The Beatles sought to be innovators in any area they could. Whether it was through samples, eight track recording, the integration of classical Indian music, or the extension of songs beyond three minutes in length, the Fab Four simply did things that no other major artist did.
But one of the more strange preoccupations that the members of the band obsessed over was more minimalist: they wanted to create a song with just one chord. “John and I would like to do songs with just one note like ‘Long Tall Sally’. We get near it in ‘The Word’.” Indeed, ‘The Word’ represents The Beatles employing a fair amount of restraint, but there were other songs that took the band’s desire for harmonic singularity to a greater height.
When it comes to Beatles songs largely revolving around a single chord, the band loved to gravitate towards the key of C. George Harrison especially, with his deep love of Indian classical music, used the sitar’s common tuning of C as a basis for a large number of songs with more experimental tendencies. ‘Blue Jay Way’, for example, has a C drone as the chords alternate between different suspensions and diminished variations on the central C Major chord.
‘Love You To’ does the same, although it prominently features a Bb Major chord in the song’s chorus. Harrison’s most explicit Indian-infused song, ‘Within You Without You’, goes to Ravi Shankar’s preferred tuning of C# and stays there with a few chord variations that follow the central melody. But when it comes to truly only using a single, unchanging chord, no song in the band’s catalogue can top ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’.
Devised by John Lennon and specifically inspired by the psychedelic experience, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ isn’t written like any conventional pop song that came before. It’s a song based on tape loops, including a drum loop from Ringo Starr, different lines from Harrison playing sitar and tambura, and Lennon mixing in recorded Mellotron parts. Paul McCartney’s bass line is the only standard part of the arrangement.
For almost the entirety of the track, the song stays on the C Major chord. No variations, so suspensions, no additional notes. But the complication comes when Lennon sings “it is not dying”. That’s because one of the loops, that of a Hammond organ, is playing a Bb Major chord. The rest of the song continues to play C Major, but Lennon’s vocal lines highlights the Bb Major to the extent that chord has to be considered a Bb Major/C chord, thereby ruining the pipe dream of recording a song with only one chord.
It’s likely for the best that The Beatles never achieved their one-chord goal. ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is the ultimate example of making a harmonically static song vibrant and audibly entertaining. If someone were to simply strum a C chord on a guitar and sing the song’s melody, it would be a fairly limp performance. Songs need different chords to keep the listeners attention, and unless you’re Muddy Waters barking out ‘Mannish Boy’ or Howlin’ Wolf singing ‘Smokestack Lighting’, chances are you’re not going to have a very good song on your hands.