Author’s brief note to the reader:
“If anyone today starts discussing about John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the first song that naturally comes up in one’s mind and that defines their relationship is the bitter-tongued ‘How Do You Sleep’, which gives examples of the harsh tones in which Lennon refers to his ex-band mate.
Through the years, the legendary nasty composition Lennon wrote for McCartney right after The Beatles broke up became the focus attention of many Beatles scholars and journalists who drastically changed the real nature of the duo’s relationship, summing up the 15 and more years spent together in one song, making up the most disappointing and wrong conclusions about their relationship and relying everything on a rivalry which didn’t really exist if not in a fruitful way, misinterpreting and modelling the real story of their friendship for the sake of modern click-bait articles and the five-minutes spanning attention of the readers.
It’s time to correct them.”
John’s 1971 song ‘How Do You Sleep?’ – as spiteful a put-down as anything in popular music – is the most well known manifestation of Lennon and McCartney’s schism.
But how did it happen? And why did, all of sudden, John decide to write such a vicious verbal attack?
We should take a closer look at the events happening in that period and the lyrics of their solo works (even their later Beatles material) that show that they were also sending each other a wealth of more subtle messages.
Only through this study it’ll be clear that “How do you sleep” was John’s reaction to Paul’s album RAM.
RAM was Paul’s first solo work, published in May 1971 to dissolve the Beatles’ partnership, following the band’s break-up the year before.
John, due to the connection between Paul’s album and the Beatles split up, believed that many songs in McCartney’s album were addressed to him and to his wife Yoko. And he wasn’t wrong. Many songs in Ram indeed are a reference to the traumatic and quite-shocking break up Paul experienced, and the now-solo artist peppered his new music path with songs like “Too Many People”, “Dear Boy”, “3 Legs” and “The Back Seat Of My Car”, clearly songs that referred to John.
But this wasn’t enough.
Paul also had some fun not just with the composition, but with the album cover as well. The two beetles copulating on the back cover are another clear reference to the Beatles and most clearly to his ex-bandmate John, paralled with Paul’s new life with Linda and his kids.
These clear references to Lennon didn’t go unnoticed on John’s part. John perceived the whole Paul’s album as an angry reaction to their break up, and decided to react in his unique way and answer to him.
In 1971 he published his first solo album: “Imagine”. One track, however, made no attempt to candy-coat the situation. “How Do You Sleep?” was a reply to Paul McCartney for those disparaging attacks and mocks on the Ram album, an angry letter in which he answers to Paul’s provocations.
So Sgt. Pepper took you by surprise
You better see right through that mother’s eyes
Those freaks was right when they said you was dead
The one mistake you made was in your head
How do you sleep?
How do you sleep at night?
You live with straights who tell you, you was king
Jump when your momma tell you anything
The only thing you done was yesterday
And since you’ve gone you’re just another day
How do you sleep?
How do you sleep at night?
How do you sleep?
How do you sleep at night?
A pretty face may last a year or two
But pretty soon they’ll see what you can do
The sound you make is muzak to my ears
You must have learned something in all those years
How do you sleep?
How do you sleep at night?
John sings that Paul lives surrounded by “straights” who treat him as a king, (YOU LIVE WITH STRAIGHTS WHO TELL YOU YOU WAS KING), that the only good thing he did was writing ‘’Yesterday’’, (THE ONLY THING YOU DONE WAS YESTERDAY), mentioning also another song of Paul’s, “Another Day” when he sings: “AND SINCE YOU’RE GONE YOU’RE JUST ANOTHER DAY”, that in the end, those crazy people who believed he was dead were right, probably referring to his artistic death, as a musician, when he sings: “THOSE FREAKS WAS RIGHT WHEN THEY SAID YOU WAS DEAD.” Then he accuses him of being fake, someone who looks pretty nice and cute on the surface, but behind that nice face there’s a man who is mean and sneaky, worrying him that one day, the people who are around him now and that praise him, will soon realize how bad he actually is. (A PRETTY FACE MAY LAST A YEAR OR TWO BUT PRETTY SOON THEY’LL SEE WHAT YOU CAN DO). He also accused Paul of being pussy-whipped by Linda (“JUMP WHEN YOUR MAMA TELL YOU ANYTHING”), and trashed his songs as “MUZAK TO MY EARS”.
Where Paul’s attack had been subtle and sidelong, John’s was violent and full-on, a nuclear missile answering a pinprick. Felix Dennis, who was around as the lyric took shape, remembers John’s fellow musicians, including Ringo, telling him in vain that he was going way too far.
Even the arrangement of “How Do You Sleep?” was subtly insulting, a melodramatic soul-funk with George Harrison at the guitar endorsing every word. The final insult was to Paul’s new rustic life with Linda. In parody of the Ram cover’s Highland sheep-shearer, John had himself photographed in an identical pose, straddling a pig. This was turned into a picture postcard, to be slipped inside every copy of the album, showing that he clearly understood all the references McCartney had made to him, beetles included.
Despite sniping in less explicit ways, Paul showed his anger and frustration to John for the Beatles break up through different subtle messages. But those were small, for most of people, insignificant lyrics. Instead, they were created to provoke and tease John, and harm him in the worst way possible. Paul knew how to subtly spur him while looking innocent on the surface. And John’s reaction wasn’t far less that subtle.
Upon first listen the lyrics of ‘’How Do You Sleep’’, they are shocking. How could John say those things, so publicly, to his great friend?
The truth is that he was annoyed with Paul for a relatively short period of time and used that negative energy to write a song. For John, it was a cathartic experience that helped him work through the situation they were in. Despite ‘’How Do You Sleep’’ being a sudden, improvised song that anyone can decipher as an angry unjustified attack to Paul, it is, instead, the result of several small, sneaky, subtle attacks that Paul had made through time and that eventually made John explode.
On November 20, 1971 Melody Maker published an interview with Paul which provoked an angry reaction from John. The interview contains, amongst other comments, Paul’s opinion that “John and Yoko are not cool1John Lennon & Paul McCartney: Melody Maker, November & December 1971.” and his description of the criticisms of him in ‘How Do You Sleep’ as “silly” and “wrong”.
However, for any listener its impact can be permanent. Every time the song is heard, it is like John saying it over and over again in the present tense. Paul himself analysed John’s words very carefully and was affected by the criticism for several years. Despite his first unhappy comments on John and Yoko and the song, Paul considered it a serious problem, and explained his concern about it: “I sat down and pored over every little paragraph, every little sentence. ‘Does he really think that of me?’ l thought. And at the time I thought, ‘It’s me. I am. That’s just what I’m like. He’s captured me so well; I’m a turd, you know2Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stone Interview, 1974.’”
“Much of the recording of the Imagine album was filmed, and this gives valuable insight into the depth of feeling surrounding the songs. We see John, for example, gleefully running through How Do You Sleep for George, before confirming that the song is “the nasty one”. In another run through John becomes aware of the camera and – suppressing a smile and speaking out of the corner of his mouth in mock anger – he asks Paul “How do you sleep you cunt?” – Philip Norman – John Lennon, The Life.
So shocking was the music world’s reaction upon this song that Ben Gerson of Rolling Stone magazine called it “horrifying and indefensible” although he also admitted the song “has an immediacy which makes it more compelling than most of the rest of the album3Come Together: Lennon and McCartney in the Seventies By Richard White”.
As his anger dwindled – or had perhaps been cathartically expelled – John tried to soften the blow of ‘’How Do You Sleep’’. In addition to an explanatory phone call supposedly made to Paul before the release of the “Imagine” album, John also placed the song “How?” directly after “How Do You Sleep”. ‘’How?’’contains an obvious musical reference to Paul’s “The Long And Winding Road”, so by positioning it there, John acknowledged that Paul had made good music and the criticisms of ‘’How Do You Sleep’’ were not entirely justified.
“This minor reference is followed by Steel And Glass, which uses a similar melody and arrangement to How Do You Sleep to criticise Allen Klein. By, effectively, rewriting How Do You Sleep as a comprehensive attack on Klein, Steel And Glass is basically an admission from John that the original How Do You Sleep chose the wrong target and he uses the new song to make that clear.” – Lennon vs McCartney by Adam Thomas.
On May 1972, during an interview, John talks about the song ‘’How Do You Sleep’’, saying “I suppose it was a bit hard on him (Paul). I only ever asked two people to work with me as a partner. One was Paul McCartney and the other Yoko Ono.4Philip Norman – John Lennon, The life” John confirmed that ‘’How Do You Sleep’’ was, in part, designed to inspire Paul to do better. In an interview with Ray Connolly in 1972, he said: “I went through a period of saying things that I thought would spur him on, but I think they were misunderstood. That’s how How Do You Sleep was intended”.
Two years later, when talking about the feud in 1974, John admitted:
“It was a period I had to go through. I sort of enjoyed the fight at the time, that’s the funny thing. Now we’ve got it all out and it’s cool.” – John Lennon, 1974.
In fact, on July 21, 1974 Paul and Linda returned to England from their visit in New York to John. The same day John records several tracks for his “Walls and Bridges” album – including “Steel And Glass”, which ‘updates’ “How Do You Sleep” with an attack on Allen Klein.
In one of his last interviews, John admitted:
“I wasn’t really feeling that vicious at the time,” he would claim. “It was not a terrible, vicious, horrible vendetta … I used my resentment and withdrawing from Paul and the Beatles and the relationship with Paul to write a song. I don’t really go around with those thoughts in my head all the time … I’m really attacking myself. But I regret the association—well, what’s to regret? He lived through it.” – Philip Norman, John Lennon: The Life.
Adam Thomas has explained how John songwriting process worked and it can help understanding the composition of ‘How Do You Sleep’.
“In terms of writing songs to each other, John was generally more overt and deliberate with his lyrical messages to Paul. He knew which buttons to press to get a reaction. For Paul it was quite often more subconscious. While, during the 70s, John experienced some moments of genuine anger towards Paul he, in general, took their dispute less to heart. His temperament was typically characterised by short bursts of cathartic fury. For Paul it ran a little deeper. His bitterness towards John was expressed more subtly, but the openly explicit criticism from John levelled at him were internalised and taken more to heart.” – Adam Thomas, Lennon vs McCartney.
Over the years John corrected himself, saying that the song wasn’t really about Paul, but himself, that he wrote it to spur a reaction for him, that he really didn’t mean all the lyrics he said. But the song had a breaking effect on Paul and their relationship, and how it has been painted through media over the years. What brought John to record such a spiteful song was, how Adam Thomas masterfully described it, a “short burst of chatarctic fury”, something John would probably have shouted to Paul if they had been still together in London at the Abbey Road Studios, during one of their many quarrels that Paul has also mentioned:
“One of my great memories of John is from when we were having some argument. I was disagreeing and we were calling each other names. We let it settle for a second and then he lowered his glasses and he said: “It’s only me.” And then he put his glasses back on again. To me, that was John. Those were the moments when I actually saw him without the facade, the armor, which I loved as well, like anyone else. It was a beautiful suit of armor. But it was wonderful when he let the visor down and you’d just see the John Lennon that he was frightened to reveal to the world.” – Come Together: Lennon and McCartney in the Seventies By Richard White
So when John said that “How Do You Sleep” was about him, it means that he really didn’t mean all the bad words he wrote for Paul, in the end he was angry at himself and at the way their relationship ended during the Beatles break up. A revealing story that shows how, probably due to their distance, now John, for the first time away from Paul after 15 years together, had only music to show his feelings towards him. And that feeling was anger, frustration, that turned into the most hateful song he ever wrote. But how John himself pointed out, the feeling didn’t last long. He corrected himself in ‘Steel and Glass’. In ‘Jealous Guy’ he apologized. After that tough period, John and Paul decided not to release any declaration to the press, knowing the media would have turned every word against each other.
Yet, this powerful song, with its attractive lyrics, has lasted over the years and still today is the witness of their relationship. The media, sadly, has focused way too much on this particular song and put aside what happened right later, misunderstanding years of the complex relationship.
Still today, websites are full of articles pointing out and enhancing their presumed rivalry and taking ‘How Do You Sleep’ as the greatest example of their animosity. They fail to look at what is a much bigger ‘problem’: John and Paul’s relationship was so complicated, deep, and full of mixed feelings that its impossible to take one single song to describe their whole relationship.
“How Do You Sleep” was an instinctive response to Paul’s album, in which Paul used his typical less-direct and more subtle way to express his anger towards John after their break up. John answered in his own, unique way: as direct and vicious as possible. While some of Paul’s songs are quite hardly to decipher and anyone can read what they want in them, you can’t interpret “How Do You Sleep” in any other way: it’s a bitter song for Paul and none else.
Later, in the movie “Imagine” John admitted that he really didn’t mean what he wrote in the song and that he was angry and felt hurt by some of Paul’s references in the album, and that the song was really about himself:
“It’s not about Paul, it’s about me. I’m really attacking myself. But I regret the association, well, what’s to regret? He lived through it. The only thing that matters is how he and I feel about these things and not what the writer or commentator thinks about it. Him and me are okay.” John Lennon, Imagine documentary.
“Him and me are okay.”
But the press and the media couldn’t wait for more juicy stuff and took this song to make it the keystone of John’s and Paul’s media battle. The journalists spent many, many years writing how much John and Paul hated each other, which obviously was not true. John’s anger passed quickly. He didn’t feel any resentment, but most importantly: he and John talked and they knew it wasn’t so important as it seemed. They cleared it up. But obviously, not for the press, who spent the whole 70s making up stories about how much they dispised each other.
It’s the same reason why today, almost 48 years after that famous song, if anyone searches “John Lennon and Paul McCartney” on Google, 90% of the articles they’ll read about them are all about the “fights” they had and the angry letters they sent to each other, which can be entertaining and amusing to read, but bear less truth to what was the real extent of their relationship.
Lennon and McCartney had a deep troubled relationship, complicated and hard to handle, especially in the 70s, when they were distant and couldn’t talk and see each other. “How Do You Sleep”was John’s response to Paul’s accusations in RAM. In the same album, John wrote “Jealous Guy”, an apology to Paul and his way to say sorry and ask for a reconciliation. In the same album, Paul also wrote ‘Dear Friend’, a song in which he cried, reaching out to John asking to come back together, afraid of losing him forever.
But the press probably still hasn’t gone past “How Do You Sleep”.
I’m confident that one day they’ll be able to listen to their following albums.
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