Tomorrow Never Knows

Revolver album artworkWritten by: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: 6, 7, 22 April 1966
Producer: George Martin
Engineer: Geoff Emerick

Released: 5 August 1966 (UK), 8 August 1966 (US)

John Lennon: vocals, organ, tape loops
Paul McCartney: lead guitar, bass, tape loops
George Harrison: guitar, sitar, tambura, tape loops
Ringo Starr: drums, tambourine, tape loops
George Martin: piano

Available on:
Revolver
Anthology 2
Love

Tomorrow Never Knows, the monumental closing track on Revolver, was also the first to be recorded for the album.

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While the title, like A Hard Day’s Night, was a Ringoism particularly liked by Lennon, the lyrics were largely taken from The Psychedelic Experience, a 1964 book written by Harvard psychologists Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert which contained an adaptation of the ancient Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Lennon discovered The Psychedelic Experience at the Indica bookshop, co-owned by Barry Miles. In late March 1966 Lennon and McCartney visited the bookshop.

John wanted a book by what sounded like ‘Nitz Ga’. It took Miles a few minutes to realise that he was looking for the German philosopher Nietzsche, long enough for John to become convinced that he was being ridiculed. He launched into an attack on intellectuals and university students and was only mollified when Paul told him that he had not understood what John was asking for either, and that Miles was not a university graduate but had been to art college, just like him. Immediately friendly again, John talked about Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, laughing about his school magazine the Daily Howl: ‘Tell Ginsberg I did it first!’ Miles found him a copy of The Portable Nietzsche and John began to scan the shelves. His eyes soon alighted upon a copy of The Psychedelic Experience, Dr Timothy Leary’s psychedelic version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. John was delighted and settled down on the settee with the book. Right away, on page 14 in Leary’s introduction, he read, ‘Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream.’ He had found the first line of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, one of the Beatles’ most innovative songs.
Many Years From Now
Barry Miles

The full title of the book was The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based On The Tibetan Book Of The Dead. It was intended as a guidebook for those seeking spiritual enlightenment through the use of psychedelic drugs.

The final track on Revolver, Tomorrow Never Knows, was definitely John’s. Round about this time 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.
Paul McCartney
Anthology

According to the notorious biographer Albert Goldman, Lennon recorded himself reading the book’s paraphrase of the Tibetan Book of the Dead into a tape recorder. He played back the passage as the drug took hold, and was so enthralled by the result that he resolved to capture the LSD experience in song.

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 realise they didn’t change chords?’ It would be like ‘Shit, 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.

Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

The idea of basing a song on a single chord was something The Beatles had attempted with The Word, and was a direct result of their growing interest in Indian music.

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.
George Harrison
Anthology

Although it was initially known as The Void, Lennon knew that this would be too far out for the majority of The Beatles’ 1966 fans. So he settled on a phrase coined by Ringo Starr.

That’s me in my Tibetan Book of the Dead period. I took one of Ringo’s malapropisms as the title, to sort of take the edge off the heavy philosophical lyrics.
John Lennon
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

George Harrison later questioned whether Lennon fully understood the true meaning of the song’s lyrics.

You can hear (and I am sure most Beatles fans have) Tomorrow Never Knows a lot and not know really what it is about. Basically it is saying what meditation is all about. The goal of meditation is to go beyond (that is, transcend) waking, sleeping and dreaming. So the song starts out by saying, ‘Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream, it is not dying.’

Then it says, ‘Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void – it is shining. That you may see the meaning of within – it is being.’ 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.

George Harrison
Anthology

39 Responses to “Tomorrow Never Knows”

  1. Paul Bernays

    Very interesting how this article gathers up everything those involved in the creation of Tomorrow Never Knows have publicly said about the process. I find it fascinating that it was at McCartney’s instigation the group experimented with tape loops. In the finished song the loops form a crucial element of the extraordinary soundscape. It shows Paul making a major contribution to one of John’s songs, reportedly a more rare event by this stage in their career. Although A Day In The Life and We Can Work It Out are justly more celebrated examples of the pair melding ideas together in this way.

    Nevertheless, Tomorrow Never Knows’ foregrounded use of these tape loops – created in an experimental process driven way rather than a compositional one – supports Paul’s claim he was the first Beatle to take an interest in the avant garde.

    Reply
    • Ammar

      why Rare?!
      Paul Contribution to Beatles songs in studio is more than any other Beatle, even if the song was written by John or George.

      something any Beatles fan can notice clearly, but this fact is always ignored!

      Reply
      • Joseph Brush

        It should be mentioned that Paul lived practically around the corner from Abbey Road while the other Beatles had to motor from the burbs into the studio.
        Paul has spent the last 30 years reminding everyone of his considerable contributions so this fact has not been ignored.
        There are two or three Harrison songs that Paul contributed nothing or next to nothing.

        Reply
        • Jack Redding

          Also interesting to note that Paul had zero input into “She Said She Said” and it is, IMHO, the best song they recorded in 1966. Paul was reportedly AWOL after an argument and the George helped John finish up write the song, arrange it and play bass on the track.

          Which isn’t to say the song wouldn’t have been great with Paul’s assistance. Still, each one of the four Beatles was critical for the development of their sound. As much as I learned to enjoy Lennon and McCartney’s solo stuff, and as much as I immediately loved singles like “Imagine” and “Jet,” it took me a LONG time to appreciate many of the Beatles solo albums, because they seemed to alien to what the Beatles were about. Lennon seemed particularly keen to put any hint of psychedelia or baroque pop well behind himself, which was rather disappointing.

          Reply
    • Joseph Brush

      Paul was mainly avant garde when it was one of John’s songs.
      John wrote risk taking songs (or instigated them) for the Beatles.

      Reply
      • George

        Interestingly, it was Paul during their studio experimental days 1966-67 who is able to embellish alot of their songs with his electric guitar playing, most notably during the Sgt. Pepper album. Paul provides a nice guitar phrase towards the end of Strawberry fields, where frankly Harrison seemed either incappable or disinterested in providing that type of psychedelic, or even raw and biting leads. (dont get me wrong I love George, but he seemed to have a more difficult time sorting out solos, where Paul could knock parts off fairly quick. Maybe his left-handed approach had something to do with it.

        Reply
        • Joe

          Please, let’s not turn this comment thread into yet another Person A v Person B debate – it would be really helpful of you could keep the discussion focused on Tomorrow Never Knows. Thanks.

          Reply
  2. Roger

    The GREATEST psychedelic song ever written and recorded.

    Sorry, ‘Inagodadavita’ fans…that’s just my opinion.

    Reply
  3. Jean Erica Moniker

    It still sounds miles ahead of anything being done today (and I enjoy a lot of modern rock music).

    Shouldn’t Paul get a credit on this song for the guitar part they used from ‘Taxman’? Sorry to nitpick :-)

    Reply
    • Joe

      Yes, he should. I’ve updated the line-up. On the Taxman page’s comments, though, Vonbontee points out that the solos aren’t quite the same. I think it might have been a different solo from the same Taxman session, though I can’t quite be sure.

      Reply
  4. Vonbontee

    Yeah, that’s exactly what I think, Joe! Surely Paul recorded more than one take of that solo.

    Reply
  5. Vonbontee

    OK, boring analysis: The TNK guitar part is split into five separate segments. Segments 2, 3 and 5 all begin with (or, when played backwards, end with) the same standard 6-note blues lick, plqyed in a slightly different fashion each time. And it’s this same 6-note bit – again, phrased slightly differently – which appears very early in the “Taxman” solo, immediately after the initial 9 repetitions of the opening note. Chief difference: It’s transposed to the key of C from D, therefore a little bit faster and higher pitched.

    Which brings me to another revision, albeit one that I’m far from 100% sure of, and have no way of proving: That, rather than being slowed down, the TNK guitar parts were actually recorded at the proper speed in the key of D and retained that speed and key on the finished recording; and that the “Taxman” solo was likewise recorded in D, then sped up to C, possibly because Paul couldn’t quite play the solo cleanly enough at that tempo. And I can’t think of any other Beatles guitar work played as fast as that little descending sitar-ish bit. Basically, the slower “Taxman” solo just sounds more natural to me. But I’m basing this entirely on my own ears, so who knows?

    Reply
  6. Andrew Leonard

    I feel it’s worth pointing out how Paul tells (Anthology TV and Book) of John writing this song using one chord (C).

    Reply
    • Nowhere Man Dave

      Andrew, I don’t know why Paul said that, because there are obviously 2 chords in this song: it’s in the key of C, with a repeating shift to B on the third quarter. Chord websites show it this way ( or B sharp, sorry, I never studied music, I just learned to play by ear.)
      And out of the many covers of this song (some ho-hum, some very good), one by Stay (Homenage 50 Aniversario The Beatles album) adds in an F in alternating riffs, which gives it an interesting flavor. Check it out on iTunes.
      And there’s one version that I think comes closest to what John was trying for, because it makes use of chanting monks and has a very Eastern meditative sound to it. It’s by Steve Halpern (In the Om Zone). There’s no singing, but a sitar does the melody. It’s too bad John didn’t have today’s technology back then.
      But my favorite cover version of all is by Tangerine Dream on an album called Abbey Road: a Tribute to the Beatles by various artists. It doesn’t have the gregorian chanting, and in fact the vocals are so distorted you can barely understand them, but the separate chords are very obvious, and the whole composition is just damn cool!

      Reply
  7. Dan from Beaverton

    I can’t figure out what happens to the wine glass in the remastered mono TNK mix. I am presuming since GM says, “It is the one track, of all the songs The Beatles did, that could never be reproduced: it would be impossible to go back now and mix exactly the same thing”, that the one flying mix had to be the stereo. So they just flattened the stereo to get the mono mix–but then the wine glass disappeared! Was this a phase effect?

    Reply
  8. Astrubi

    Doesn’t the (one bar long) drum pattern sound as if it was a tape loop too? It sounds always the same, exactly the same.

    Reply
  9. mjb

    Everett’s take:

    Some tape reduction may have been required, but the following is a summary of the final mix based on take 3.

    Track one has Ringo’s damped, limited and compressed drums, Paul’s bass and George’s tamboura; track two has a tambourine (John?), honky-tonk piano (George Martin) and a simple Hammond organ part on the second. This second track is interrupted between 1:08 – 1:24 for George’s guitar solo. It was recorded backwards as well as being treated with a fuzz box and run through a Leslie speaker.

    John added his lead vocal to track three. The first verses were recorded straight, but the vocal following the solo is also run through a Leslie speaker.

    The fourth track features a wild panning sound of five tape loops made by Paul at home. The loops are said to contain Paul’s laughter and distorted and / or sped-up guitars.

    Reply
    • Gustavo

      According to Emerick, they began with John and Ringo playing guitar and drums, from wich they made a tape-loop. On to this they superimposed the actual drums and the first John led vocal. Lennon played the organ, too.

      I think George just played tambuora. About the tambourine it´s not clear who played it. Paul played bass (and created other five tape-loops they used).

      The guitars sounds comes from all the loops. And of course, Martin played piano.

      I think Ian Mcdonald claims need to be check. He didn´t quote any reliable source for the credits on his book. Or did he?

      Reply
      • Joe

        By all accounts he did a lot more research than Geoff Emerick and his ghost-writer (although that’s not to say MacDonald’s book is 100% reliable).

        Reply
        • Gustavo

          I know he did more research, but he didn’t quote the exact source for the instruments. It seems he did this by ear. It’s ok, but there’s a lot of innacurracys and obvious mistakes.

          Reply
  10. Julian

    I think there shouldn’t be a sitar credited on this track, because you would hear that sort of buzzing sound like in solo on ,,Love You To”. The only Indian sounds would be a tambura and the tape loop after ,,It is being, it is being”.
    That’s my opinion.

    Reply
    • Von Bontee

      Mark I is just a general term meaning roughly “first version”. There’ve been computers, cars and other things all referred to as “Mark I” until they get replaced by a newer model or “Mark II”. (It’s just like in the present-day computer age, referring to a second version of a program as 2.0) So I’m pretty sure the title had nothing to do with Mellotrons. (I had no idea that those were being manufactured as early as 1963!)

      Reply
  11. nosmok

    Surprised nobody has pointed out that the first UK mono pressings of “Revolver” have a different version of TNK on them. They were the ones pressed before noon that day. The story goes that George Martin was sent one and played it thru, noticed the mistake, and stopped the presses until the correct version was cut into the master tape and a new “mother” made. This is the infamous XEX 601-1 master, which one sees in the deadwax only on those very first pressings.

    Reply
  12. Nelson

    To me much of today’s music can be traced back to this song. The processed vocals, on one chord, sampled loops that are layered, backward music, a loud bass & drum sound and automatic doubled tracked vocals. Very modernistic in it’s scope.

    Reply
  13. robert

    I think what sometimes gets lost (not by Beatle people of course) is that it’s one thing to sound like this because you’ve heard the sound before – it’s quite another to do what the Beatles did which was sound like this when no one has done it before – but you sound like this because you’ve heard it in your head!

    Even though John says he didn’t fully capture what he was looking for – this is a pretty amazing sound.

    Finally, what many folks fail to grasp is the Beatles not only “invented” new sounds in music and popular song – their breakthroughs remain the standard even almost 50 years later.

    This would be like if the Model T car was still the standard in automobile excellence.

    45 years later bands are still trying to make Revolver – no less Tomorrow Never Knows

    Reply
  14. Rotex

    Does anyone know with any certainty if, contrary to established myth, the first half of the song is actually double tracked the old fashioned way and NOT subject to ADT? I’ve seen several discussions of this online without attribution, the only evidence being what your ears tell you with close listening to the stereo version.

    Reply
  15. Nelson

    This song and “I’m Only Sleeping” because of the backward parts being recorded in reverb uses reverse reverb. Interesting this pre-dates Jimi Page use by a year at least.

    Reply
  16. Cameron McIntosh

    Let’s sum this up, there are many first in this song and many unique things, from the way the drums are played and recorded, to the song being built around one chord, this is pure genius of the time, folks.

    Reply
  17. Don

    For part 4 of 5 see “She Loves You.”
    How [not] to interpret a Beatles’ song, Part 5 of 5: the meaning of my favorite Beatles’ song.
    Songs like “Eleanor Rigby” and “Here, There and Everywhere” have what musicians call a “tonal center,” i.e. a pitch that plays the pivotal role in the melody so that when the melody finally comes back to the tonal center it achieves a resolution and gives the song a natural end-point. Part of what makes TNK so unfamiliar is that it is built on just one chord: if you don’t dance away from the tonic, then you have no resolving center to return to for a sense of completion and closure. Since the song never really veers away from the tonic, the song ends as it began, which means that it begins as it ends: beginning and ending are essentially arbitrary and the fade-in-fade-out structure creates a sense that we are somehow tuning in to something that has always been going.
    Certainly John did not think of TNK in terms of a “tonal center” (though George Martin may have). This is just a different way to communicate what John was communicating through the sound and lyrics. He ends by suggesting that we “play the game existence to the end of the beginning:” what we normally think of as the end of life could just as easily be considered a beginning. Death is not necessarily the permanent end-point we assume it to be, and so the birth/life/death story by which we frame our existence may not be the most important thing on which to focus.
    “Turn off your mind … it is not dying.” Ceasing the kind of cognitive processing that ordinarily fills our days turns out, according to John, not to result in a “void” – in actual fact it allows us to notice things we usually ignore. This is a natural extension of John’s innate irreverence. The things on which the establishment tells us to focus are not the important things.
    “That love is all and love is everyone” is a shorter version of “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together” from “I Am The Walrus.” If death is not an end-point that limits and defines our existence, then neither is the self/other boundary. All the borders and fences we build to mark the separation of me and not-me is effort to lock ourselves into an illusion. If what I love when I love myself can persist even beyond the death of my body, then what I love when I love myself can also be loved beyond the border of self and other.
    Sorry about that. John said it better.

    Reply
  18. Rafael

    For me,this is the best music of The Beatles. It contains a resume of al eastern philosophy in less than 3 minutes! I think even John Lennon didn’t realize that when he created this masterpiece, but is true.C’mon people, throw away your sacred old books, and listen to this music with headphones,turn off your mind,relax and flow downstream!

    Reply
  19. dreww

    In many ways this is an ultimate Beatles song. You could say it is their most experimental, its most psychedelic, their most spiritual. It is certainly among the most adventurous.

    Looking back, the message of the words and the feel of the music are not the most intuitive fit. But it works much better than Harrison’s Within You Without You’s overly sincere attempt at spiritually enlightening the audience.

    Reply

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