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Tomorrow Never Knows

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Songfacts - The

Beatles - Tomorrow Never Knows

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John Lennon wrote the song in January 1966, closely adapted from the book The Psychedelic Experience by Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, and Ralph Metzner, which they based on, and quoted from, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, with the understanding that the "ego death" experienced under the influence of LSD and other psychedelic drugs is essentially similar to the dying process and requires similar guidance.

Peter Brown claimed that Lennon's only source of inspiration for the song came from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which it says Lennon read whilst tripping on LSD. George Harrison later stated that the idea for the lyrics came from Leary, Alpert, and Metzner's book. McCartney confirmed this by stating that he and Lennon once visited the newly opened Indica bookshop—as Lennon was looking for a copy of The Portable Nietzsche—and Lennon found a copy of The Psychedelic Experience, which quoted the lines: "When in doubt, relax, turn off your mind, float downstream". Lennon bought the book, went home, took LSD, and followed the instructions exactly as stated in the book.

The title never actually appears in the song's lyrics, but was instead taken from Ringo Starr's interesting collection of malapropisms. Lennon chose to do this because he was embarrassed about the spiritual theme of the lyrics in the song, so he decided to give the song a throwaway title. The piece was originally titled "Mark I". "The Void" is cited as another working title—but according to Mark Lewisohn (and Bob Spitz) this is untrue, although the books, The Love You Make: An Insider's Story of the Beatles and The Beatles A to Z both cite "The Void" as the original title.

Lennon first played the song to Brian Epstein, George Martin and the other Beatles at Epstein's house at 24 Chapel Street, Belgravia. McCartney remembered that even though the song was only one chord of C, Martin accepted it as it was, and even said that it was, "rather interesting". The song's harmonic structure is derived from Indian music, and is based upon a C drone. The "chord" over the drone is generally C major, with some changes to B flat major.

19-year-old Geoff Emerick was hired to replace Norman Smith as engineer on the first session for the Revolver album that started at 8 p.m. on 6 April 1966, in Studio Three at Abbey Road. (Smith was not available as he was working on tracks for Pink Floyd).

Lennon told producer Martin that he wanted it to sound like a hundred chanting Tibetan monks, which left Martin the difficult task of trying to find the effect by using the basic equipment they had. Lennon's suggestion was that he be suspended from a rope and—after being given a good push—he would sing as he spun around the microphone. (This idea was rejected by Martin, but when asked by Lennon about it, he would only reply with, "We're looking into it"). Emerick finally came up with the idea to wire Lennon's voice through a Leslie speaker, thus obtaining the desired effect, and without the need of a rope. The effect was achieved by putting Lennon's vocal through the cabinet—which meant Emerick having to break into the electronic circuitry of the cabinet—and then re-recording the vocal as it came out of the revolving speaker. This created a vibrato effect that was normally used for a Hammond organ.

As Lennon always hated doing a second take to double the sound of his vocals, Ken Townsend, the studio technical manager, went home that night and created the world's first ADT system by taking the signal from the playback and recording heads and delaying them slightly, thereby creating two sound images and not just one. By altering the speed and frequencies he could also create other different types of effects, which The Beatles used throughout the recording of Revolver. It must be noted that Lennon's vocal was clearly double-tracked on the first three verses of the song—due to the varying differences in the singing—but the full effect of the Leslie cabinet can be heard after the (backwards) guitar solo

The track was one of the first pieces of psychedelic rock, including highly compressed drums, reverse guitar, processed vocals, looped tape effects, a sitar and a tambur drone.

McCartney supplied a bag of ¼ inch-wide audio tape loops he had made by himself at home, which he started making after listening to Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge. McCartney found out that if he took off the erase head of a tape recorder and then spooled a continuous loop of tape through the machine, anything he recorded would constantly keep overdubbing itself; creating a saturation effect. Engineers call this process musique concrète, or reinforced music. McCartney encouraged the other Beatles to use the same technique and create their own loops.

The numerous tapes McCartney supplied were played on five individual BTR3 tape machines, and controlled by non-plussed EMI technicians in studio two at Abbey Road on 7 April. The four Beatles controlled the faders of each machine, while Martin varied the stereo panning. The tapes created a seagull/Red Indian effect (which was McCartney shouting/laughing) and were made (like most of the other loops) by superimposition and acceleration (0:07) Martin explained that the finished mix of the tape loops could never be repeated, because of the complex and random way in which they were laid over the music.

The tape loops also contained:

An orchestral chord of B flat major (0:19)

A Mellotron Mk.II, played on the "flute" tape set (0:22)

Another Mellotron played in 6/8 from B flat to C, using the "3 violins" tape set (0:38)

A rising scalar phrase on a sitar (actually electric guitar, reversed and severely sped up), recorded with heavy saturation and acceleration (0:56)

The Beatles further experimented with tape loops in "Carnival of Light"—an as-yet-unreleased McCartney piece recorded during the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band sessions—and "Revolution 9", a John Lennon experimentation released on The Beatles (album).

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