Faithless: how we made Insomnia


Sister Bliss, keyboards, songwriter

We wrote Insomnia in a garden shed, since that was where our producer Rollo Armstrong had his studio. Being in there all day and then DJ-ing all night was like having permanent jetlag. So I came up with the title Insomnia because I couldn’t get to sleep. Rollo didn’t really play an instrument. He has a condition called synaesthesia where you see music as colours, so he’d just describe how he wanted something to sound. We were very stoned a lot of the time.

Justin Robertson’s Lionrock influenced the slightly reggae bassline. Holding my big keyboard riff back until late in the song was an idea we got from Underworld’s way of building tension: just waiting, waiting, waiting then – bang! When Rollo said “Do big strings” I remembered Donna Summer’s I Feel Love and how it goes from a major chord to a minor one, and did the same. The bells in the intro came from a BBC sound archive disc.

The original album version of Insomnia was nine minutes long. Radio 1 told us there was no hook and no chorus, so we did a ridiculous gig at the Jazz Cafe in London to let people know we existed, with 10 or 11 musicians on a tiny stage. The DJs Sasha and Paul Oakenfold were stuck outside and we had to throw their tickets out of the dressing room window so they could get in. Then a guy called Bill Padley did a 7-inch edit and Radio 1 started playing it.


We were very excited when it got to No 27, but it later proved so popular across Europe that Pete Tong campaigned for us to re-release it. Our record label Cheeky/Champion was run on a shoestring, but cannily they held the single back so it came out the same day as the Spice Girls’ Say You’ll Be There, which meant we were racked next to them in shops. That was a massive day for record shopping. We went in at No 3 – and the next thing we knew we were doing our first Top of the Pops with the Spices.

Maxi Jazz, rapper, songwriter

I got a call from Rollo asking if I could write some words for a new dance track called Insomnia. I spent 20 minutes with a pad jotting down my thoughts, finished the lyrics in the studio the following evening, then spent about 25 minutes putting the vocals down. That was that.

The lyrics are from personal experience. I didn’t suffer from insomnia, but I’d just had an abscess on my tooth. It was so painful it would keep me awake. The lines about having no electricity and reaching for the pen in the darkness were also from real life. I had an electricity meter and when the money ran out you’d get six or seven pounds of credit and then – “Boom!” – the lights would go out. So I used to write by candlelight.

That first line – “Deep in the bosom of the gentle night” – is not me channelling Dylan Thomas. That was forced on us by MTV because they felt the original first line – “I only smoke weed when I need to” – was too graphic. There were eyebrows raised about the lines “Making mad love to my girl on the heath / Tearing off tights with my teeth” but they managed to stay in.

None of us realised how the line “I can’t get no sleep” would resonate with generations of clubland audiences. Suddenly the song was being played to crowds who had arguably taken 50 quid’s worth of high-powered drugs and weren’t thinking of getting much sleep for days. If we’d tried to write about that deliberately, it would have turned out cheesy and corny, but afterwards you think: “Of course!”

It was a big shock for the song to be such a huge hit, but an even bigger shock that it’s still such a favourite. If I had a quid for every time someone’s come up going, “I can’t get no sleep”, I’d be living on the space station.

  • Champion Records’ 35th anniversary box set is out now. Faithless’s new album All Blessed is released on 23 October.