Song of the Day: “Tomorrow Never Knows”

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Turn off your mind, relax, and listen to today’s song of the day.

We’re in the middle of another week of classic rock songs. So far, we’ve looked at Jimi Hendrix’s cover version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”, and Pink Floyd’s social-political commentary in “Dogs”. Now that we’ve covered covers and sprawling, progressive epics, we’ll be switching things up with a shorter, stranger song.

Today’s entry comes from The Beatles, and can be found on their 1966 album, “Revolver”.  The song marked a radical departure for the fab four, in their use of recording techniques, as well as songwriting.

Tomorrow Never Knows

While “Tomorrow Never Knows” is credited to McCartney-Lennon, it was primarily written by John Lennon, who found inspiration from a 1964 book called, The Psychedelic Experience. In it, he found an adaptation of the ancient Tibetan Book of the Dead.

“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).

Musically, The Beatles took some inspiration from Indian music, which they had a growing interest in. They modeled the musical landscape of “Tomorrow Never Knows” on a single chord. This mirrored the lack of chord modulation in Indian music, which typically picks one key, and stays in it.

Recording

The recording techniques that The Beatles used on “Tomorrow Never Knows” were innovating in a variety of ways. For one, Ringo Starr’s drum pattern, which stays constant throughout the song, was made all the more effective by obtaining a unique sound.

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.

But the drums weren’t the only ingredient that made “Tomorrow Never Knows” so hypnotic and unique. Tape loops and backwards recording brought an entirely new tool to The Beatles’ disposal. You can hear the evidence in the seagull squawking throughout the song. The sound was created by recording McCartney laughing, and playing it backwards. The guitar solo was also recorded backwards to give the song a more dreamlike effect.

Lyrics

As we mentioned earlier, John Lennon took inspiration for “Tomorrow Never Knows” from an adaptation of the ancient Tibetan Book of the Dead. The first line of the song is pulled directly from it.

“Turn off your mind relax and float down stream
It is not dying, it is not dying”.

The song’s overall theme of “Tomorrow Never Knows” is meditation. That’s what the first two lines are referring to. The absence of thought that meditation demands can make people nervous. Many associate their thoughts with their self, and letting those go can feel like becoming nothing, or dying.

George Harrison later shed some light on the true meaning of the song. “The whole point is that we are the song. The self is coming from a state of pure awareness, from the state of being. So the song is really about transcending and about the quality of the transcendent.”

Final Thoughts

We all know that The Beatles were into using psychedelics and mind-altering substances to find inspiration for their songs. It’s nice to know, however, that they were still serious about pushing themselves further at each step of their career. I suspect that they took the contemporary saying, “work hard, play hard” to heart. Although perhaps not quite as much as some bands and musicians that came after them.

That concludes our discussion of The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”. Tomorrow, we’ll finish up our week of classic rock songs with one more to round us out.

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