This Guy Turned Surreal Sleep Talking into a Cult Album
From mustard battles to Chinese-Austrian dwarf geniuses, the recordings of Dion McGregor are weird enough to be totally fascinating.
Talking in your sleep can be viewed as loveable, annoying or just plain weird, depending on how horrifically twee your mumbled fantasies are, like this total comedian who records himself fantasizing about tickling badgers (thank you internet). Somniloquies are the medical term for all this, and they aren't harmful as much as a sign that you need more sleep, or maybe just a gag.
For Dion McGregor (illustrated above), a jobbing 60s songwriter, these somniloquies turned into an a cult (flop at the time) 1964 album called The Dream World of Dion McGregor, reviewed by UK music mag Wire as "fascinating and bizarre." Now, I don't advise dropping this record at house parties but if you’re into surreal stories with no reason or context, from creative ways to use fruit to gift advice, then there’s really no limit to how surreal Dion's dreams can get.
Dion never actually intended the world to hear his sleep mumbles, instead they were recorded by his songwriting partner Michael Barr, who was fascinated by them. And now the album has now been re-released, 50 years on, by Torpor Vigil Records, along with more recordings of Dion’s sleep stories.
I called up Steve Venright, the founder of Torpor Vigil Records, to ask about Dion’s life, why the album flopped, and why professionally releasing sleep talk records seems to interest him.
Noisey: Hi Steve. So, tell me, how did you first come across Dion's work?
Steve: I happened to run into my friend Christopher Dewdney and he often has a lead for me on the most fascinating cultural artifacts. When he said he had a cassette of a guy talking in his sleep, I was immediately game.
How high were your hopes?
I didn’t expect much more than mumbled gibberish. He dropped by that night with the tape, which he said was dubbed from a 1964 album. I wondered how there could be a whole album of somebody sleep talking, but when we popped it in and hit play I was astonished by what I heard.
What exactly was he talking about?
Well, as it turned out, mustard battles, classes in self-vivisection, Chinese-Austrian dwarf geniuses, and much more. It was the strangest thing I’d ever heard. Thus began my obsession with the dream world of Dion McGregor. My son Kerry, a young boy at the time, was also at that first listening session. Its traumatic effect on him can be seen in the cover art (above and below) he created a couple decades later for the Dreaming Like Mad album.
Children shouldn't be exposed to mustard battles too early in life. Away from the dreams, what do you know about Dion the man?
He was a lyricist who collaborated with a number of composers in the fifties and sixties, and he co-wrote some excellent songs from those collaborations. But he wasn’t known to be all that ambitious, and even though Barbra Streisand sang one of the songs he co-wrote, Dion’s career floundered and he eventually dropped it, having come to the realisation that he’d never be one of the greats.
But look at him now! Who were the first people to recognise the potential in his snooze chat?
He was an inveterate couch surfer who crashed for long periods of time with a succession of remarkable Manhattan friends, including actor Carleton Carpenter and groundbreaking gay porn director Peter DeRome.
What did they think of it?
Carpenter found Dion’s habit of talking in his sleep annoying, whereas DeRome found it fascinating and tried to write down the somnolent orations. Eventually Dion moved in with Michael Barr, his songwriting partner. Barr heard Dion’s sleeptalking and was so amazed he decided to set up a tape recorder and mic near the living-room bed where Dion slept. Having stealthily recorded one of the drowsy monologues, he played it back to his roommate the next morning. This came as a revelation to Dion, who’d always been told he talked in his sleep, but had no idea his utterances were so elaborate, expansive and strange.
Was he excited about them?
His interest in the tapes that Barr recorded almost nightly for years to follow, never matched that of his songwriting partner, for whom it became a lifelong obsession. Barr even wrote a musical based on the dreams and his friendship with Dion, a project he didn’t see realised but was passionate about till the day he died in 2009. Dion had already passed away in 1994.
Oh, that's actually really, really sad. Who turned these tapes turn into an album then?
A few years after the tapings began, Barr made some good connections which led to Decca Records releasing an LP of 10 somniloquies called The Dream World of Dion McGregor (He Talks in His Sleep). Edward Gorey did the cover art and, also in 1964, illustrated a book of 70 dream transcripts which were published under the same title. Wonderful as they were, both the LP and book were total flops, in term of sales.
Why do you think the record wasn't well received when it first came out?
When Milt Gabler of Decca was interviewed, he called the album “one of the biggest flops I ever put out!” But his tone suggested he was more proud of the fact than distressed by it. He probably knew it was a bit of a long shot, but that it was something so unique it had to reach the public, whether they went for it or not. Apparently out of an initial print run of ten thousand, only six or seven thousand copies of the Dream World book sold. As an independent label, I can only dream of figures like that, but when you’re a major label or publisher, those numbers represent failure.
How do you think people reacted to it?
I suspect part of the problem with the first album, and there hasn’t been much change in fifty years, is that when most people are told that there are these recordings of a guy talking in his sleep, they go, "Ooh,” or maybe, “Oh, that’s interesting.” It’s only when they actually hear a minute of one of the dreams that they go: “Oh, my God, that’s incredible!” Mind you, some still don’t really get it, or fail to get a charge off it, but for those who do, the fascination can be spellbinding.
What about the flop made you think it was worth reissuing?
Today, these “flops” are cult treasures, partly because of the collectible nature of Gorey’s work, and partly because more and more people are catching on to just how extraordinary and brilliant McGregor’s slumberous output was. I wanted to mark the occasion—the half-century—by releasing a new compilation of never-before-heard dream recordings, and that was the inspiration behind Dreaming Like Mad with Dion McGregor (Yet More Outrageous Recordings of the World’s Most Renowned Sleeptalker).
Dion was quite special wasn't he?
Dion is such an anomaly that Harvard sleep specialist Deirdre Barrett has made his somniloquies the subject of a study to determine how closely their content resembles more typical, non-spoken dreams. However they may compare in terms of content, there’s still no question that Dion’s delivery alone makes his somnolent adventures unique.
So, what’s the future of the project?
I’m starting to show publishers a 170,000-word McGregor manuscript of my own, much of which is composed of dream transcripts. But there really has been growing interest in Dion and his dream world, so maybe his time has come!
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