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notes on ...

Notes on "Tomorrow Never Knows"


Notes on ... Series #103 (TNK)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: C Mixolydian / C Dorian / C Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Intro | Verse | Verse | Verse | Instrumental |
                  | Verse | Verse | Verse | Verse | Outro (fade-out)
        CD: "Revolver", Track 14 (Parlophone CDP7 46441-2)
  Recorded: 6th, 7th April 1966, Abbey Road 3;
            22nd April 1966, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 5th August 1966 (LP "Revolver")
US-release: 8th August 1966 (LP "Revolver")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note "Tomorrow Never Knows" is a veritable kitchen-sink mix of just about every trick in the Beatles' book to-date, including: an Indian drone, modal tune, bluesy instrumental, tape loops, ADT, vocals played through revolving speakers, distortedly close-up miking of instruments, and a psychedelically mystical "outlook." One of the amazing aspects of this song is the extent to which this collage not merely hangs together, but pulls into such a powerfully focused, unified effect.
  Next note There are some uncanny parallels to be drawn between aspects of this track and gestures or techniques used elsewhere in the avant garde world of so-called "Modern" twentieth century music. I bring this up not to suggest the Beatles were consciously borrowing from, or being influenced by the specific works or composers in question (Heck, I'd be very surprised if they were even aware of them, even if Paul did know how to drop the name of Stockhausen in an interview :-)) Rather, any such parallels for me are all the more uncanny and ironic in the absence of direct knowledge.
  Next note The intro here is not so much a fade-in as it is a small variation of the typical staggered/layered intro. Similarly, the ending is not so much a fade-out as it is a musical disintegration. You might find it interesting to compare the ending of "Tomorrow Never Knows" with almost anything written during the sixties by one contemporary American composer, Elliott Carter, who explicitly cultivated an aesthetic in his endings of a universe winding down and flying apart; complete with excerpts from classical poetry in his liner notes to support his point of view.

Arrangement, Melody and Harmony

  Next note "Tomorrow Never Knows" is one of those unusual cases where the musical material per-se is rather inseparable from a consideration of its arrangement. In spite of the thickly overdubbed texture, the fabric consists of discrete musical elements, each with a distinct timbre as well as some unique configuration of melodic pitches or rhythm:
  • The rhythmic backing of drums, bass, and tambourine remains steady and consistent throughout, with a hard syncopation on "three-and".
  • John's vocal is equal parts triadic bugle call and Mixolydian/bluesy lick with an emphasis on the flat seventh.
  • The harmony is virtually a single C Major pedal point throughout, suggesting an extremely novel application of the Indianesque drone. The only harmonic movement at all in the song is the implied vacillation toward flat-VII in the second half of virtually every verse, colored in each case by what sounds like synthesized brass instruments; either French horns or trombones.
  • Two of the tape loops provide jagged ostinati figures based on on diatonic C Major scale material; one motif recurs over and over again: C -» (down a seventh) D -» E -» F -» E -» (up a sixth) C. In some instances, this figure appears rapid, clear and high pitched. On other cases, it appears slower, in mid-range, and as though polyphonically overdubbed with itself.
  • Both halves of the instrumental feature bluesy emphasis on the melodic, flat seventh. The first includes Mixolydian-like emphasis on the melodic Major third, while the lead-guitar-sounding second halve includes the really bluesy/Dorian emphasis on the bent/minor melodic third.
  • And, of course, the "seagull" tape loop has no determinate pitch content to speak of, though its contour is predominated by saw-tooth descent, after reaching high.
  Next note Lewisohn's description of the sessions for this song emphasizes the free-wheeling creativity and real-time mixing of it. Yet, if you bother to map it out, you discover how carefully orchestrated it is after all in terms of which discrete elements appear in which sections, and in which sequence.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note The intro is six measures long, built out of two measures each of:
  • a fading-in, pulsating tamboura drone on the pitch, C;
  • the hard-rock rhythm track;
  • and the first appearance of the "seagull" tape loop.
  Next note On one level, it's nothing more than yet another layered Beatles' intro, but the pace at which the elements are introduced, and the unexpected nature of two out of the three of them makes it extraordinarily disorienting.


  Next note The verse is a straightforward eight measures long and is repeated, mantra-like, over and over and over, a total of seven times, exclusive of the intro, outro, and solo sections:
       |C             |-             |-             |-             |
    C:  I

       |B-flat        |-             |C             |-             |
        flat-VII                      I

   [Figure 103.1]
  Next note The melody is a rather a simplistic bugle call through its first half; providing yet another archetypal demonstration of the principle of keeping at least one compositional factor simple when you decide to complicate other factors to the extreme. Also, notice the Lennon-cum-Holly-esque slow triplets in the opening phrase ("turn off your mind ..").


  Next note The instrumental break fills sixteen measures, though its two halves are of unequal lengths; i.e. 6 + 10 measures, instead of the 8 + 8 you'd expect.
  Next note The first eight-bar frame of the break does not have the flat-VII horns in measure 5 and 6, but the second eight-bar frame does. You have to work hard at noticing this though because the 6 + 10 form of the solo parts throws off entirely your sense of where the eight-bar dividing lines fall.

The Second Half

  Next note The principle of saving a little something in the way of a surprise for the second half is demonstrated here by:
  • The "beep" tone in the midst of the first line of the verse which follows the break; reminiscent of the phone company or radio station's hourly time check. I'm fairly well convinced that this is placed here exactly at the mid-point of the track (1:28), in a Dada-esque gesture similar to Schönberg's "Mondfleck" number from "Pierrot Lunaire", in which he writes an atonal fugue whose second half is the exact mirror image of it's first half; keep in mind, Schönberg did this in 1913!!
  • On a more subtle level, the lead vocal is processed through revolving "Leslie speakers" starting in the second verse following the break. Like the splice in "Strawberry Fields Forever" you could listen to this track for many years and never notice this detail; yet read it once in Lewisohn, and you can never hear it any other way again.


  Next note The outro is an extension of the final verse with five iterations of last phrase.
  Next note The trailing seconds of the track paint an image of the world winding down and pulling apart, as it were, by centrifugal force; or, if you will, like pinwheel slowing down sufficiently so that you can see beyond its blurred spinning image to the individual frames of which that image is made.
  Next note As the smoke clears, a number of musical elements emerge that you'd never guess had been there all along; most notably, a furiously flailing tack piano. I wonder, though — were these newly emerging elements really there all along, or is it a matter of a deftly handled aural illusion? And, by the way — to the extent that the illusion works so well, you might say it doesn't really matter if the piano was really there all along or not!

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note This track bears the ironic fate of being the first one recorded back in April 1966 for the new-album-in-progress, while in more ways than one, it was destined from early on to be last track of the album.
  Next note On a rather immediate level, I've always enjoyed the way that the preceding song, "Got To Get You Into My Life" being in G with an extended outro vamping on that chord, sets up "Tomorrow Never Knows"'s being in C as though the two songs together create a decisive V -» I ending for the album. But there are issues that run much deeper.
  Next note For one thing, having this one 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.
  Next note For another thing, there is so much inherent in this track which forces it to be in the final position. I'm reminded, in this connection, of a wonderful essay embedded by Thomas Mann within his novel, "Dr. Faustus," in which he explains why Beethoven intentionally cast his final piano sonata, Op. 111, in the unusual form of only two movements, the second of which is a slow movement in theme and variations. Commenting on the relationship of Op. 111 to the entirety of the piano sonata as a genre, Mann says that, "as a species, as traditional art-form; it itself was here at an end, brought to its end, it had fulfilled its destiny, reached its goal, beyond which there was no going, it canceled and resolved itself, it took leave ..." [**] While it is an exaggeration to say that the Rock Song genre was in any sense "finished off" by a single song like our "Tomorrow Never Knows", it is worth pondering the extent to which a single track can be said to have raised the stakes, and taken the genre to some kind of crossroads from which it would be a challenge to all, the Beatles themselves not excepted, to figure out where to proceed next.
  [** the quote is on page 55, but I recommend to anyone interested in the intersection between literature and music criticism read from the beginning of Chapter 8, on page 49.]
  Next note Granted, I doubt that I can muster any objective proof that the Beatles entertained any kind of conscious, pre-meditated thoughts along these lines, but do also grant me the poetic justice of our reacting to it thusly. And if that doesn't work for you, imagine the absurdity of hearing of "Tomorrow Never Knows" anywhere else in the track order; try, especially listening to it as either the first or last track on side A and then listening to any other track afterwards. Or better yet, relax and enjoy it in place, just the way it is.
  Alan (052195#103)
Copyright © 1995 by Alan W. Pollack. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.