Tomorrow Never Knows

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Cover versions and notes on The Beatles' song "Tomorrow Never Knows".

Written By: 
Primary Recording
The Beatles
Lead Vocal: 
John Lennon
Cover Versions
Alan W. Pollack's "Notes On"

Notes on "Tomorrow Never Knows" (TNK)

KEY C Mixolydian/Dorian/Major


FORM Intro -> Verse -> Verse -> Verse -> Instrumental -> Verse -> Verse -> Verse -> Verse -> Outro (fadeout)


Style and Form

- TNK 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 psychadelically 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.

- 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" 20th 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.

- 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 fadeout as it is a musical disintegration. You might find it interesting to compare the ending of TNK with almost anything written during the 60's by one contemporary American composer, Elliott Carter, who explicitly cultivated an aesthetic in his endings of a unverse 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

- TNK 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 7th.
  • 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 sythesized 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 7th) D -> E -> F -> E -> (up a 6th) 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 7th. The first includes Mixolydian-like empahsis on the melodic Major 3rd, while the lead-guitar-sounding second halve includes the really bluesy/Dorian emphasis on the bent/minor melodic 3rd.
  • 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.

- Lewisohn's description of the sessions for this song emphasizes the 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


- The intro is 6 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

- 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.



- The verse is a straightforward 8 measures long and is repeated, mantralike, over and over and over, a total of 7 times, exclusive of the intro, outro, and solo sections:

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

- The melody is a rather a simplistic bugle call through its first half; providing yet another archtypal 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 .." ).



- 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.

- The first eight-bar frame of the break does not have the flat-VII horns in measure 5 & 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 8-bar dividing lines fall.


The Second Half

- 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 Schoenberg'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, Schoenberg 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.



- The outro is an extension of the final verse with five iterations of last phrase.

- 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.

- 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!



- This track bears the ironic fate of being the first one recorded back in April '66 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.

- 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 TNK'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.

- For one thing, having this one already in the can before the stylistic breadth and running order of _Revolver_ had much yet crystalized 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.

- 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 cancelled 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 TNK, 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.]

- Granted, I doubt that I can muster any objective proof that the Beatles entertained any kind of concsious, 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 TNK 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 (

"I've only one thing to say to you, John Lennon." 052195#103 ---

                Copyright (c) 1995 by Alan W. Pollack
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