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Kempt Liner Notes: “Tomorrow Never Knows”

John Lennon recording “Tomorrow Never Knows” at Abbey Road, 1966

Donald Draper isn’t a Beatles fan, but his creator sure is. The New York Times reported yesterday that Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner didn’t blink at the $250,000 price tag that came with concluding Sunday’s episode with “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the first song written and recorded by the Beatles to be licensed for use on a television series. Why this particular track, though? As Weiner explains, “That song to me is revolutionary. [The Beatles] were constantly pushing the envelope, and I really wanted to show how far ahead of the culture they were.” And how far behind Draper had become. Roger Sterling, on the other hand, having recently returned from his jaunt with Lucy in the sky with diamonds, was likely a much bigger fan of the song.

As are we, after discovering some fascinating facts about the psychedelic anthem that changed everything...


The final track on Revolver, but the first to be recorded (beginning at 8pm on April 6, 1966, in Studio Three at Abbey Road).

Lennon adapted the song’s lyrics (including the opening lines “When in doubt, relax, turn off your mind, float downstream”) from The Psychedelic Experience, written by Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner, which he stumbled upon while looking for a copy of The Portable Nietzsche at the Indica bookstore in London. He bought the book, went home, took LSD and wrote “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

Lennon told George Martin that it was crucial for the vocals to sound like “one hundred chanting Tibetan monks” and that he (Lennon) must be suspended from a rope and “after being given a good push” be spun around the microphone while he sang. When asked about the rope a couple days later, Martin replied, “We’re working on it.” (In the end, they ran Lennon’s vocals through a Leslie rotating speaker to create the desired effect.)

The song is entirely restricted to one chord, C, and has been called the first pop song to entirely do away with chord progressions. It was also one of the first songs to use a flanger effect and compressed percussion sounds, which, along with the heavy use of sitar, might explain why Draper found it so foreign.

Lennon chose one of Ringo’s malapropisms, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” as the title for the song, in the hopes that it would provide a bit of comic relief to the weighty subject matter. The phrase was born in an interview with the BBC’s David Coleman after returning to London from America in 1964. When asked if he was “manhandled at the Embassy Ball,” Ringo replied, “Not really. Someone just cut a bit of my hair, you see. I was talking away and I looked ’round, and there was about 400 people just smiling. So, you know—what can you say? Tomorrow never knows.”

Relax, turn off your mind and float downstream...