Tomorrow Never Knows

In the studio

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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.”
Geoff Emerick
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.

Paul McCartney
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.
Ringo Starr
Anthology

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.

George Martin
Anthology

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!
Geoff Emerick
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
John Lennon
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.

40 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
  20. phil53

    Considering that this song was recorded in 1966,it has aged remarkably well and every time I listen to it I try and imagine its impact on the listener back then,it must have sounded out of this world …nothing like it had gone before,and IMO as an innovative game changing piece of music that has influenced a whole musical genre nothing has surpassed it since,best heard through good headphones in the dark it is simply a stunning aural experience ,probably not just my favourite Beatles (Lennon) track,but my favourite track.period.

    Reply

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