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“Tomorrow Never Knows”: The Beatles sample the future, April 1966

By Gordon Thompson

Forty-five years ago, at the beginning of April 1966, on the almost anniversary of a London dentist surreptitiously spiking his and George Harrison’s coffees with Lysergic acid diethylamide, John Lennon visited Barry Miles’ Indica Books and picked up a copy of Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert’s The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  In its pseudo-mystical prose, Lennon found partial inspiration for one of the most audacious recordings the Beatles would ever attempt.

As winter waned into spring, the Beatles had reason to believe in their invincibility.  Over the past three years, they had seen their films triumph in the summer markets, their albums and singles consistently dominate the charts, and the press cling to their every utterance.  Change charged the air and they sensed that they surfed its crest.  After returning from the 1965 US summer tour, Lennon increased his experimentation with LSD, largely for its visual effects.  Since childhood, he had been fond of Lewis Carroll’s surrealism and now, with the hallucinogen coursing through his brain, he sought out the exotic.  The cult of LSD made astounding claims about what could be accomplished by “liberated” minds, especially through the destruction of the ego, which they justified with terminology appropriated from Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism.  Of all the era’s experiences, Lennon would regret this pursuit the most.

Britain had long held a fascination with Asia, rationalizing imperial aspirations by projecting dark desires on the blank screen of its ignorance.  But with the postwar rise in Indian and Pakistani immigration and the accessibility of the world through an expansion of international air travel, some British musicians (e.g., Davy Graham, the Kinks, and the Yardbirds) came into direct contact with non-Western traditions and incorporated elements of these musics into their recordings.  George Harrison in particular had become infatuated with India and had infected Lennon with an appreciation of its music.  When the Beatles gathered with producer George Martin to make initial plans for their next album, Lennon premiered an India-tinged paean to non-existence.  Outlining a major triad and pivoting the melody against a single chord, he imitated the modality of Indian classical music.  To emphasize this source of inspiration, they would later add the drone of a tambura to the mix.

But London occupied the center of the western universe in 1966 and Paul McCartney encountered a different musical reality, that of the avant garde and the mix of live and electronic sounds he heard in the music of composers such as Luciano Berio and Karlheinz Stockhausen.  After three years of having George Martin cut and splice Beatles tapes to create composite recordings, McCartney knew the basics, which in the sixties involved little more than a grease pencil (to mark edit points), a pair of brass scissors (to avoid a magnetic click), and adhesive tape.  Some of the core techniques of musique concrète (the electronic manipulation of recorded acoustic sounds) included playing the recordings at different speeds and directions, as well as creating loops of particular sounds.  McCartney quickly mastered this simple technology and shared it with his mates.

When Geoff Emerick arrived on 6 April for his first day as their balance engineer, he did so not in their beloved Studio Two (someone had already scheduled that space).  Instead, the Beatles began recording Revolver—which many consider the band’s most important album—in the more intimate confines of EMI’s Studio Three.  Another new member of the production crew also watched and listened as the band worked through Lennon’s as yet unnamed one-chord wonder.  The new tape operator, Phil McDonald, fulfilling one of his responsibilities, annotated this particular experiment as “Mark I.”

Long before rappers sampled other people’s recordings, the Beatles selected five bits of sound to complement their reworking of “Mark I.”  One loop featured the sound of a man laughing, which, when sped up, sounded like gulls.  Another captured an orchestra playing a Bb chord, while another carried the sound of a sped-up mandolin.  Two more loops contained sitar music, which, when reversed and doubled in speed, produced an unearthly music.  Finally, McCartney would dub a guitar solo onto the master tape as it spooled backwards, producing a sound no guitarist could duplicate in live performance.

As often would be the case, when Lennon superimposed the lyrics over this sonic amalgam, he felt dissatisfied with the sound of his voice: the quality did not match the recording’s aesthetic.  To his rescue came EMI stalwart Ken Townsend.  By patching Lennon’s microphone through an amplifier and speaker arrangement designed to give electronic organs a greater room presence, Townsend transported the vocals for the last verse into another universe.

In many ways, the Beatles and their production crew were temporarily abandoning their attachment to the traditional rock ‘n’ roll ensemble and Lennon even suggested as much in an interview with Christopher Hutchins that month in the New Musical Express.  They would selectively pursue this direction over the next few years, with “Tomorrow Never Knows” (a Ringo Starr gem of a phrase) as their point of departure.

Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. Check out Thompson’s other posts here.

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Recent Comments

  1. Peter Phillips

    Mr. Thompson, an interesting article indeed. Although your suggestion that Asia was in any way culturally ignorant is a mistake I feel. Quite the opposite musically speaking with their rich and complex musical tradition. I think George took Indian music more seriously than you suggest. Coincidentally, my Grandfather Percy Phillips made the Quarrymen’s first record, in 1958 and performed the first demonstration of Stockhausen’s ‘Music Concrete’ at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. I’ve been unable to find details of the event which is why it is not mentioned on the website. Regards, Peter Phillips.

  2. Lee Rosin

    The tape you mentioned “of a man laughing” is actually McCartney laughing. At least that’s what I’ve read in countless books.

    It’s such a great track and such a group effort on the part of all of the Beatles and their production crew.

  3. Gordon


    I in no way meant to suggest that musicians in Asian traditions were ignorant. Quite the opposite. My other scholarly area of research and writing is South Asia and I still play sitar and tabla on occasion. What I meant to question was how the pop world and, in particular, the psychedelic “gurus” (a misappropriation of a term if ever there was one) used India and Buddhism as a foil for their own ends. I think it was the Westerners who were ignorant. Edward Said takes some of this into his discourse on Orientalism, so I probably do not need to elaborate. Clearly Harrison took Indian music quite seriously. And today is Ravi Shankar’s 91st birthday, so let’s recognize his contributions to this transformation too.

    Interesting to hear that your grandfather was involved with a performance of Stockhausen’s music in Liverpool. I’d love to hear more about his activities in the fifties.


  4. John Doole

    The guitar solo is an excerpt of the solo from Taxman (which McCartney obviously played) slowed down a tone and played backwards. Perhaps it was the tape that was used to fly the solo onto the end of Taxman.

  5. Gordon


    Although the solo has the same guitar+amp sound as “Taxman” (suggesting that it’s McCartney playing it), I think this is a live insertion. Here’s why.

    On the stereo version of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” at the end of the guitar solo, you can hear the squeal of feedback. (They edit out this feedback on the more important mono version of the recording.) That little “mistake” suggests that this was done live in the studio. McDonald would have thread the tape on the deck backwards, cued the tape to where they wanted to insert the solo (and after realizing that the order of the tracks were now reversed), and, at Emerick’s signal, set the tape in motion with the record heads hot.

    Remember, these are the days of analog recording. Having McCartney play the solo and inserting it would have been enough of a challenge. Finding an excerpt of the right length, altering its pitch with varispeed, and then copying it into the new recording would have been much more difficult. Besides, McCartney was clearly up to the challenge. Moreover, it was McCartney who had set up a home studio where he played with tape editing. The solo was probably his idea!


  6. Mark Bittner

    The aim was not and is not the “destruction” of the ego, but the disciplining of the ego. It’s an important difference.

  7. Gordon


    Lennon believed the purpose entailed “destruction,” taking as his source Timothy Leary: they knew each other. (If you were a Beatle, you got to meet everyone.) My comments reference how Leary and others interpreted Buddhism, not how Buddhists understand the role of the ego. Lennon comments in several sources about how this era significantly set him back personally as an artist, enabling others to take advantage of him and his weakness.


  8. Dipak Gadhvi

    Sir, I take this opportunity to remind about your article The Carans of Gujarat, wherein there is mention of my grandfathers name Shambhudanji. It seems you might have met him during your visit to Gujarat. Since we are celebrating centenary year i would request you to send me any details if they are with you.
    Sorry for bothering you, i will obliged if you can send me your response to my email address given

  9. Gordon


    A pleasure to hear from you, even if this has little to do with the blog above. I remember your grandfather as one of the great bards of Western India and a wonderful human being. Meeting him in Bhuj, Kacch is an endearing memory. He taught me much about Carans, doha-chand, and the role of the court historian-poet in pre-independence India. I’ll see if I can get your email address from the blog editor and contact you separately.


  10. Dipak Gadhvi


    Thanks for recalling your memories with my grandfather. My email address is [email protected]. Please do contact me at your conveneince. This has nothing to do with the blog above but while surfing i could establish contact with you through this blog.

    thanks and regards

  11. Peter Phillips

    Mr Thompson, I was recently scanning my Grandfather’s Studio Log book, which I have looked through many times over the years and to my surprise (his handwriting is sometimes close to undecipherable) noticed an entry for 28th and 29th October 1956, ‘Musique Concrete- 2 pounds 12 shillings and sixpence’ it read. The entry did not specify if he made a tape or a disc and I’ve not found anything further. Do these dates mean anything to you? Regards Peter Phillips.

  12. Gordon

    Peter, without much knowledge of the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall’s program schedule, I cannot say what the significance of October 1956 might be, except that this is about the time that Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Jünglinge” premiered. The LPH must have an archive of programs; but part of me would be very surprised if such a conservative organization would have sponsored such a radical work as “Gesang der Jünglinge.” The idea is, nevertheless, intriguing.

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