing with here, where one or more cultural ready-made is exploited for its very hackneyed recognizability is an achievement of a slightly different nature. In this particular instance, we have a strange montage of the boozy/jazzy ride-beat, the patter song tune, the cooing backing vocals, combined with that lead-guitar that is distorted on playback.
  Next note The amazing thing is to ponder not only how much this peculiar type of parody would flower in the Post-Pepper-Period, but the extent to which you'll note how its roots were embedded deep, all along, if only you look back with an eye toward discerning them.
  Next note It wasn't only there in the music, either! What better example of a surreal montage made of found pop-cultural-objects can you think of in the realm of album cover art than the pseudo-photographic black-and-white job done by Klaus Voorman for our "Revolver"?
  Regards,
  Alan (032094#94)
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Copyright © 1994 by Alan W. Pollack. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.