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“TOMORROW NEVER KNOWS”
(John Lennon – Paul McCartney)
A five month break from the studio for a popular recording group is usually a refreshing experience used to reassess their artistic direction. An example that is a little more recent is Coldplay, who have habitually taken huge amounts of time away from the recording studio and have released albums with three year gaps in-between. This has actually become quite standard as time has progressed. For the music industry of the 60’s, however, five months was an eternity.
The thirteen hour marathon session of November 11th, 1965 yielded two amazingly melodic pop standards and the finishing touches to two others, all of which graced the masterpiece album “Rubber Soul.” John Lennon’s main contribution on this day, namely the beautifully poignant “Girl,” exhibited a lyrical maturity that appeared to pave the way for further innovations from its composer. His creativity at this point was admittedly being fueled by his frequent use of softer drugs such as marijuana, but John's obsession with LSD in 1966 was to change his songwriting output drastically.
I can’t imagine anyone expecting what was next to come from the pen of Mr. Lennon nearly five months later. It seems that even his fellow band-mates were equally flabbergasted, but eager to blaze this new trail. Probably never before in pop music history could a five month break result in such a flagrant new direction as did the unveiling of what became “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, co-authors of "The Psychedelic Experience" (circa 1960)
The inspiration for the song came from a book entitled “The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based On The Tibetan Book Of The Dead.” This book was published in August of 1964 by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass, author of the classic 1971 book “Be Here Now”).
According to Steve Turner’s book “A Hard Day’s Write,” Timothy Leary “had spent seven months in the Himalayas studying Tibetan Buddhism under Lama Govinda. (The book) was a direct result of this period of study.” Leary himself explains: “’Book Of The Dead’ really means ‘Book Of The Dying’ but it’s your ego rather than your body which is dying. The book is a classic. It’s the Bible of Tibetan Buddhism. The concept of Buddhism is of the void and of reaching the void.” The authors admittedly intended the book for use along with experiencing psychedelic drugs (the final chapter entitled “Instructions For Use During a Psychedelic Session” being a dead giveaway) which were then starting to become quite popular.
Barry Miles, who was a close friend of The Beatles, ran Indica Books in London and, per a request from the group, sent them significant literature concerning the counter-culture when he obtained them. Having received this publication from Miles, John Lennon took it with him on his vacation to Trinidad in January of 1966. Before his flight, he recorded a spoken word tape in the attic studio of his Kenwood home which was to be used for his intended purpose of personally delving deeper into the LSD experience. In the book "The Psychedelic Experience," Timothy Leary suggests making such a tape to play back to yourself during an acid trip the moment you sence you're moving into a dangerous course, which was John's experience in past trips. With the final chapter of the book in front of him, Lennon recorded the following message to himself:
"O John Lennon - The time has come for you to seek new levels of reality. Your ego and the rock and roll game are about to cease. You are about to set face to face with the Clear Light...That which is called ego-death is coming to you. This is now the hour of death and rebirth...Do not fear it. Surrender to it. Join it. It is part of you. You are part of it...Remember also: Beyond the restless flowing electricity of life is the ultimate reality - The Void."
According to Rolling Stone’s “The Beatles: 100 Greatest Songs” issue, "Lennon ran a tape recorder and read passages from (the book) as he was flying (to Trinidad). He was soon writing a song using some of the actual lines from Leary, including his description of the state of grace beyond reality. Lennon even used it as a working title: ‘The Void.’" As stated in Albert Goldman's book "The Lives Of John Lennon," "The Void" was "the term employed by translators of the 'Tibetan Book Of The Dead' for the region in which the soul finds itself after death."
Having taken at least two LSD trips by this time (and undoubtedly taking his third while reading from the book on the plane), John was definitely curious about how to acquire the best experience possible. “Round about this time,” Paul recalls, “people were starting to experiment with drugs, including LSD. John had got hold of Timothy Leary’s adaptation of ‘The Tibetan Book Of The Dead,’ which is a pretty interesting book. For the first time we got the idea that, as with ancient Egyptian practice, when you die you lie in state for a few days, and then some of your handmaidens come and prepare you for a huge voyage. Rather than the British version, in which you just pop your clogs. With LSD, this theme was all the more interesting.”
“Leary was the one going round saying, ‘take it, take it, take it,’” Lennon remembered in 1980, "and we followed his instructions in his ‘how to take a trip’ book. I did it just like he said in the book, and then I wrote ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’ which was almost the first acid song: ‘Lay down all thought, surrender to the void,’ and all that sh*t which Leary had pinched from ‘The Book Of The Dead.’" As also stated in Albert Goldman's book "The Lives Of John Lennon," "Virtually every word and idea in this song...was derived directly from Leary's book, starting with the famous first line, taken verbatim from the instruction for dealing with panic on an acid trip: 'Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream.'"
Lennon continues, “I read George Martin was saying that John was into ‘The Book Of The Dead.’ I’d never seen it in my life. I just saw Leary’s psychedelic handout – it was very nice in them days.” In actuality, it appears that The Beatles themselves were promoting it in this way. “The words are from ‘The Tibetan Book Of The Dead,’ so there,” McCartney said in an August, 1966 interview. They may have wanted to hide the Timothy Leary/drug connections this early in their career.
Paul relinquishes any doubt as to who was the entire composer of this track by saying: “The final track on ‘Revolver,’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’ was definitely John’s.” He does, however, remember the song’s first display for all to hear. In his book “Many Years From Now,” Paul states: “I remember John coming to Brian Epstein’s house at 24 Chapel Street, in Belgravia. We got back together after a break, and we were there for a meeting. George Martin was there so it may have been to show George some new songs or talk about the new album. John got his guitar out and started doing ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and it was all on one chord. This was because of our interest in Indian music. We would be sitting around and at the end of an Indian album we’d go, ‘Did anyone realize they didn’t change chords?’ It would be like ‘Sh*t, it was all in E! Wow, man, that is pretty far out.’ So we began to sponge up a few of these nice ideas.”
“This is one thing I always gave George Martin great credit for. He was a slightly older man and we were pretty far out, but he didn’t flinch at all when John played it to him, he just said, ‘Hmmm, I see, yes. Hmm hmm.’ He could have said, ‘Bloody hell, it’s terrible!’ I think George was always intrigued to see what direction we’d gone in, probably in his mind thinking, ‘How can I make this into a record?’ But by that point he was starting to trust that we must know vaguely what we were doing, but the material was really outside of his realm.”
Claiming it as “my first psychedelic song” in 1972, John created the first Beatles track with obvious LSD overtones, unlike what most people would think. “That was an LSD song,” said Paul in 1984, adding, “Probably the only one. People always thought ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ was but it actually wasn’t meant to say LSD.”
“The Void” was apparently a little too deep of a title for the song, so John looked elsewhere to name his masterpiece. “I took one of Ringo’s malapropisms as the title,” he explains, “to take the edge off the heavy philosophical lyrics.” George Harrison explains: “Ringo would always say grammatically incorrect phrases and we’d all laugh.” Ringo admits: “I used to, while I was saying one thing, have another thing come into my brain and move down fast…’Tomorrow Never Knows’ was something I said. God knows where it came from…John used to like them most. He always used to write them down…I seem to be better now.”
An interview by David Coleman of BBC Television in 1964 does well in shedding some light on when Ringo used the phrase. When asked to relate the circumstances at the Embassy Ball in America where someone reportedly snipped off some of his hair with a pair of scissors, Ringo responded: “I was just talking, having an interview…and I looked ‘round, and there were about 400 people just smiling. So, you know, what can you say?” John: “What Can You Say?” Ringo: “Tomorrow never knows.”
As was usually the case in The Beatles recording history, the first song to be tackled for a new album was a Lennon creation. April 6th, 1966 was that first session for what became the “Revolver” album, the session beginning at 8 pm in EMI Studio Three.
One noteworthy new element in the mix on this day was the use of 20-year-old Geoff Emerick as primary engineer. Norman Smith had been The Beatles engineer for the vast majority of their sessions up to this point but, because of his promotion to producer (new band Pink Floyd being one of his first artists), advantage was taken to get some "young blood" in the studio to help satisfy The Beatles’ cravings for innovations in the recording process. Having worked with them on various occasions in the past as 2nd engineer, the group was somewhat familiar with him personally. His new role as primary engineer would test his creativity and ultimately win them over as one who could fulfill their quest for expanding their sonic landscape.
Being such a landmark day in his career, Geoff Emerick remembers the events of this day with exceptional clarity, his book “Here, There And Everywhere” giving amazing detail and is a must read to get a full picture, highlights of which I’ll include here. “John was deep in discussion with George Martin,” Emerick relates, “clearly the first song we were going to be working on was one of his. He had no title for it at the time, so the tape box was simply labeled 'Mark I.'” He apparently later had misgivings about using the title “The Void” as roadie Neil Aspinall leaked to the world through the group’s monthly fan magazine.
Emerick continues: “’This one’s completely different than anything we’ve ever done before,’ John was saying to George Martin. ‘It’s only got the one chord, and the whole thing is meant to be like a drone.’…My ears perked up when I heard John’s final direction to George: ‘…and I want my voice to sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a mountaintop, miles away.’”
George Martin remembers: “So, I thought, ‘I wonder what time the next plane is to Tibet.’ But, I thought, that was one way of doing it.” Geoff Emerick continues, “George Martin looked over at me with a nod and he reassured John. ‘Got it. I’m sure Geoff and I will come up with something.’ Which meant, of course, that he was sure Geoff would come up with something. I looked around the room in a panic. I thought I had a vague idea of what John wanted, but I had no clear sense of how to achieve it.”
“Fortunately, I had a little time to think about it, because John decided to start the recording process by having me make a loop of him playing a simple guitar figure, with Ringo accompanying him on drums…Because John wanted a thunderous sound, the decision was made to play the part at a fast tempo and then slow the tape down on playback: this would serve not only to return the tempo to the desired speed but also to make the guitar and drums – and the reverb they were drenched in – sound otherworldly.” Paul also experimented with playing some piano on the song which got caught on tape, although it was decided not to be appropriate for the song…at least at this point.
“The studio’s Hammond organ was hooked up to a system called a Leslie – a large wooden box that contained an amp and two sets of revolving speakers,” Geoff continues, “one that carried low bass frequencies and the other that carried high treble frequencies…nobody had ever put a vocal through it…’I think I have an idea about what to do for John’s voice,’ I announced to George in the control room as we finished editing the loop. Excitedly, I explained my concept to him. Though his brows furrowed for a moment, he nodded his assent. Then he went out into the studio and told the four Beatles, who were standing around impatiently waiting for the loop to be constructed, to take a tea break while ‘Geoff sorts out something for the vocal.’”
After the required wiring was complete, two microphones were placed near the speakers and tests were run. The Beatles were then informed that they were ready to give it a try. “John settled behind the mic and Ringo behind his kit, ready to overdub vocals and drums on top of the recorded loop,” Emerick continues. “Paul and George Harrison headed up to the control room. Once everyone was in place and ready to go, George Martin got on the talkback mic: ‘Stand by…here it comes.’ Then Phil (McDonald) started the loop playing back. Ringo began playing along, hitting the drums with a fury, and John began singing, eyes closed, head back.”
“’Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream…’ Lennon’s voice sounded like it never had before, eerily disconnected, distant yet compelling. The effect seemed to perfectly complement the esoteric lyrics he was chanting. Everyone in the control room…looked stunned. Through the glass we could see John begin smiling. At the end of the first verse, he gave an exuberant thumbs-up and McCartney and Harrison began slapping each other on the back. ‘It’s the Dalai Lennon!’ Paul shouted…’That is bloody marvelous,’ (John) kept saying over and over again.”
“John was so impressed by the sound of a Leslie that he hit upon the reverse idea,” Emerick recalls in the book “The Beatles Recording Sessions.” “He suggested we suspend him from a rope in the middle of the studio ceiling, put a mike in the middle of the floor, give him a push and he’d sing as he went around and around. That was one idea that didn’t come off although they were always said to be ‘looking into it’!”
The above description, the guitar/drum tape loop with overdubbed drums and lead vocal, is what was referred to as ‘take one,’ this appearing on the 1996 release “Anthology 2,” George Martin’s voice on the talkback mic and all. This historic recording was eagerly anticipated by most fans upon its eventual release, being cited in Mark Lewisohn’s “The Beatles Recording Sessions” as “a sensational, apocalyptic version…a heavy metal recording of enormous proportion, with thundering echo and booming, quivering, ocean-bed vibrations.” But, with the overdubbed vocals and drumming getting hopelessly out of sync with the pre-recorded tape loop, a decision was made to start from scratch. They, of course, were anxious to keep the Leslie vocal effect for the finished product.
"Now, that's alternative! That's cool!", Paul explaimed while listening to a playback of this early version of the song during his 2021 Hulu documentary series "McCartney 3,2,1." "Pretty stones, if you ask me! As time went on we had much more freedom. We had much longer to do things. But it actually spurred us on to do some new stuff, so the drum sound on this is, I love it! It's a really great Ringo sound."
With the juices flowing, they immediately began to come up with more ideas. “I’d imagined, in my head, that in the background you could hear thousands of monks chanting,” Lennon explained in 1967. “That was impractical, of course, and we did something different. I should have tried to get near my original idea, the monks singing. I realize now that was what I wanted.”
More ideas were flowing at this point. “While they were listening to the first playback,” Emerick continues, “John and George Harrison had been excitedly discussing ideas for guitar parts. Harrison eagerly suggested that a tamboura – one of his new collection of Indian instruments – be added. ‘It’s perfect for this track, John,’ he was explaining in his deadpan monotone. ‘It’s just kind of a droning sound and I think it will make the whole thing quite Eastern.’ Lennon was nodding his head. You could tell he liked the idea.”
“But my attention was drawn to Paul and Ringo, who were huddled together talking about the drumming…Paul was suggesting that ‘Ring’ (as we usually called him) add a little skip to the basic beat he was playing. The pattern he was tapping out on the mixing console was somewhat reminiscent of the one Ringo had played on their recent hit single ‘Ticket To Ride.’ Ringo said little, but listened intently…he was used to taking direction from the others.”
With the intention of creating a new sound for Beatles recordings, following the earlier admonition from John about the song being “completely different than anything we’ve ever done before,” Geoff Emerick decided to break standard EMI procedures and mic the drums differently. “Without saying a word, I quietly slipped out to the studio and moved both the snare drum mic and the single overhead mic in close. But before I also moved the microphone that was aimed at Ringo’s bass drum, there was something else I wanted to try, because I felt that the bass drum was ringing too much…Sitting atop one of the instrument cases was an old woolen sweater – one which had been specially knitted with eight arms to promote the group’s recent film, which was originally called ‘Eight Arms To Hold You’…I removed the bass drum’s front skin – the one with the famous ‘dropped-T’ Beatles logo on it – and stuffed the sweater inside so that it was flush against the rear beater skin. Then I replaced the front skin and positioned the bass drum mic directly in front of it, angled down slightly but so close that it was almost touching.”
Shortly afterwards, “take two” began. “’Ready John?’ asked Martin. A nod from Lennon signaled that he was about to begin his count-in, so I instructed (2nd engineer) Phil McDonald to roll tape. ‘…two, three, four,’ intoned John, and then Ringo entered with a furious cymbal crash and bass drum hit. It sounded magnificent! Thirty seconds in, someone in the band made a mistake, though, and they all stopped playing…I quickly announced ‘take three’ on the talkback microphone and the group began playing the song again, perfectly this time around.”
“’I think we’ve got it,’ John announced excitedly after the last note dies away. George Martin waved everyone into the control room to hear the playback…’What on earth did you do to my drums?’ Ringo was asking me. ‘They sound fantastic!’ Paul and John began whooping it up, and even the normally dour George Harrison was smiling broadly. ‘That’s the one, boys,’ George Martin agreed, nodding in my direction.”
So ended the recording session for the night, the rhythm track being completed which consisted of Ringo on drums, George on guitar, Paul on bass and John on vocals. His vocals were sung in the conventional single-tracked manner for the first three lyrical phrases of the song and then through the rotating Leslie speaker for the remainder. All overdubs were left over for the following session on the next day. However, before this session ended at 1:15 am, an assignment of sorts was given to each of the group to prepare for the next days’ recording session.
“Everybody went home and made up a spool, a loop,” explains George Harrison. "’OK, class, now I want you all to go home and come back in the morning with your own loop.’ We were touching on the Stockhausen kind of ‘avant garde a clue’ music."
"You know that you could talk to George about these things," Paul explained in his "McCartney 3,2,1" documentary. "'George, what if we played it backwards and then what if we did that?' 'Well...' and he'd sort of would go along with it. Because a lot of other producers on EMI, I'm sure they would have just said, 'Another time, let's get the record done,' y'know, and wouldn't have been interested in backwards noises or tape loops. I had an old tape recorded that you could put, make a loop instead of the two reels of tape. You could (make) a little loop that would go round and round and round. There's a little button that says, 'superimpose.' It keeps recording forever and ever and ever and ever. Now, once you've gone 'round, what was there is still there but it's now going in the background a bit. It's a bit of an art because you've got to know when to stop...you gotta sort of stop soon because you're gonna wipe out those original ideas."”
“It was Paul, actually, who experimented with his tape machine at home,” remembers George Martin, “taking the erase-head off and putting on loops, saturating the tape with weird sounds. He explained to the other boys how he had done this and Ringo and George would do the same and bring me different loops of sounds, and I would listen to them at various speeds, backwards and forwards, and select some.”
“I was into tape loops at the time,” explains Paul. “I had two Brennell machines and I could create tape loops with them...I used to get a lot of seagulls in my loops; a speeded-up shout, hah ha, goes squawk squawk. And I always get pictures of seasides, of Torquay, the Torbay Inn, fishing boats and puffins and deep purple mountains. Those were the slowed-down ones.”
“So we made up our little loops and brought them to the studio,” George Harrison continues. “Those ‘seagulls’ were just weird noises. I don’t exactly recall what was on my loop. I think it was a grandfather clock, but at a different speed. You could do it with anything: pick a little piece and then edit it, connect it up to itself and play it at a different speed.”
Even Ringo got in on the act. “I had my own little set-up to record them. As George says, we were ‘drinking a lot of tea’ in those days, and on all my tapes you can hear, ‘Oh, I hope I’ve switched it on.’ I’d get so deranged from strong tea. I’d sit there for hours making those noises.”
Geoff Emerick explains the process of making these loops in a little more detail: “Paul…had discovered that the erase head could be removed, which allowed new sounds to be added to the existing ones each time the tape passed over the record head. Because of the primitive technology of the time, the tape quickly became saturated with sound and distorted, but it was an effect that appealed to the four of them as they conducted sonic experiments in their respective homes.”
At 2:30 pm the following day, April 7th, 1966, the group entered EMI Studio Three once again armed and ready to add numerous overdubs to the previous day's rhythm track. “Paul had gone home and sat up all night creating a whole series of short tape loops specifically for the song,” Emerick continues, “which he dutifully presented to me in a little plastic bag when he returned for the next day’s session. We began the second evening’s work by having Phil McDonald carefully thread each loop onto the tape machine, one at a time, so that we could audition them. Paul had assembled an extraordinary collection of bizarre sounds, which included his playing distorted guitar and bass, as well as wineglasses ringing and other indecipherable noises. We played them every conceivable way: proper speed, sped up, slowed down, backwards, forwards. Every now and then, one of The Beatles would shout, ‘That’s a good one,’ as we played through the lot. Eventually five of the loops were selected to be added to the basic backing track.”
According to Ian MacDonald’s book “Revolution In The Head,” the five loops, numbered according to their first appearance in the song, can be identified as follows: “(1) a ‘seagull’/’Red Indian’ effect (actually McCartney laughing) made, like most of the other loops, by superimposition and acceleration (0:07); (2) an orchestral chord of B flat major (0:19); (3) a Mellotron played on its flute setting (0:22); (4) another Mellotron oscillating in 6/8 from B flat to C on its string setting (0:38) and (5) a rising scalar phrase on a sitar, recorded with heavy saturation and acceleration (0:56).” Since the fifth of these loops was made on a sitar, we can rightfully assume that this was the creation of George Harrison, debunking the credit from Geoff Emerick to McCartney of supplying all of the loops used on the song. Or, as some claim, this sitar-like phrase may have been played on the guitar and could possibly have also been recorded and supplied by Paul. However, neither the “wineglasses” loop nor the "grandfather clock" loop was deemed good enough to make the final cut.
Then came the dilemma of inserting these loops into the master recording. “We had six fellows with pencils holding them on, on six machines. Very desirable, the whole effect, I thought,” explained John back in 1966. Paul adds: “We got machines from all the other studios, and with pencils and the aid of glasses got all the loops to run. We might have had twelve recording machines where we normally only needed one to make a record. We were running with those loops all fed through the recording desk.”
“Fortunately, there were plenty of other machines in the Abbey Road complex,” Geoff Emerick relates, “all interconnected via wiring in the walls, and all the other studios just happened to be empty that afternoon. What followed next was a scene that could have come out a science fiction movie – or a Monty Python sketch. Every tape machine in every studio was commandeered and every available EMI employee was given the task of holding a pencil or drinking glass to give the loops the proper tensioning. In many instances, this meant they had to be standing out in the hallway, looking quite sheepish. Most of those people didn’t have a clue what we were doing; they probably thought we were daft…add in the fact that all of the technical staff were required to wear white lab coats, and the whole thing became totally surreal.”
“Meanwhile, back in the control room, George Martin and I huddled over the console, raising and lowering faders to shouted instructions from John, Paul, George and Ringo. (‘Let’s have that seagull sound now!’...) With each fader carrying a different loop, the mixing desk acted like a synthesizer, and we played it like a musical instrument, too, carefully overdubbing textures to the prerecorded backing track. Finally we completed the task to the band’s satisfaction, the white-coated technicians were freed from their labors, and Paul’s loops were retured back to the plastic bag, never to be played again.”
Although John didn’t get his chanting monks, he did get something else he wanted on this day. “We were always asking George Martin, ‘Please give us double tracking without having to track it – save time,’” recalls Lennon. “And then one of the engineers who was working with us came in the next day with this machine. We’d got ADT – and that was beautiful.” Ken Townsend was that maintenance engineer, who later explained: “They often liked to double-track their vocals but it’s quite a laborious process and they soon got fed up with it. So after one particularly trying night-time session doing just that, I was driving home and I suddenly had an idea…”
His idea was “Artificial Double Tracking” (or ADT for short). The book “The Beatles Recording Sessions” explains: “ADT is a process whereby a recording signal is taken from the playback head of a tape machine, is recorded onto a separate machine which has a variable oscillator (enabling the speed to be altered) and then fed back into the first machine to be combined with the original signal…One voice laid perfectly on top of another produces one image. But move the second voice by just a few milli-seconds and two separate images emerge.” Almost all of the tracks on “Revolver” utilized ADT, “Tomorrow Never Knows” being one of them. John’s conventionally recorded vocal in the first half of the song, as recorded the previous day, had ADT applied to it, this being the first time it was used in recording history.
More overdubs were added as well. Ringo overdubbed a tambourine throughout a good portion of the song, John double-tracked his vocal despite ADT having already been applied to it (probably just force of habit), and an organ, which is attributed by many sources to having been played by Lennon. George Harrison explains the purpose of the organ overdub: “Indian music doesn’t modulate, it just stays. You pick what key you’re in, and it stays in that key. I think ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ was the first one that stayed there, the whole song was on one chord. But there is a chord that is superimposed on top that does change: if it was in C, it changes down to B flat. That was like an overdub, but the basic sound all hangs on the one drone.”
The overdubbed organ plays this B flat chord in the fifth and sixth measures of most of the verses (for instance, during the lyrics “It is not dyinnnng…”) and then it plays a C chord during the seventh and (sometimes) eighth measures to return to the droning home key of the song. This is added to the dissonant wail of the “orchestral chord” loop that also appears during the sixth and seventh measure of most verses. The coupling of these two elements simultaneously produces the desired effect, something similar also being added to George’s song “Love You To” a few days later. At 7:15 pm, after nearly five hours of history being made, the group took an hour break before beginning work on a new McCartney composition entitled “Got To Get You Into My Life.” “Mark I,” as “Tomorrow Never Knows” was still referred to as, still had finishing touches to be made to it at a later date.
This later date, after work on seven more songs transpired, was April 22nd, 1966. They entered EMI Studio Two at 2:30 pm and began the session adding overdubs to George’s second composition for “Revolver,” namely “Taxman,” and then resumed work on “Mark I” at around 7:30 pm. It appears that the primary overdub on this day concerned George Harrison.
“George Harrison showed up with the tamboura he had so eagerly talked of during the first night’s session,” recalls Geoff Emerick. “Actually, he’d been talking about it almost nonstop since then, so everyone was really curious to see the thing. He staggered into the studio under its weight – it’s a huge instrument, and the case was the size of a small coffin – and brought it out with a grand gesture, displaying it proudly as we gathered around.”
“’What do you think to that, then”’ he asked everyone in sight. Not willing to trust his precious cargo to either of the two roadies, he had actually stuffed the tamboura case in the backseat of one of his Porsches, which he parked right in front of the main entrance so he could carry the instrument by hand up the steps…Having seen how well Paul’s loops had worked, George wanted to contribute one of his own, so I recorded him playing a single note on the huge instrument – again using a close-miking technique – and turned it into a loop. It ended up becoming the sound that opens the track.”
John also apparently re-recorded his Leslie-speaker vocal part that ends the song on this day, but another interesting overdub was also recorded. The five loops were to act as the “solo” of the song but, after more listening; a decision was made to spruce it up a little more. The first four measures of the solo section premiered the tamboura loop, but afterwards they spliced in something that was recorded the previous day. According to “Revolution In The Head,” “The second half of the instrumental break consists of parts of McCartney’s guitar solo for ‘Taxman’ slowed down a tone, cut up, and run backwards…The tell-tale octave leap on D of the ‘Taxman’ solo can be heard on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ (reversed and transposed down to C) at 1:15.”
There was one final touch added to complete the song. “Another sonic component,” Geoff explains, “the little bit of tack piano at the end was a fluke. It actually came from a trial we did on the first take, when the group were just putting ideas down, but Paul heard it during one of the playbacks and suggested that we fly it into the fadeout, and it worked perfectly.” With this complete by 11:30 pm, the song was deemed acceptable to all and was destined for mixing in the near future.
According to the liner notes of the remastered 2009 compact disc release of “Revolver,” the master four-track tape contains the following components: “Drums, bass and guitar were sent to track one; the sounds of tape loops were on two; a double-track vocal, tambourine, organ and backwards guitar were on three; and four had the lead vocal and a sitar (actually, tamboura).”
The mono mix that was released to the world was made just five days later on April 27th, 1966 in the control room of EMI Studio Three by George Martin, Geoff Emerick and Phil McDonald. Still using the title “Mark I,” nine mono mixes of the song were made on this day, mix eight being the released version. Generally, the effect loops, which are all on track two of the master tape, are faded up and down without much transition while the backward guitar solo sounds highly processed.
On May 16th, 1966, tape copying of finished “Revolver” tracks was done to assemble a master reel. This was done in the control room of EMI Studio Two by the same EMI team using mono mix eight as performed on April 27th.
On June 6th, 1966, another crack was made at a mono mix for “Tomorrow Never Knows,” as the song was finally decided to be called. The same EMI team assembled in the control room of EMI Studio Three for this procedure which also produced more usable mono mixes of other tracks for the album. Three more attempts at a mono mix for the song were made (ten through twelve), mix eleven being deemed best. Interestingly, even though this new mono mix was cut-out for the master tape of the album, a phone call was made on the day that the album went to the cutting room (July 14th) from George Martin to engineer Geoff Emerick. He decided that “mix eight,” made on April 27th, was better after all and should be used on the mono album.
However, the phone call must have came a little too late because the very first pressing of the British album contained “mix eleven,” which is markedly different and therefore quite rare today. Noticeable differences include the vocals being somewhat more prominent in the mix, the backward guitar solo not having the “processed” sound and missing the final guitar phrase, and the piano fade-out being noticeably longer. This rare first pressing has the matrix code “XEX 606-1” pressed in the run-out groove of side two of the album, whereas later pressings have “606-2” or “606-3.”
The stereo mix of the song was made on the final day of work on the “Revolver” album, namely June 22nd, 1966. Martin, Emerick and 2nd engineer Jerry Boys put together the final mixes for the album, one of the six stereo mixes made on this day being the released stereo version. The loop effects are faded in more gradually throughout the mix while a curious feedback sound is heard when John’s Leslie vocals come in with the words “that love is all.”
The original rhythm track of drums, guitar, bass and vocals, along with the tamboura loop, are centered in the mix, while the effect loops are heard primarily in the left channel except for the first four measures of the instrumental section of the song when the loops are centered. (Note that the #4 loop, the oscillating Mellotron, is centered in the mix for a split second before it is hurriedly panned back to the left channel.) Track three of the master tape, which contains the tambourine, organ, double-tracked vocal, backwards guitar solo and piano ending, is exclusively on the right channel.
Song Structure and Style
Being the most unconventionally structured song in The Beatles catalog to date, it consists of only verses (if John even considered them as verses at all). Since his intention was to mimic the Indian music they were coming to admire in early 1966, the format used on this track completely diverted their attention away from any pop structure with normal bridges, refrains or choruses. Even the ultra-Eastern songs “Love You To” and “Within You Without You” included refrains. However, “Tomorrow Never Knows” did include an instrumental section, so the structure ends up as ‘verse/ verse/ verse/ instrumental/ verse/ verse/ verse/ verse’ (or aaabaaaa). And of course, a droning introduction and conclusion round out the proceedings.
The song begins with a faded in (see “Eight Days A Week”) tamboura loop which then is heard as a backdrop throughout the recording. A four-measure introduction is then heard, the downbeat introducing the drums, bass and almost indecipherable guitar of the rhythm track holding the C chord while an overdubbed tambourine taps out accents. Measures three and four of this introduction debuts the first home-made loop, Paul’s “seagull” loop.
The first eight-measure verse then begins with John’s ADT treated double-tracked lead vocals, which are sung in a labored pattern that loosely ties into the beat of the song. Measures five and six feature the second home-made loop, this being the “orchestral” B flat major loop that gives the effect of a change of chords to the song. An overdubbed organ is also heard playing B flat major at this point, it then switching to C in the eighth measure. The seventh and eighth measure introduces the “mellotron flute” loop for the first time.
Verse two begins immediately afterward which displays three loops, measures three and four bring the “seagull” loop, measures five and six – the “orchestral” loop and organ overdub, and measures seven and eight introduce the “mellotron strings” loop for the first time. Verse three then comes in with measures three and four displaying an overlap of the “mellotron flute” and “mellotron strings” loop. Then measures five and six bring back the “orchestral” loop while the seventh and eighth measure displays the “mellotron strings” loop by itself. On John’s final repeat of the word “being” in the seventh measure, his double-tracking vocal disappears as does the tambourine and organ overdub.
Then comes the sixteen-measure instrumental section which displays the fifth of the home-made loops for the first time, this being the “sitar” loop which is panned to the center of the stereo mix and played at a much louder volume than the other loops – understandably since this is the beginning of the “solo” section of the song. This loop comprises measures one through four of this section, then giving way to the “mellotron strings” loop for measures five and six.
For the final ten measures of the instrumental section, Paul’s backward lead guitar passages are sprinkled in as highlights amidst the continual interjections of the previous loops. The “seagull” loop is heard in measures seven and eight, the “orchestral loop” in measures nine and ten, the “mellotron flute” loop in measures eleven and twelve, the “orchestral loop” in measures thirteen and fourteen, the “mellotron flute” loop in measure fifteen, and finally a quick reprise of the “sitar” loop in measure sixteen.
The eight-measure fourth verse then appears with John’s voice coming through the Leslie speaker cabinet for the first time, as it will now for the remainder of the song. The feedback sound is heard in the first measure which, coincidentally (perhaps), marks the exact middle of this three-minute song. The “sitar” loop appears once again and fades in and out throughout measures three through eight, replacing the “orchestral” loop that we normally would hear in the fifth and sixth measures.
Next comes verse five which features the “mellotron strings” loop in measures three and four. The “orchestral” loop returns to its proper place in measures five and six this time around, as does the tambourine and organ overdub track. Measures seven and eight brings back the “mellotron strings” loop to round out the verse.
Verse six features the “seagull” loop once again, which is heard on top of John’s vocals in measures one and two and continues in increased volume in measures three and four. Measures five and six have the “orchestral” loop with the organ overdub while measures seven and eight feature the “mellotron flute” loop.
Verse seven reprises the “sitar” loop at various volumes throughout all eight measures while the “orchestral” loop also occurs in measures five and six as usual. This time around, though, John’s words “of the beginning” is repeated five more times (totaling seven) which comprise the eleven-measure conclusion of the song. The “orchestral loop” and overdubbed organ is heard on every odd numbered repeat of the word “beginning” to simulate a switch back and forth from B flat major to C until the conclusion of the song. Also heard in the conclusion is the “mellotron strings” loop (measures one through four) and the “seagull” loop (measures five through eleven). At the very end of measure eight we hear Paul begin his “tack piano” vamping which continues as the rhythm track concludes and the “seagull” loop extends. The sound collage fades with the piano switching back and forth between C and B flat major while the “sitar” loop is heard one final time.
And then John, Paul and George harmonize the words “yeah, yeah, yeah.” Or, maybe not.
“I was proud of my drumming on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’” states Ringo, “but I was quite proud of my drumming all the way through really.” Proud he should be, exhibiting perfectly the suggestions from Paul for this track. George’s rhythm guitar work may not be distinguishable on the finished piece, but his tamboura drone throughout the song gives a distinctive Harrison touch to the proceedings.
John’s initial vision for the song may have been quite different than what eventually appeared on the “Revolver” album (alas, no chanting monks), but he was quite pleased with the results at the time in interviews and, as most Beatles fans would attest, he perfectly captured the LSD-cum-enlightenment imagery he was looking for. Great other-worldly vocals – that’s what makes “Tomorrow Never Knows” a remarkable milestone in recorded music.
John’s vision, however, saw true fruition with the help of his partner-in-crime. Paul’s homespun take loops and droning bass playing, not to mention his piano doodling at the end, helped bring their 60’s experience to the light of day. The Beatles were still a true cooperative team at this point in their career without a doubt. As stated in Albert Goldman's book "The Lives Of John Lennon," "As for the astonishing musical setting (of 'Tomorrow Never Knows'), it is an effort to realize as literally as possibly Leary's description of the sounds heard on acid. Leary wrote that acid produces 'swooshing, crackling and pounding noises.' Lennon and (George) Martin followed that description faithfully. The squiggling, barbed-wire strings crackle, the waves of electronic sound swoosh, and a primitive, upppercutting tribal drum pounds."
As for an interpretation of the lyrics, this is best left to George Harrison himself: “The lyrics are the essence of Transcendentalism…Basically it is saying what meditation is all about. The goal of meditation is to go beyond (that is, transcend) waking, sleeping and dreaming…From birth to death all we ever do is think; we have one thought, we have another thought, another thought, another thought. Even when you are asleep you are having dreams, so there is never a time from birth to death when the mind isn’t always active with thoughts. But you can turn off your mind, and go to the part which Maharishi described as ‘Where was your last thought before you thought it?’”
“The whole point is that we are the song. The self is coming from a state of pure awareness, from the state of being. All the rest that comes about in the outward manifestation of the physical world (including all the fluctuations which end up as thoughts and actions) is just clutter. The true nature of each soul is pure consciousness. So the song is really about transcending and about the quality of the transcendent. I am not too sure if John actually fully understood what he was saying. He knew he was onto something when he saw those words and turned them into a song. But to have experienced what the lyrics in that song are actually about? I don’t know if he fully understood it.”
August 8th, 1966 was the official US release of the eleven-track “Revolver” album which featured “Tomorrow Never Knows” as the piece de resistance – that is, the final track of the album. It can be assumed that everyone involved with the making of the album intended the song to close the album. After all, could you even picture it anywhere else in the line-up? This American version of the "Revolver" album got a compact disc release on January 21st, 2014, with both the mono and stereo versions contained on a single CD.
Sometime in 1967, Capitol released Beatles music on a brand new but short-lived format called "Playtapes." These tape cartridges did not have the capability to include entire albums, so two truncated four-song versions of "Revolver" were released in this portable format, "Tomorrow Never Knows" being on one of these. These "Playtapes" are highly collectable today.
The first time the original British "Revolver” album was made available in the US was the "Original Master Recording" vinyl edition released through Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab sometime in 1985. This album included "Tomorrow Never Knows" and was prepared utilizing half-speed mastering technology from the original master tape on loan from EMI. This version of the album was only available for a short time and is quite collectible today.
America received the full fourteen-track “Revolver” album on compact disc on April 30th, 1987, a vinyl edition being released on July 21st, 1987. The album was then remastered and re-released on CD on September 9th, 2009 and on vinyl on November 13th, 2012.
On March 18th, 1996, the highly anticipated “Anthology 2” album was released which includes the never-before-heard (except for bootlegs) “take one” of “Tomorrow Never Knows.” The take is a composite of a drum/guitar loop with an overdub of drums and lead vocals as described above under “Recording History.” It was a noteworthy enough inclusion on this album to be featured in the vinyl “Anthology 2 Sampler” which was distributed to radio stations in conjunction with the national release of the CD set.
November 20th, 2006 was the US release of the compilation album “Love,” which was the soundtrack to the popular Cirque du Soleil show of the same name. It includes the brilliantly manufactured compilation track “Within You Without You / Tomorrow Never Knows,” which juxtaposes George’s vocals from the Sgt. Pepper track on top of many elements from “Tomorrow Never Knows.” George’s tamboura loop begins the track with John’s “turn off your mind…” verse heard a cappella amidst the “seagull” and “orchestral chord” loops. The characteristic drums and bass rhythm of the original track then begin while we’re surprised to hear George’s voice appear instead of John’s. The “seagull” loop is repeated later as well as the “sitar” loop during the closing seconds of the song.
An interesting demo/acetate release of the above "Within You Without You / Tomorrow Never Knows" mash-up has surfaced from about the same time, this being found on an official DVD. Find this one, collectors!
September 9th, 2009 was the release date for the box set “The Beatles In Mono,” which includes the second and most popular mono mix as originally released on the American “Revolver” album.
On July 24th, 2012, the iTunes Store, in partnership with EMI Records, released a Beatles compilation album entitled "Tomorrow Never Knows," the purpose of which was to highlight the group's influence on the history of rock music. The album had the approval of Paul and Ringo, as well as the board of directors for the estates of John and George, and was successful enough to peak at #24 on the Billboard album chart. "Tomorrow Never Knows" was such an obvious choice for this release that they chose it as the album's title.
As can be expected, it was impossible at the time to perform the song on stage – not that they ever had any aspirations to.
George Harrison explains: “As time went by, the technology we were now using on records didn’t allow us to play a lot of songs live on tour. In those days there was no technology on stage as there is now. There were two guitars, bass and drums, and that was it. If we did stuff in the studio with the aid or recording tricks, then we couldn’t reproduce them on tour. You could do it now. You could do ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ – have all the loops up there on the keyboards and emulators. You can have as many piano players and drummers and orchestras and whatever as you want; but back then, that was it.”
Paul and George Martin
“’Tomorrow Never Knows’ was a great innovation,” George Martin proudly recalls. “John wanted a very spooky kind of track, a very ethereal sound.” However, Paul is to be credited to a great degree for the vision needed to get John’s idea to what became the finished product. “Paul at that time was probably more avant-garde than the other boys,” George Martin continues. “We always think of John as being the avant-garde one, with Yoko and so on, but at the time Paul was heavily into Stockhausen and John Cage and all the avant-garde artists, while John was living a comfortable suburban life in Weybridge.”
While Paul never contested that “Tomorrow Never Knows” was a full John Lennon composition, his input was extremely instrumental in creating the psychedelic landscape that finished off the “Revolver” listening experience. Thus became another example of the brilliant Lennon / McCartney partnership – one that will never be equaled.
“Tomorrow Never Knows”
Written by: John Lennon / Paul McCartney
Song Written: January, 1966
Song Recorded: April 6, 7 and 22, 1966
First US Release Date: August 8, 1966
First US Album Release: Capitol #ST-2576 “Revolver”
US Single Release: n/a
Highest Chart Position: n/a
British Album Release: Parlophone #PCS 7009 “Revolver”
Length: 3:00 (3:02 - original mono mix)
Key: C major
Producer: George Martin
Engineers: Geoff Emerick, Phil McDonald
Instrumentation (most likely):
John Lennon - Lead Vocals, Organ (Hammond RT-3 w/ Leslie 145 cabinet)
Paul McCartney - Bass Guitar (1964 Rickenbacker 4001S), Backwards Lead Guitar (1962 Epiphone ES-230TD Casino), Piano (1964 Challen upright 861834), tape loops
George Harrison - Rhythm Guitar (1961 Sonic Blue Fender Stratocaster), tamboura, tape loop (?)
Ringo Starr – Drums (1964 Ludwig Super Classic Black Oyster Pearl), tambourine
Written and compiled by Dave Rybaczewski
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