Sweet dreams are made of this…
BY DAVE STEINFELD
As we get older, more and more of us experience sleep related issues of some sort. For many people — including a close friend of mine whose condition inspired this piece — this takes the form of insomnia. I myself find it harder to sleep through the night than I used to (oh, to be 20 again when you could blow a building up around me while I was asleep and I wouldn’t bat an eye!). And many people I talk to, of varying ages and backgrounds, admit to having insomnia or some other form of sleep disturbance. Seems you can’t go a week without somebody mentioning Ambien…
Here, then, are a dozen songs for those nights when you find yourself wide awake but not by choice. They are culled from six decades of popular music and the artists range from Cheap Trick to Norah Jones and from Sinatra to Metallica. These tunes may not put you to sleep — but at least they’ll reassure you that you’re not alone while you’re wrestling with your demons.
We’ve created a Spotify playlist for the tunes, and you can also check out video/audio for each track below.
1. “Enter Sandman” — Metallica (1991)
Let’s kick things off with a song that’s guaranteed to induce screams and chills! “Enter Sandman” was the lead single from Metallica’s fifth album, a self-titled disc they unveiled in 1991. More than 25 years later, it still stands as the perfect soundtrack for your night terrors. Lead guitarist Kirk Hammett shreds for his life while James Hetfield sings a very dark lullaby. “Hush little baby, don’t say a word/And never mind that noise you heard/It’s just the beasts under your bed/In your closet, in your head…”
Off to Never Never Land we go, with these California thrash-metal kings leading the way….
2. “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” — Frank Sinatra (1955)
In total contrast to Metallica, our second entry on this insomnia mix tape is a ‘50s standard by Frank Sinatra. He didn’t write “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” and he’s not the only artist to record it, but there’s no denying that this ballad — the title track of his 1955 album — is synonymous with Sinatra. “In the wee small hours of the morning,” he sings, “While the whole wide world is fast asleep, you lie awake and think about the girl and never, ever think of counting sheep.” Who among us can’t relate to that sentiment?
3. “Chasing Pirates” — Norah Jones (2009)
Jumping ahead five decades and change, we find ourselves still wide awake but with Norah Jones picking up where Sinatra left off. The opening track from her excellent 2009 album The Fall, “Chasing Pirates” is a lovely song about being too wound up to sleep. Only Norah could make insomnia sound appealing!
4. “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” — Warren Zevon (1976)
In this writer’s humble opinion, the late Warren Zevon was one of the finest singer-songwriters of the 1970s. The rocking “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” appears on his 1976 self-titled outing. It features wailing harmonica, improvised bits of Spanish from Jorge Calderon and some of Zevon’s most twisted lyrics. To wit: “I got a .38 special up in the shelf/If I start actin’ stupid, I’ll shoot myself…”
It’s worth noting that Zevon released a song called “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” 16 years before pop-metal poser Jon Bon Jovi did….;)
5. “Up All Night” — The Boomtown Rats (1981)
Before he became known for Live Aid and other projects, Bob Geldof led The Boomtown Rats, an eclectic band that stormed out of Ireland in the mid ’70s armed with a bunch of great tunes. This song, like the one that follows, is called “Up All NIght” — but that’s about all they have in common. The Rats’ “Up All Night” — which appeared on their 1981 album Mondo Bongo and got some AOR airplay back in the day — features an appealingly off-kilter arrangement and Geldof’s Bowiesque vocals.
6. “Up All Night” — The Records (1979)
The Records were an English foursome best known for the great hit “Starry Eyes,” from their self-titled 1979 debut. “Up All Night” is an ethereal, Beatlesque ballad which demonstrates the underrated songwriting genius of Will Birch and John Wicks. The best line is probably when Wicks sings, “Six o’clock and the town is waking now/Workers are on their way, don’t ask me how/They have to take their daily ride/I hear the paper boy outside…”
If insomnia has a moment of pure pop magic, this could be it.
7. “(Last Night) I Didn’t Get to Sleep At All” — The 5th Dimension (1972)
Our next entry is a soft-pop classic from the early ‘70s. “(Last Night) I Didn’t Get to Sleep At All” scored The 5th Dimension a top 10 hit in 1972. Written by Englishman Tony Macaulay and featuring the velvet-voiced Marilyn McCoo on vocals, it ruled the AM airwaves. Who couldn’t appreciate the line, “Maybe I should call you up and just forget my foolish pride/I heard your number ring and I went cold inside?”
8. “I’m So Tired” — The Beatles (1968)
“I’m So Tired,” from The Beatles’ self-titled set (AKA ‘The White Album’) wasn’t a hit but it remains one of their great album tracks and is a fearsome slice of insomnia in two minutes and change. John Lennon expresses a similar sentiment to Marilyn McCoo but in strikingly different terms! “I wonder should I call you but I know what you would do!” he screams. Ironically, Lennon had written the beautiful “I’m Only Sleeping” a scant two years earlier. My, how things changed for the man in a short time!
9. “Overkill” — Men At Work (1983)
“Overkill” was the biggest single from Men At Work’s sophomore album, Cargo. It was released at the height of the band’s popularity and the video became deservedly popular on MTV (this is back when MTV played videos, for you young ‘uns). Despite its infectious melody, “Overkill” features dark lyrics such as “I can’t get to sleep/I think about the implications,” “Alone between the sheets/Only brings exasperation” and the great refrain, “Ghosts appear and fade away.” Men At Work would fade away themselves a couple of years later but when this song was released, they were arguably the biggest band on the planet. Frontman Colin Hay has said that this is his favorite song from his days with the Men — and it’s easy to see why.
10. “I’m Not Sleeping” — Counting Crows (1996)
It’s no secret that Adam Duritz of Counting Crows is a notorious insomniac; several of the band’s songs deal with night terrors or the inability to get to sleep. The one I’ve included is “I’m Not Sleeping,” from the Crows’ sophomore set, Recovering the Satellites. It’s a ballad but it’s tortured as opposed to tender. And that torture builds to a crescendo that includes a Psycho string section and Duritz screaming lyrics about a woman who won’t let him get the shuteye he so desperately needs.
11. “Dream Police” — Cheap Trick (1979)
Cheap Trick had a nice run of hits between the late 70s and the late 80s but this one — the title track from their 1979 album — may be the most dramatic. Lead singer Robin Zander was known as “the man of a thousand voices” early in the band’s career. On this rock and roll ode to nightmares, he shows us why.
On a related note — Rockford, Illinois’ finest is currently in the midst of their most prolific period in decades and is gearing up to release a Christmas collection (their third album in two years!).
12. “Insomniac’s Lullaby” — Paul Simon (2016)
Our final song is also the most recent track of the 12. “Insomniac’s Lullaby” finds the great Paul Simon in quietly existential mode. “Oh Lord, don’t keep me up all night with questions I can’t understand,” he pleads. But by the end of the song, he concludes, “We eventually all fall asleep.” “Insomniac’s Lullaby” closes Simon’s 2016 album Stranger to Stranger — and it’s also a great way to end this mixtape.