‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is one of the most mind-bending Beatles songs of all time. Although it acts as the motoric closing track to the group’s 1966 album Revolver, it was actually the first to be recorded, setting the tone for the rest of what became an intensely otherworldly and frequently sublime collection of songs.
A lot has been written about the lyrical content of Revolver, with the riddle at the heart of Paul McCartney’s ‘Eleonor Rigby’ having perplexed Beatles fans for decades. But, as is so often the case, very little has been said of Ringo Starr’s essential contribution to the album. His drumming in ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is especially impressive – as this isolated drum cover clearly demonstrates.
The track is the perfect representation of the spiritual explorations the various Beatles members were engaged in during this period; a soul-searching which, for John, was propelled by the Beat Generation‘s fascination with Eastern spiritual philosophy.
As Paul McCartney described in Anthology: “The final track on Revolver, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, was definitely John’s. Round about this time people were starting to experiment with drugs, including LSD. John had got hold of Timothy Leary’s adaptation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is a pretty interesting book. For the first time we got the idea that, as with ancient Egyptian practice, when you die you lie in state for a few days, and then some of your handmaidens come and prepare you for a huge voyage. Rather than the British version, in which you just pop your clogs. With LSD, this theme was all the more interesting.”
What is so essential about Ringo’s drumming is that it hangs everything together. On the surface, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ shouldn’t work as a pop song. It has very little connection to the Western harmonic patterns traditionally used in pop music, featuring, instead, the chordal drone so familiar to fans of classical Indian ragas.
As George Harrison once noted: “Indian music doesn’t modulate; it just stays. You pick what key you’re in, and it stays in that key. I think ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ was the first one that stayed there; the whole song was on one chord. But there is a chord that is superimposed on top that does change: if it was in C, it changes down to B flat. That was like an overdub, but the basic sound all hangs on the one drone.”
Ringo keeps his quietly complex infusion of the toms, snare, and ride cymbal in perfect harmony – giving the track the momentum that makes the track so mesmeric. Without Ringo, the song would fall like a heap of clothes without a hanger; a jumble of psychedelic etchings with nothing to hold them together.
Listen to the audio, below.