Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: April 6, 7 and 22, 1966
Released: August 8, 1966
Not released as a single
The last and most aggressively experimental track on Revolver was the first to be recorded: Lennon's rapid, excited response to the great escape of LSD. In acid, Lennon found his first true relief from the real world and the band's celebrity — an alternate space of rapture and self-examination that he re-created, with the energized collaboration of the other Beatles, in "Tomorrow Never Knows." All of a sudden, the poetic advance and rustic modernism of Rubber Soul — issued only five months before these sessions, in December 1965 — was very old news. Compared to the rolling drone, tape-loop effects and out-of-body vocals that dominate Lennon's trip here, even the rest of Revolver sounds like mutation in process: the Beatles pursuing their liberated impulses as players and writers, via acid, in pop-song form. There was no other place for this track on the album but the end. "Eleanor Rigby," "I'm Only Sleeping," "Love You To" and "She Said She Said" were all bold steps toward the unknown — "Tomorrow Never Knows" was the jump from the cliff.
The art of sampling in popular music may, in fact, start here. In January 1966, while tripping, Lennon took the precaution of consulting The Psychedelic Experience, a handbook written by LSD preacher Timothy Leary (with Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner). The book itself was an extended paraphrase of Buddhist concepts, including reincarnation and ego death, in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Lennon ran a tape recorder and read passages from The Psychedelic Experience as he was flying. He was soon writing a song using some of the actual lines from Leary, including his description of the state of grace beyond reality. Lennon even used it as a working title: "The Void."
The Beatles got him there with extraordinary speed. It took them only three tries to come up with a master take of the rhythm track, driven by Starr's relentless drumming. McCartney suggested the tumbling pattern Starr uses.) Most of the otherworldly overdubs were created and recorded on the night of April 6th and the afternoon of the 7th — a total of about 10 hours. There is nothing on "Tomorrow Never Knows" — the backwards guitar solo, the hovering buzz of Harrison on sitar, Lennon's vocal drifting on what feels like the other side of consciousness — that was not dosed beyond plain recognition. The spacey, tabla-like quality of Starr's drumming was just him playing on two slackly tuned tom-toms, compressed and doused in echo. Loops were created using a Mellotron imitating flute and string tones; the cackling seagull sounds were either an altered recording of McCartney laughing or a treated slice of guitar.
Lennon hoped to sound nothing like his usual self. "I want my voice to sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a mountaintop, miles away," he proclaimed in the studio. Engineer Geoff Emerick achieved that effect by running Lennon's voice through the rotating speaker of a Leslie cabinet, which had been hooked up to the Hammond organ at Abbey Road. The result was heaven and earth combined: a luxuriant and rippling prayer, delivered in Lennon's nasal Liverpool-hard-boy tone. "That is bloody marvelous!" Lennon exclaimed repeatedly after hearing his effect. McCartney's reaction was equally joyful: "It's the Dalai Lennon!"
Ironically, all the way to the last overdub on April 22nd, the song was listed on Abbey Road recording sheets with another working title, "Mark 1." Starr came up with something much better. Like "A Hard Day's Night," "Tomorrow Never Knows" was one of the drummer's malapropisms. The line does not appear in Lennon's lyrics. What Starr meant, of course, was "tomorrow never comes." He was wrong: It arrived, in reverb and technicolor, with ecstatic promise, at the end of Revolver.
Appears On: Revolver