Gotcha Covered: “Tomorrow Never Knows”

Bettmann/Getty Images

Gotcha Covered: “Tomorrow Never Knows”

Bettmann/Getty Images

Apologies in advance for what probably comes across like basic stoner-thought logic, but: Ever stop to think about what it means when we’re possibly not only living in but well past a “tomorrow” invoked in a song title? OK, maybe The Beatles’ Revolver-closing psychedelic turning point “Tomorrow Never Knows” isn’t the best example of this phenomenon on the surface — the title doesn’t actually appear in the lyrics of the song, and were apocryphally inspired by a malaprop dropped during a TV interview by Ringo Starr from their not-even-remotely-psychedelic days of early ’64. But think on this: When Lana Del Rey co-wrote a song with Sean Lennon, she gave it the allusively disappointed title “Tomorrow Never Came.” Given the elusively pinned-down throwback affectations attributed to her music — paired with the nearly concurrent moment of Mad Men memorably using “Tomorrow Never Knows” as the soundtrack to Don Draper losing his grip on the zeitgeist in an episode released three months and change after the release of Born To Die — it’s tempting to think of a current state of being where the revolution, psychedelic and otherwise, may have just wound up an illusory phase that never had a chance.

But if the old Camelot Americana ’60s have long since drowned out the promise of that increasingly forgotten time of transformative ego death-driven lysergic revolution as some sort of actual possibility, what’re the chances of finding a new place for it if its products still sound thrilling? “Tomorrow Never Knows” has stayed one of the Beatles’ most evocative and astounding songs long after Altamont and AOR and punk and indie and onwards, where even two generations’ worth of Boomer-loathing X-ers and Millennials can rouse up the need to listen to this moment of psychedelia, especially in a distinctly post-psychedelic series of eras, and find something deeply transformative in there that carries through the decades without the burden of nostalgia, received wisdom, or other peoples’ secondhand memories. Let’s see what’s downstream.

Jimi Hendrix Feat. Jim Morrison (1968)

Let’s hear it for the duality of our classic rock canon. On guitar, you have the transcendent artist who found a way to directly link Buddy Guy and John Coltrane on the same astral plane and use that virtuoso freedom to define psychedelia, metal, and noise all at once in a way that still sounds astonishing. And on vocals, you have the frontman of a band that could’ve been a pretty great garage rock outfit if it weren’t for so many lapses into bad poetry, half-formed spooky-Americana mythos, and catastrophically embarrassing drunken ridiculousness. In short, what happens here is that Jimi Hendrix and a few other musicians of mysterious attribution (one, rumored but denied to be Johnny Winter) staged an impromptu after-hours jam session sometime in 1968 at New York’s Scene club. Jim Morrison was in attendance, and being Jim Morrison, was drunk as shit and intent on stealing the spotlight. So he bumbled his way onto the stage and bellowed a few incoherent lines about having anal sex with his girlfriend before being ushered off. It was mortifying, but at least it made a little more sense than “Horse Latitudes.”

Still, this isn’t the most thrilling artifact in the world even without the Lizard-Draining King blurghling his way through dopey buttsex adlibs. Hendrix was a diligent taper who always kept his recordings even when they weren’t that great, which accounts for this bootleg’s existence in the first place. (The full recording of the session was stolen from his apartment and released under a number of titles, from an initial 1972 pressing called Sky High to the tastefully titled 1980 release Woke Up This Morning And Found Myself Dead.) And for the most part, it largely just sounds like Jimi blowing off some steam after some time cutting Electric Ladyland at the nearby Record Plant Studios. The power of a Hendrix cover is earthmoving — listen to any version of “Hey Joe” recorded between the Leaves’ original ’65 single and the release of the Jimi Hendrix Experience version the following year, and it’ll sound like uptempo folk-rock; nearly every version afterwards is done with Jimi’s overcast blues crawl in mind. But his “Tomorrow Never Knows” isn’t as transformative or capable of finding new angles on a recently familiar song — he turns off his mind, relaxes, and floats downstream, but it’s mostly towards the end of making his way to the churn of “Voodoo Child.” Good thing he decided a Dylan cover would fit the new album better.

Junior Parker (1970)

It could be owing to his comparatively early death (he passed away in 1971 at the age of 39) or a comparatively early peak (his greatest songs, including the original version of “Mystery Train,” were recorded in the dawn-of-rock ‘n’ roll early ’50s), but Junior Parker seems like he hasn’t gotten enough of his due. At least Al Green shouted him out — well, hummed him out, really — at the beginning of his recording of “Take Me To The River” in 1974, an homage that hinted at Parker’s lineage from raw Southern blues and gospel to uptown soul. But it was another, somewhat more meta homage that gave Parker’s later work another lease on life. In 2011, the Chemical Brothers — who famously invoked a more hectic, off-the-rails “Tomorrow Never Knows” (without actually sampling it) on their 1996 single “Setting Sun” — opened their 2011 show at the Fuji Rock Festival with a truncated portion from Parker’s version of “Tomorrow Never Knows” as an introductory overture. There’s two great jokes here, and one is that, yes, the Chemical Brothers fuck with “Tomorrow Never Knows” to the point that both “Setting Sun” and their ’99 single “Let Forever Be” both ride off its energy, so why not make the namedrop explicit, albeit in a less obvious way?

The second joke is that Parker’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” — one of three Beatles covers on 1970’s LP The Outside Man (along with “Taxman” and “Lady Madonna”) — works so well because it is, in every single conceivable way, the precise opposite of the Beatles version. Their downstream is a tumbling rapids; Parker’s is a placid immersion tank, sparse guitar/bass notes and zero-gravity tempo spaced to let the reverb breathe and echo as deeply as possible. There is percussion only in the most abstract sense — for the first two-thirds of the song, it might as well be a faucet dripping on a tambourine — and where Lennon’s voice sounded like a wailing siren call to mind expansion, Parker sounds like someone in the process of discovering some next level of meditative trance through introspective quiet. And yet it is not even a fraction less psychedelic.

801 (1976)

So the ’60s ended, the dream got snuffed out, and rock’s vanguard got lost and tried to find themselves again through synthesizers and quaaludes and cocaine and ego-stroking self-help seminars, right? That’s the conventional wisdom, but it’s not quite as interesting as the other possibilities towards transformation that the glam, prog, and art rock waves of the ’70s brought us. 801 were a supergroup consisting of Roxy Music alumni Phil Manzanera and Brian Eno, along with an assortment of prog vets and previous collaborators (Curved Air’s Francis Monkman; Matching Mole’s Bill MacCormick; session players Simon Phillips and Lloyd Watson) who played a trio of live gigs in 1976. The one they played in September at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall was recorded for 801 Live and released all of two months later, a quick turnaround aided by the fact that every single instrument and recording device save the drums were fed straight to the mixing deck — an early example of an engineering feat that made for one of the decade’s cleanest, best-sounding live albums.

But what all that newfangled audiophilia good for if the music’s ordinary? Thankfully, the setlist of 801 Live is heavy on the work of Eno (including a blistering, manic twitch-funk version of “Baby’s On Fire”), Manzanera (with a few cuts from his ’75 solo album Diamond Head), and Manzanera & McCormick’s Canterbury Scene jazz-prog band Quiet Sun (an underheralded band that also featured future This Heat drummer Charles Hayward). And given all the strange ways these bands and scenes wound up intersecting, it’s a smart move that they picked a cover of “Tomorrow Never Knows” for their setlist — titled “TNK (Tomorrow Never Knows),” as though the abbreviation made the title feel more like a technological firm or a political party (or both). Instead of a lysergic kaleidoscope, 801’s “TNK” comes across like a half-detached, half-awed gaze into the future, a skulking glide towards a horizon that anticipates both Eno’s work with David Byrne on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts and the soon-to-emerge work of Gary Numan and Tubeway Army’s icy android synthpop of Replicas and The Pleasure Principle.

Phil Collins (1981)

Speaking of Eno, how’s about his drummer? Phil Collins’s road to international Live Aid jet-set ’80s superstardom was kicked off in Genesis and launched into the stratosphere by his ’81 solo debut Face Value (featuring the deathless “In The Air Tonight”). But his rep as a “Sussudio”-inflicting cornball that the Gen-X cognoscenti moaned about is thrown off at least a bit by his association with the avant-pop genius on albums like Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy, Another Green World, and Before And After Science, the latter of which puts him in the same musical quarters as Can’s motorik worldbeater Jackie Liebezeit. Collins brought that experience, his work with John Martyn’s breakup album Grace And Danger, and his time with the fusion outfit Brand X into Face Value, then mixing in his interest in what former Genesis bandmade Peter Gabriel was doing around the same time — with Face Value emerging as a particularly striking blend of uptempo R&B-laced pop (“Behind The Lines”; “I Missed Again”) and ambient-influenced starkness (“The Roof Is Leaking”; “Droned”).

Collins’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” is a lot closer to that latter category than the former, but it’s also a sign of what constituted avant-garde-conversant pop music as opposed to what the Beatles did 15 years previous. The sinuous drones and sped-up backwards riffs are in the same spirit, but more downtempo and reflective — a switch-off from the manic rush of early ’80s go-go-go coke-hubris energy compared to the rocket launch that sent the original version careening through unexplored headspaces in the ’60s. It’s psychedelia for the Star Wars age, lived-in technology with sharp angles and Brutalist edifices that seem cold and forbidding until you notice all the greenery growing through the cracks.

Monsoon (1983)

The ’60s connection between Indian music and psychedelia has been well-documented — a Mike Bloomfield LSD trip in late 1965 inspired him to incorporate it into the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s second album East-West for the 13-minute sprawl of the title track’s modal drone, around the same time that George Harrison was really getting into Ravi Shankar. Since then, there have been a handful of well-known attempts by British Asian artists to reclaim the music of India from that kind of usage in pop songs, maybe the most famous being Cornershop’s 1997 version of “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” — which is practically identical to the original except for being sung in Punjabi. Fourteen years before that, however, Grange Hill cast member-turned-pop singer Sheila Chandra released her third single with her group Monsoon, a cover of “Tomorrow Never Knows” that played up the Asian aspects of the song even more vividly than the original. (That tabla, for instance, gives the familiar roiling drum pattern a bit more fluidity.) Chandra’s voice is second only to Junior Parker’s in turning that intense lead vocal into something more soothingly suggestive than Lennon’s Leslie cabinet tornado, too. But what really sets in here is how even slightly paring down the psychedelic aspects of the song in favor of a more direct connection with Indian music makes it work in an early-’80s new wave/synthpop context.

The Chameleons (1986); The Mission (1987); Ride (1989)

“Tomorrow Never Knows” never quite went away enough to have anything that could really be called a “resurgence,” but it had something of A Moment in the late ’80s that actually traces through UK indie’s lineage from post-punk to goth rock to shoegaze. The version the Chameleons recorded didn’t widely materialize until long after its 1986 recording as part of the demo sessions for Strange Times and that same year’s inclusion in an oft-bootlegged concert in Leeds. But it’s a standout example of how Lennon enthusiast Mark Burgess’ lyrical vamping and all that sea-of-warmth sound from the Reg Smithies/Dave Fielding guitar pairing could mutate a decades-old product of an increasingly faraway moment into something their contemporaries not only understood but could lay claim over. The Mission’s version is a little more obvious, especially in this performance clip from The Old Grey Whistle Test, psychedelia as a big fat highlighter marker to run across every line and phrasing until it’s transformed from an inward gaze to a fist-pumping anthem — an attempt to recapture an initial energy, only to replace it with a darker impulse. And then there’s Ride’s version, first worked out during a 1989 “covers gig” that was heavy on Madonna singles juxtaposed with takes on the Velvet Underground and the Stooges; “Tomorrow Never Knows” was the closer on a rare, obscure bootleg. It briefly resurfaced in the encore-opening portion of their setlist during the Atlanta and New York stops of a 2015 tour, both of which are the only easily available recordings of what, even in a latter-day incarnation, sound like the ’90s finally figuring out exactly how to channel the ’60s: with a torrent of distortion.

Jad Fair & Daniel Johnston (1989)

Yes, Jad Fair and Daniel Johnston. I don’t even know, people. My feelings about both these guys are underformed and kind of knee-jerk at best: Outsider art is already a tangled enough situation without bringing the aspect of legitimate mental illness into the equation, and Johnston’s cultural lionization as some sort of schizophrenic manchild genius seems insulting and kind of sad in a lot of ways. But in that case, that means we shouldn’t use his condition as an excuse or even a reason for his music sounding like it does. Thinking about Lennon’s lyrics about ego death and resetting your very essence of being into a neutral state in the context of mental illness might be worth examining if you’re someone with a better grasp on how that kind of shit works than I do, especially if you’re trying to find some connection between the negative effects of LSD on mental health and this version’s lyrics-negating outro (“No, no, ladies and gentlemen, do not surrender to the void! The darkness surrounds you! Don’t relax! You’ll never get out of that pit! No, no, it isn’t love! The demons’ll enter! No no no no nooooo“). So I guess I’ll get at this from a musical perspective, which is: Oh I get it [closes tab].

David Lee Roth (2003)

801 Live featured a pretty good cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” and the aforementioned fantastic cover of “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Van Halen’s debut album included an all-time amazing dive-bomber laser dogfighting mutation of “You Really Got Me,” and then 35 years later, we get this. Diamond Dave calls his version “That Beatles Tune,” as though there really is such a thing as that Beatles tunes rather than one of many, many Beatles tunes. You can still hear Dave as that singular vocalist who’s half Sunset Strip, half old-timey showbiz, which might be the thing that really makes this cover weird — he’s so indelibly associated with, well, himself that taking on a particularly iconic song from an especially iconic phase of the most iconic rock band has to cause some kind of disassociative mishaps somewhere in your average listener. But hey, the David Lee Roth that wouldn’t try something like this is the same David Lee Roth that wouldn’t sing “Panama” while swinging a samurai sword around and doing leaping spin-kicks, and do we want that kind of compromise? I, for one, say no.

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