Friday, July 24, 2009

Tomorrow Never Knows

I admit it. I was inspired to listen to today's song mainly because yesterday, when I listed all the new Beatles Rock Band songs, "Tomorrow Never Knows" was the only one that I was unable to link to. And it made me think: why haven't I covered this one yet? I dunno. I guess I just never really felt it until now, you dig?

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.


  1. Not a song i would offer up as an example of Beatles greatness if I were engaged in a conversation with someone who had never heard their music, but rather one i would pull out late to show how the Beatles were never ones to be satisfied with "where they were last" musically, and how they stretched and pushed themselves. So, plus points to the song for that. But, standing alone, bare as a song before me, i give it low points. There are a hundred other Beatles songs i would choose to listen to before this one. Nice column, Meg! I do wonder what GM thought of it at the time. Was he "enduring it" or caught up in its creative juices?

  2. See, my understanding is that Martin was interested from the beginning. Remember John would have just played this on guitar or something initially, and it would have sounded really repetitive and boring. But no one rejected it out of hand. They heard SOMETHING there. And while it might not be my personal favorite either, there's no denying its importance to their development...

  3. OK, I need to ignore Frank's comment for a second, because it is blowing my mind that someone could not love this track, and just respond to Megan's post.

    I could be wrong, but ... uh ... I was under the impress... the impression, that, uh ...

    FRANK! WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?!?!?! You need to get to a marijuana dispensary stat, my friend. And if your feeling is that your life is just fine without it, I need to cite this song as Exhibit A. Or, you know, get really drunk and start chain-smoking cigarettes or something. Work with me here!

    Meg, it's always bad form to correct somebody when you're not sure your facts, but I try not to let that stop me, or, you know, when would I ever get to correct anybody? But I think you're thinking of Mr. Kite. Here, the story is that the Beatles all made the own tape loops by recording over and over them, saturating them, and then they all played them back at varied speeds or something during recording in Studio 2. Paul, whose idea it might have been, supposedly said you could never reproduce it, kind of like the Lear in I Am the Walrus, which is another song Frank needs to go visit his 14-year-old nephew before listening to.

    I also gotta give ode to the rhythm section here. The way I imagine it, Ringo comes up with the awesome beat, and then Paul hits on echoing the rhythm with his bass part, which was not the obvious choice, and then Ringo (or somebody) closes the circle by copying Paul's accents on the tambourine.

    Also, what song came further than this one from first take to last? "Mark I" would have been pretty boring, if the Anthology version is any indication, and this is the opposite.

  4. Troy, no worries on correcting me-- I wasn't sure of the cutting-up-loops factoid, which is why I hemmed and hawed about it in the post. But I'm almost positive that Paul brought in some of his own tape loops to this. They then recorded over them and saturated them and got all nuts, but at least some of the original sound snippets were his own. I would swear I knew that... Like, the orchestral chord-- that was from Paul's collection. Right? Crap, you're making me doubt myself, but I do think I'm right there.

    Or maybe I've just been hitting too much of some unnamed drug and my brain is all fuzzified.

  5. Sorry, i disappointed you Troy! While i recognize the technical and creative achievement in the song, I don't think it stands the test of time as a great song. I see it as being very much a product of 60s drug culture/influence and experimentation, or whatever you want to call it. And as such, i think it is kinda "locked" in that period. That is not to say it wasn't influential. But, as a song I see it as gimmiky. I like music to be less contrived. Would you like a whole album full of backwards loops and such?

    BTW, I watched a little documentary last night called, The Beatles Song Book. It examined John's and Paul's song writing development from 1956 thru Rubber Soul. I imagine Meg, and you Troy, have both seen it. I think it was produced four or five years ago. It consisted of interviews with five or six music critics/historians and footage of the lads. Pretty interesting, but no earth shattering revelations. I didn't agree with some of the critics, some of whom seemed to be "stretching the facts" to fit a pre-established opinion. And some points they hit over the head repeatedly, till i wanted to scream, alright already i get it. I liked it enough, though, that i wish they had produced one for Revolver onward.

  6. Never seen that documentary. Sounds like it would have been right up my alley, except for the flaws you mentioned. I'm the kind of geek who isn't a completist who has to read everything, but I hear about something interesting and I go get it. Some guy did a two-volume scholarly study of the songs not unlike Alan Pollack's stuff, but with more context and narrative, and I ate that up, except for the theory parts that were beyond me.

    Frank, I won't try to make you like it, but there's more to this song than just the tape loops. The Indian-style tension of the VII chord that's the third line of every four -- I think it's a B-flat, played on some kind of keyboard, while everything else is in C -- except for John's voice, which works in the B-flat AND against the C that all instruments return to when he repeats the line (It is not dying, it is not dying). The rhythm is amazing. But more than anything, it's an immersive soundscape like no other song I can think of. It's instruments doing things synergistically that I'm not sure instruments had ever done, and that would be true even if you got your hands on the rhythm track with just drums and bass, I think. And if you give me John's vocal through the Leslie, well, I'll forgo the tape loops if I have to, just to prove to you that the song didn't need it to be great. The tape loops just make it that much more brilliant and exotic. I understand that all that doesn't matter if you don't like the song; I call it the Mr. Kite corollary. But I can't imagine not loving this song.

    Megan, you're right about it originating with Paul; I know the laughing seagull effect is actually his loop, which originally was of him laughing.

  7. Troy ... Your enthusiasm and musical knowledge and hitherto good taste has convinced me to rate the song higher. I understand the genius and hard work it took to create this song from so many oral and musical elements. It is truly more than the sum of its parts.

    Re the doc, i rented it from NetFlix, but i bet Blockbusters has it too. Worth checking out. I give it a B rating.

  8. Thanks, Frank, I'll go look for it.

    Regarding Tomorrow Never Knows: I don't want you to rate the song higher. I just want you to like it. :)

  9. Ah, you caught my little dodge ...

    Re the doc, I believe it is called: Composing the Beatles Songbook: Lennon and McCartney

  10. Are you guys all made up now? Oh, good. By the way, I haven't seen the doc either, but it sounds lovely. My favorite Beatles books and films are the ones that get geeky about the music. Of course I'm interested in the rest of the ephemera as well, but I think you can see where my interests really lie.

  11. Ordered it from the statewide library catalog; looking forward to getting it.