I couldn’t tell you what my favourite Beatles song is. It’s a moveable feast: one day it might be You Never Give Me Money; on another A Day in the Life – but never Yellow Submarine, or Ob la de Ob la da. And how about While My Guitar Gently Weeps? Paperback Writer, Eight Days a Week, For No One, etc etc
However, if someone put a gun to my head and told me to name my favourite Beatles song – and who are these people who want us to make pop-cultural choices at gunpoint? – then it would have to be Tomorrow Never Knows, the last song from 1966’s Revolver, itself generally rated as one of the best albums of all time in a perennial three-way dogfight for top spot with Sgt Peppers and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.
It’s my life-or-death favourite because it’s the one I keep coming back to. I couldn’t begin to work out the aggregate hours I must have listened to this 2:57 masterpiece. Like most things you like so much, it’s hard to say exactly why you like it so much: that it’s so, so, so far ahead of its time; Ringo’s drumming (and his malapropism which gave the song its title); that genius single chord sitar-drone; John’s spaced out vocal (the spirit of which lives on in Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker); the tape loops which, according to George Martin, are literally inimitable; or perhaps its position in the Beatles pantheon, the gateway to what was to come: a complete revolution of popular music (although, interestingly, it was the first song on Revolver to be recorded).
Also, now I am an erstwhile ‘producer’ I love the story of how it was recorded. The Wikipedia page for TNK has the details, but amongst other things the flanger effect was invented on this song. (Weeks later the Beatles were the first band to use reverse lyrics (on Rain); two years earlier they were the first band to use guitar feedback on I Feel Fine.) It’s well worth a read, and brings me (finally) to the point of this blog post:
When I’m midway through a project (like now) and I’m getting a wee bit frustrated (usually with a piece of equipment THAT’S NOT WORKING HOW IT’S SUPPOSED TO) I repeat this mantra to myself:
“The Beatles recorded Tomorrow Never Knows in 1966”.
George Martin and the Beatles may have had state-of-the-art technology for the mid-sixties, had no day-job to impede their creativity, and had a studio space not restricted to one corner of a room (and Abbey Road didn’t have a cat that likes to chase cables, I’ll bet), but in many ways compared to them I have an embarrassment of riches.
TNK (and indeed all the Beatles output) was recorded on 4 track tape. 4 tracks! My only track limitation is how many my computer’s processor, and I, can handle. A new one is only a click away. And each of those tracks displays the sound’s waveform. And there is a button called ‘undo’ when things go wrong. And how about automation? Not to mention Kaoss Pads, MIDI, digital effects etc. Karl Coryat writes at length about the advantages of digital over analogue recordings in his excellent book Guerrilla Home Recording, reviewed here (a must for every home recordist!)
They might have had grand pianos, sitar ensembles and full orchestras at their disposal, but I can make sounds with my telephone – my fucking telephone, let alone my microKORG – that were inconceivable in 1966.
Admittedly the Beatles have other, slight, advantages: they were superbly talented musicians, to a man (saying Ringo is a crap drummer be fightin’ words round these parts!); wonderful, harmonious singers; and, of course, genius, visionary their-like-will-not-be-seen-again songwriter extraordinaires.
But I have the technological edge! (Except for microphones, I need a decent microphone). And every time I forget that, and start cussing the equipment, it behooves me to recall:
“The Beatles Recorded Tomorrow Never Knows in 1966”.