In the studio
Tomorrow Never Knows was a remarkable and innovative recording for a variety of reasons. Firstly there was Ringo Starr‘s thunderous drum pattern. The tom toms skins on his kit were slackened, and the recording was heavily compressed and echoed to give perhaps the most remarkable drum sound on any Beatles song.
The drums are the main constant in Tomorrow Never Knows, a perfect counterpoint to the musical anarchy that envelopes the rest of the song. Paul McCartney‘s bass guitar closely matched Starr’s drums, enhancing the song’s hypnotic effect.
I moved the bass drum microphone much closer to the drum than had been done before. There’s an early picture of The Beatles wearing a woollen jumper with four necks. I stuffed that inside the drum to deaden the sound. Then we put the sound through Fairchild 660 valve limiters and compressors. It became the sound of Revolver and Pepper really. Drums had never been heard like that before.”
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn
Then there were the tape loops. Paul McCartney had discovered that by removing the erase head on his reel-to-reel tape machine, he could saturate a recording with sound.
People tend to credit John with the backwards recordings, the loops and the weird sound effects, but the tape loops were my thing. The only thing I ever used them on was Tomorrow Never Knows. It was nice for this to leak into the Beatle stuff as it did.
We ran the loops and then we ran the track of Tomorrow Never Knows and we played the faders, and just before you could tell it was a loop, before it began to repeat a lot, I’d pull in one of the other faders, and so, using the other people, ‘You pull that in there,’ ‘You pull that in,’ we did a half random, half orchestrated playing of the things and recorded that to a track on the actual master tape, so that if we got a good one, that would be the solo. We played it through a few times and changed some of the tapes till we got what we thought was a real good one.
I think it is a great solo. I always think of seagulls when I hear it. 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.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
There were six loops used on Tomorrow Never Knows: a seagull noise, actually a distorted recording of McCartney laughing; an orchestra playing a B flat chord; notes played on a Mellotron’s flute setting; a second Mellotron on its violin setting; a finger rubbing the rim of a wine glass, heard midway through the song only in the stereo mix; and a distorted sitar which is most clearly heard in the instrumental break following the lines “It is being, it is being”.
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.
It has been claimed that The Beatles also used part of McCartney’s guitar solo for Taxman, reversed and slowed down a tone, in the instrumental break. However, the two parts are different and were likely recorded on different dates. Here is the section of Tomorrow Never Knows reversed, to show how the guitar solo sounded as it was recorded:
The final remarkable innovation in Tomorrow Never Knows was John Lennon’s voice. For the first half of the song it was manually double tracked by John Lennon (not, as has been reported elsewhere, treated with artificial double tracking or ADT).
For the second half, meanwhile, the Abbey Road engineers ran Lennon’s voice through a revolving Leslie speaker, more commonly found inside Hammond organs. It can be heard from the line ‘Love is all and love is everyone’.
For Tomorrow Never Knows he said to me he wanted his voice to sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a hilltop, and I said, ‘It’s a bit expensive, going to Tibet. Can we make do with it here?’ I knew perfectly well that ordinary echo or reverb wouldn’t work, because it would just put a very distant voice on. We needed to have something a bit weird and metallic…
A Leslie speaker is a rotating speaker, a Hammond console, and the speed at which it rotates can be varied according to a knob on the control. By putting his voice through that and then recoding it again, you got a kind of intermittent vibrato effect, which is what we hear on Tomorrow Never Knows. I don’t think anyone had done that before. It was quite a revolutionary track for Revolver.
Geoff Emerick later explained the response among those in the studio:
It meant actually breaking into the circuitry. I remember the surprise on our faces when the voice came out of the speaker. It was just one of sheer amazement. After that they wanted everything shoved through the Leslie: pianos, guitars, drums, vocals, you name it!
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn
Despite the groundbreaking results, Lennon later claimed to be dissatisfied with the recording.
Often the backing I think of early on never comes off. With Tomorrow Never Knows I’d imagined in my head that in the background you would hear thousands of monks chanting. That was impractical of course and we did something different. I should have tried to get near my original idea, the monks singing. I realise now that was what it needed
The Beatles, Hunter Davies
Recording began on 6 April 1966, the first session for Revolver. On that day The Beatles recorded just three takes of Tomorrow Never Knows’ rhythm track, under the working title Mark I, along with one of John Lennon’s vocal takes.
Take one, which appeared on Anthology 2, still sounds utterly remarkable. The basis of the recording appears to be a single tape loop, featuring a repeated distorted guitar line, and heavily echoed and treated percussive sounds – giving a distinctly underwater effect. Onto this drums and bass were seemingly added, along with John Lennon’s eerie vocals.
Take two was incomplete, but take three formed the basis of the released version. Onto this they added the many effects and loops, during a five-hour session on 7 April.
We did a live mix of all the loops. All over the studios we had people spooling them onto machines with pencils while Geoff did the balancing. There were many other hands controlling the panning.
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: the ‘happening’ of the tape loops, inserted as we all swung off the levers on the faders willy-nilly, was a random event.
Tomorrow Never Knows was completed on 22 April, with a final overdub containing more vocals, organ, tambourine and piano, and the reversed guitar solo by Paul McCartney.