Turn off your mind
Relax and float down stream.
It is not dying? (2x)
Lay down all thought
Surrender to the void.
Is it shining? (2x)
That you may see
The meaning of within--
It is being. (2x)
That love is all and
Love is everyone.
Is it knowing? (2x)
That ignorance and hate
May mourn the dead.
Is it believing? (2x)
But listen to
The color of your dreams.
Is it not living? (2x)
Or play the game Existence
To the end
Of the beginning. (7x)
Much has been written about Tomorrow Never Knows, and many would say it is the kickoff song of the psychedelic era. Eight Miles High and Shapes of Things certainly introduced the psychedelic sound, but here we have the Beatles convincing their listeners to imagine an entirely different universe, to rise above the mundane and contemplate the magic of existence from some great abstract egoless height, such an exalted height that living and dying are as interchangeable as it is and is it. Below are several comments on the song that I have found from various sources.
Though written as the end song of the Revolver album, Tomorrow Never Knows was the first of the songs to be worked on for the project. "Having Tomorrow Never Knows already in the can before the stylistic breadth and running order of Revolver had much yet crystallized gave them the strategically compositional advantage of knowing in advance the exact placement of the vanishing perspective point for the entire album. Consider how the sequencing of the entire album works toward this song." [Alan W. Pollack, Notes On] The Beach Boys, with Caroline No, had previously composed a satisfying finale of the album Pet Sounds, but it didn't have a similar effect on the playing order of songs, as Caroline No was recorded late in the project.
Though the first cut to be started for project, Tomorrow Never Knows was finished fifth in the collection, after Rain, so some of the studio effects learned there were developed further for Tomorrow Never Knows. A key production technique used for the first time on the Revolver sessions (including Rain) was automatic double tracking (ADT), invented by EMI engineer Ken Townsend on 6 April 1966. This technique used two linked tape recorders to automatically create a doubled vocal track. The standard method was to double the vocal by singing the same piece twice onto a multitrack tape, a task Lennon particularly disliked. The Beatles were reportedly delighted with the invention, and used it extensively on Revolver. ADT quickly became a standard pop production technique. [Wikipedia]
George Martin: "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 recording 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." [Beatles Bible]
Lennon's Tomorrow Never Knows was one of the first "experimental" songs in the emerging genre of psychedelic music, and included such groundbreaking techniques as reverse guitar, processed vocals and looped tape effects. Musically, it is drone-like, with a strongly syncopated, repetitive drum-beat, and is considered to be among the earliest precursors of electronica. The lyrics were inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, although the title itself came from one of Starr's inadvertently amusing turns of phrase, playfully called "Ringoisms" (another being A Hard Day's Night). [Wikipedia]
McCartney supplied a bag of 1/4 inch-wide audio tape loops he had made by himself at home, which he started making after listening to Stockhausen's Gesang der Junglinge. 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, a technique also used in musique concrete. McCartney encouraged the other Beatles to use the same effect and create their own loops. The numerous tapes McCartney supplied were played on five individual BTR3 tape machines, and controlled by nonplussed EMI technicians in studio two at Abbey Road on 7 April. The four Beatles controlled the faders of each machine, while George Martin varied the stereo panning. The tapes created a seagull/American Indian effect (which was McCartney shouting/laughing) and were made (like most of the other loops) by superimposition and acceleration. 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. [Wikipedia]
The tom tom skins on Ringo's drum 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. [Beatles Bible] However, there is yet another constant. The song is built around the constant drone in C major of Harrison's tamboura. It has been called by Peter Lavezzoli [The Dawn of Indian Music in the West (2006), p. 175] the first pop song to dispense with chord changes altogether.
George Starostin wrote in Only Solitaire: "Tomorrow Never Knows is the most terrific, most representative musical image of a journey through your subconscious ever created by mankind. No kidding."
Ian MacDonald wrote that Tomorrow Never Knows "introduced LSD and Leary's psychedelic revolution to the young of the Western World, becoming one of the most socially influential records the Beatles ever made." [Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties, 1994, p. 150]. Nick Bromell, in his book Tomorrow Never Knows (2002) wrote: " Not for one millisecond does this song pretend to be part of the everyday world, an extension of the continuum in which its teenage audience lived and which they had been listening...Both Harrison and McCartney [in Revolver] use stock conventions of pop music to advance a psychedelic message. Lennon went further...Instantly and unapologetically the song projects itself from some otherworldly location and insists that if we want to get it we have to go to it...It is a 'mindbending' sound because it invites the listener to enter an acoustic universe in which familiar signposts of authenticity have been deliberately removed. Nothing straightforwardly refers to anything one can recognize...The audience was drawn by the song's foray into depersonalization. They were drawn to the possibility of experiencing, in sound, a self that was not a self...drawn by their desire for a self that was not a social self." (pp. 99-101) In their willingness to destroy the social and experience themselves in their interior subjective state, they were willing, if need be, to experience themselves as mere nothing, as a blank.
In 1968, Lennon told an interviewer: "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. It was a bit of a drag, and I didn't really like it. I should have tried to get near my original idea, the monks singing. I realize now that was what I wanted." [about.com]
John wanted monks, but Tomorrow Never Knows strikes a very different tone than the Gregorian chants that had previously been used by the Yardbirds. Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Tell You by the BeeGees is perhaps the closes approximation to the sound Lennon may have originally had in mind. But I'm glad that he released that notion to a creative process with Paul McCartney, George Martin, Ken Townsend and Geoff Erickson, among others. The sound that strikes some listeners as "American Indian war whoops" sound to me like Wagner's Ride of the Valkryes in Gotterdammerung, "Twilight of the Gods". The steady trance beat set up by Ringo, and the nature of Lennon's highly abstract lyric, encouraged meditation and dreaming even within the short minutes that it held the listener's attention. The break, with its overlays of horn loops and the blistering backward guitar work against a backdrop of dazzling sitar gauze, recreates the electric buzz of the LSD experience, in which the simplest language is the most charged with meaning.
Lennon became a master of the kind of philosophical simplicity, sometimes to the point of sloganeering, that first exhibits itself with The Word, Rain and Tomorrow Never Knows. The simplicity gives the song a poetic delicacy to the point that the interplay between it is and is it is the foundation of its lyrical structure. I won't indulge in the interpretation of what is said here, but I do believe the poem produces a good meditation device, worthy of contemplation. The poem is so formal as to reveal any variation from it starkly, granting the exception emphasis. There's even a bit of numerology to it, with the (unbalanced) seven verses echoed by the repetition of "the beginning" seven times. It makes me want to turn over the revolving vinyl album, and play the whole song sequence through again.