‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, the monumental closing track on Revolver, was also the first song to be recorded for the album.
While the title, like ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, was a Ringoism particularly liked by John Lennon, the lyrics were largely taken from The Psychedelic Experience, a 1964 book written by Harvard psychologists Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, 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. On 1 April 1966 Lennon and Paul 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.
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.
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.
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.
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, and settled instead on a phrase coined by Ringo Starr. The Beatles’ drummer had first said “tomorrow never knows” in public on 22 February 1964, during a BBC television interview at London Airport on the band’s return from conquering America.
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.
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.
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.