The “first psychedelic song” John Lennon wrote for The Beatles that inspired a run of classics
Bursting on to the pop music scene in the early sixties, with some suggesting they created it entirely, The Beatles looked ready to take on the world with their incandescent pop music. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were the perfectly preened band of the future—but it wasn’t quite the future everyone had predicted.
As well as the naysayers who doubted the band in the first place, a lot of the sentiment towards The Beatles was that they were destined to stay in their pigeonhole and probably fall away as soon as they stopped churning out number one hits. Instead, the band twisted and turned around from the preconceptions and instead pursued the mind-expanding purity of artistic evolution.
Lennon and McCartney, the band’s principal songwriters, were unwilling to keep on producing the same old pop songs. Littered with rock ‘n’ roll tropes like fast cars and unrequited love, those tracks had served their purpose by 1965 and the band were ready to expand.
Though the first thought for evolution was the music, there was another mind-altering experience which would shape the band’s output for years to come; acid. The drug LSD had become a more than fashionable substance during the sixties and Britain’s pop music was drenched in the stuff, it meant it was only a matter of time before the Fab Four also tried it out.
While all of the band would eventually make their own statements on the drug, Paul McCartney’s coming in 1967, George Harrison and John Lennon had taken it long before McCartney when they were “dosed” by the ‘demon dentist’, John Riley in 1965. Many people attribute this experience to the explosion of trippy songs on the band’s 1966 record Revolver.
While the obvious classic, inspired by a Hollywood actor and a heavy dose of acid is ‘She Said, She Said’, it’s not the first one Lennon wrote, according to the man himself, that was ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. “This was my first psychedelic song,” said Lennon in 1972 in reference to the track.
Lennon was a vicious critic of his own work and confessed just two years later that despite his epic vision he couldn’t bring the song to fruition. “‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ …I didn’t know what I was saying, and you just find out later. I know that when there are some lyrics I dig, I know that somewhere people will be looking at them.”
Adding: “Often the backing I think of early-on never comes off. With ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ I’d imagined in my head that in the background you would hear thousands of monks chanting. That was impractical, of course, and we did something different. It was a bit of a drag, and I didn’t really like it. I should have tried to get near my original idea, the monks singing. I realise now that was what I wanted.”
Why all the monks? That’s because at the time Lennon was obsessed with the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The spiritual book is intended to offer advice for the consciousness after death and provided a mystical and exciting new realm of spirituality for the band, it was also a song which inspired one of George Harrison’s greatest creations, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’.
But while ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ was rooted in the foundational teachings of the book it was also a hint at the world that still surrounded Lennon, namely his mate Ringo Starr. “That’s me in my ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead’ period,” said Lennon recalling the song to Playboy in 1980. “I took one of Ringo’s malapropisms as the title, to sort of take the edge off the heavy philosophical lyrics.”
It was something McCartney, best placed to give the ins and outs of Lennon’s writing, confirmed in 1984 when he stated: “That was one of Ringo’s malapropisms.” He continued, “John wrote the lyrics from Timothy Leary’s version of the ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead.’ It was a kind of Bible for all the psychedelic freaks. that was an LSD song. Probably the only one. People always thought ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ was but it actually ‘wasn’t’ meant to say LSD.”
There’s no denying though that this song was the start of the band’s love affair with LSD. While it would only last a few albums, for a period the band were intent on letting drug influences seep into their material. Of course, the following album would be Sgt. Pepper—an album drenched in psychedelic imagery, after that was the Magical Mystery Tour—also littered in LSD references. It showed the profound effect that the drug had had on the band.
If the reference and use of LSD in The Beatles output suggests one thing it is that Lennon-McCartney were determined to push themselves creatively. Through whatever means necessary, the two songwriters wanted to experience and express it all. It’s no wonder that once they’d conquered the world around them they sought out the intricacies of another dimension.