The Beatles at Abbey Road. Tomorrow Never Knows.

50th anniversary of definitive Beatles album

On April 6th 1966, after a three month break, the Beatles arrived into Abbey Road to start recording the album that would eventually be known as Revolver.

The first song they recorded was Tomorrow Never Knows.

The recording was completed the following day but what the Beatles achieved over those days and their revolutionary use of studio and recording techniques would completely change the way musicians would use a recording studio from then on. The studio, in effect, became a member of the band.

A number of factors contributed to this. One of these was that  John Lennon had spent most of the previous three months tripping on LSD, ingesting it almost every day, and he started to write songs unlike any he ever wrote before. George Martin was initially puzzled by this two-chord song that didn’t contain a chorus and sounded almost like a monotone drone. When he asked John what he thought the recorded track should sound like, Lennon famously described the sound in his head as ‘The Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan monks chanting on a mountain top’.

Another factor was that the Beatles had a new recording engineer. Norman Smith, who worked with them since the first album, had been promoted and George Martin appointed twenty-year-old Geoff Emerick as their new engineer. Geoff was a most innovative young man and because he had very little previous studio experience he was not bound by the ‘correct way’ to record songs. He was happy to try almost anything, often letting the needles drift into the red zone, something previously regarded as a cardinal sin in Abbey Road.

In recording Tomorrow Never Knows, Martin and Emerick created four innovative studio sounds or techniques that would be used by countless bands, even up to this day.

Ringo’s Drum Sound.  The sound of these drums is the first thing that strikes the listener. This incredible noise was produced by using dampened, slack-tuned toms, compressed and  fed through a massive reverb effect.  Emerick also tried something completely new by placing the bass drum mike inside the drum and stuffing a jumper into it to deaden the sound. Previousl the mike would have been placed on the ground, some distance from the drum kit

Backwards Guitar.  George Harrison discovered it by accident but was so impressed by this effect that he created a unique and complex method to record it. First he played and recorded the solo over the song as he normally would. He then played the recording backwards and notated the backwards solo. Then reading the notation he re-recorded the solo and finally George Martin played this recording backwards and added it to the song. 

John’s Vocal. Lennon hated having to double-track his vocals so Ken Townsend, an Abbey Road engineer, invented ADT (automatic double tracking) to solve this problem by taking the signal from the playback and recording heads and delaying them slightly, thereby creating two sound images from the original signal. This was the first ever recording to use this effect. For the second part of the song Emerick fed John’s vocal through a revolving Leslie speaker, originally used on a Hammond organ. This created the effect now known as Flanging. This gave John’s vocal his desired sound of ‘chanting Tibetan monks’. Again, this was the first time this effect was used in recording.

Tape Loops. Paul had spent a lot of the three months break with Jane Asher and her family and was introduced to modern classical music by them, particularly ‘musique concrete’. This involved recording everyday sounds on a piece of tape, joining the ends of tape to create a loop and playing it back on a tape recorder with the erase head removed so that every time the tape looped another layer was added, creating strange and sometimes wonderful sounds. Impressed by this, he started experimenting with samples himself. On April 6th he suggested that they use tape loops on Tomorrow Never Knows. That evening John, Ringo, George and Barry Miles all created their own loops and brought them to studio the following day where George Martin dubbed all five loops onto the song in a live recording using faders to bring the loops in and out.

Amazingly, all this was accomplished in 2 days. When you compare this song to what had appeared on the previous album it was a quantum leap. It truly was The Beatles’ Robert Johnson at the Crossroads moment.

While recording, Tomorrow Never Knows was known as ‘Mark 1’ but when it came to assembling the album John settled on a favourite phrase of Ringo’s for the official title.

Probably the most innovative and influential song the Beatles would ever record.

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