1. Tomorrow Never Knows

Sometimes, within five seconds of listening to a new song, you know exactly who the artist has been listening to (or, less kindly, who he's trying to imitate).  Along those lines, it's especially easy to tell when someone's been looking towards 1966 for inspiration, because nothing says 1966 like a backwards guitar.  More precisely: nothing says 1966, Beatles, and Revolver like a backwards guitar.  Sure, other contemporary acts (Stones, Kinks, Hendrix, Barrett to name a few) dabbled in backwards experiments here and there, but none of those efforts were as innovative, in-your-face, or memorable as what the Beatles accomplished.

I view the 65-67 period from Rubber Soul to Strawberry Fields as the cream of the Beatles' and Lennon's songwriting (i.e. excluding the decent but overrated Pepper).  Inside that timeline filled with great peaks, the equivalent of Everest is a song preliminarily titled Mark I, eventually released under the meaningless Ringo-ism Tomorrow Never Knows.  It's quite simply the most innovative and revolutionary song ever created, the musical equivalent of Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon, precisely marking the moment at which stylistic constraints disappeared and abstraction broke through with full force into mainstream pop music.

Recorded on April 6 and 7 of 1966, Tomorrow Never Knows was such a gigantic leap forward in terms of both structure and lyrics that it could be mistaken for something delivered by aliens or time travellers from the future.  It sticks out like a sore thumb, even in the context of an already groundbreaking album, making it very hard to believe that the Beatles and Martin could produce a track so avant-garde only three years after the embarrassing (in retrospect) juvenile simplicity of I Want to Hold Your Hand

Fearfully, it was relegated to the end of Revolver, making sure that listeners would get through the rest of the album before having to cope with the shock of such a different experience.

Time has caught up with the song, and it no longer sounds as revolutionary as it might have done in 1966.  But it's still interesting to understand its evolution, and why McCartney's backwards loops play a such a key role in the successful delivery of the track.

Indeed, the un-looped first take as documented in the Anthology series sounds innovative enough, but it's also repetitive, slow, and ultimately boring.  The new drumming and random backwards elements added in Take 3 transform the song completely, making the listener's ears perk up while his brain furiously tries to make sense of what the hell is coming out of his speakers.  Seagulls?  Out-of-tune instruments?  No, not at all, just backwards loops featuring distorted guitars, speeded up guitars, mellotrons, and even a wine glass.

A sonically delicious texture that's second to none, and not just popular in discotheques (shame on you, Ray!).

Additional Resources

Tomorrow Never Knows (flash video by Melon)
Notes on "Tomorrow Never Knows" by Alan W. Pollack
Tomorrow Never Knows on Wikipedia

Posted on Monday, November 19, 2007
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