But it's a good song for how I'm feeling these days, which is antsy and floaty and not-quite-here. I mean, look, I should make it clear that there have been no hallucinogens involved-- I'm just going through something, or something, and anyway my drug of choice (of which this looks to be a tremendous example) tends to be more delicious and more sociable anyway. When John experienced ennui and world-weariness in the mid-'60s, though, he preferred to eat a lot of acid, and write songs like "Tomorrow Never Knows" to try to convey acid-ness in music. Let's listen to how that worked out for him.
My, the psychedelic grooviness of "Tomorrow Never Knows" really brought out the creativity in a bunch of YouTubers. This was just one of several weird ones I could have chosen.
So we were just talking the other day, I believe, about Ringo's malapropisms and the ways they inspired John and Paul on a few notable occasions. "Tomorrow Never Knows" is another good example of that. The working title of this song was "The Void," but at the last minute Ringo's latest misuse of the English language snuck in as the title instead. I like to think it's because "The Void" was deemed too pretentious, because, you know, it is. However, "The Void" had the advantage of being taken from the song's lyrics, which themselves are almost entirely derived from Timothy Leary's The Psychedelic Experience, an influential how-to manual on the taking of acid which John had recently read-- and those words were largely taken from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Leary's thesis was that psychedelic drugs could create a so-called "ego-death" that would allow you to dissolve into the natural flow of the universe and thus bring you closer to God-- or at least that's the poorly worded summary I've managed to glean in my reading about this in Beatles books over the years, for I've never read the primary source myself. But at any rate, this obviously struck a chord with John.
John wrote "Tomorrow Never Knows," of course, but you can also think of the song as the ultimate magical combination of all the Beatles' different interests in the very interesting year of 1966. John brings his burgeoning interest in psychedelics and their potential to take him closer to some kind of enlightened state inside his own head, which is always where he's most comfortable anyway. George, who is also experimenting with acid at this point but ultimately seeks his own enlightenment in India, brings a droning tamboura and a sitar into the mix-- and perhaps also has influenced John more abstractly just by exposing him to Indian music, such that John has written a song that sits almost entirely on one chord and basically repeats one single melodic line over and over.
Meanwhile, Paul isn't so much seeking enlightenment as he is schooling himself in different classical and artsy and avant-garde musics of the sort that are hip right now in fashionable London circles, and he's developed a taste for Karlheinz Stockhausen in particular. So he brings his personal collection of homemade tape loops, as well as a desire to play around with them in a Stockhausen-esque way to see what kind of funky random sounds they'll add to the song. As for Ringo, well, he brings the song title, which really IS important for the way it keeps things from getting a little too pretentious and heady (Ringo's always good for that)-- and he brings some his most amazing drumming ever, which is no small contribution. When I think of "Tomorrow Never Knows" in this way, I think I finally get what people are talking about when they go on and on about the '60s, you know? John and George and Paul and Ringo were all exploring these whole new exciting worlds of knowledge that would have been so much more esoteric even a few years prior. It must have felt as if there was endless possibility-- in art, in life, just all around. Amazing.
So even if "Tomorrow Never Knows" feels as though all it lacks sonically is the kitchen sink, who are we to complain about the Beatles' lack of restraint? Restraint is absolutely not what this song is about. This one was meant to sizzle with creativity, to explore everything explorable at the same time-- to launch the Beatles into outer space. And it wasn't just about the one song, either. Though it's the last track on the album, "Tomorrow Never Knows" was the first song to be recorded for Revolver, the album that took all the wonder and artistry and promise of Rubber Soul and cranked it up to 11. From here, it must have been clear to them that nothing was going to be the same.
So how does "Tomorrow Never Knows" so blow our minds? By processing just about every sound until it becomes magic. The drums, which are for me the really unforgettable element here, are not only being played admirably by our Ringo, but compressed and echoed to resonate like no drums Ringo has ever played before. I don't know exactly how they're doing that-- or, indeed, any of this-- but that's the gist of it. In that instrumental break, the lunatic sounds we're hearing are (I think-- someone correct me if I've got this wrong) George playing a funkily produced sitar part, plus Paul's guitar solo back from "Taxman" all chopped up and played backwards to sound demented, plus some well placed tape loops. The tape loops, by the way, are all over the place, and randomness seems to have been the order of the day-- I think this was the song in which someone, perhaps ingenious engineer Geoff Emerick, cut a loop into lots of small pieces, threw them into the air, and then repasted them back together to see what came of it.** That might be what's making the seagull-esque noises that so distinctively run throughout. You'll notice that I don't seem very sure about any of these details, which is a fair criticism-- I've read about this a lot of times, but I don't have enough familiarity with studio language to have ever absorbed it in quite the same way that I can absorb the info about other songs. Besides which, I kind of like maintaining some kind of mystery in a song like "Tomorrow Never Knows"-- I'd really rather not know how the trick is being done sometimes. That's just me. Yeah, I know it doesn't help you out if you're really curious, but I urge you to read up more at the Beatles Bible or DM Beatles Site where people who are smarter than I am can no doubt break it down. Sorry to abdicate my responsibilities, but haven't I written too much already anyway?
What I do know is that John asked George Martin to make his vocal sound like ten thousand monks chanting from the top of a mountain, or something insane like that. Although they didn't quite accomplish that, Geoff Emerick did come up with a way to wire John's voice through a Hammond organ's Leslie cabinet, and then found a way to double track his voice mechanically (previously a double-tracked singer would actually record a sung line twice). This is what's giving his voice the particularly wobbly, unearthly quality, especially in the second half or so of the song. It sounds like John has become a cross between a cyborg and a god. Argh, you guys. It is so good. No one ever made psychedelia sound more kickass than this.
**I was wrong on this one-- Troy corrects me in comments.
"Tomorrow Never Knows," released in the U.K. side B track 7 of Revolver, August 5, 1966; in the U.S. side B track 5 of the crappy Capitol Revolver, August 8, 1966.