Mad Men Chose the Perfect Beatles Tune to Illustrate the Abyss of the Future

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
May 7 2012 5:01 PM

How “Tomorrow Never Knows” Redefined Pop

revolver2
The cover of the Beatles album Revolver

Last night’s Mad Men found the show’s heroes reconciling their views and practices with a rapidly changing world (as usual). While Matthew Weiner and co. have always carefully curated the show’s soundtrack, this season in particular has made a running theme of older ad men acclimating to a revolutionary moment in popular music. We’ve seen the youthful appropriation of French yéyé music, the chaos of back-stage Rolling Stones worship, and, last night, the confusion prompted by the Beatles’ most radical recording.

Michael Ginsberg, a newish addition to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, pitches a cologne ad based on an extended Hard Days Night riff. The client counters with a lame, generic replacement for the “exciting” music of the Beatles. Then, at Megan’s behest, Don considers, and finally rejects, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the closing track of Revolver. (Update: Lionsgate, the studio that produces Mad Menreportedly paid $250,000 to use the song.)

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By 1966, when the episode takes place, the Beatles had been pushing songwriting conventions for a few years already—really ever since they were gigging in Hamburg with Pete Best, melding tin-pan skiffle songs popular in Britain with the American blues John Lennon loved. But “Tomorrow Never Knows” represented a more significant innovation: Rather than playing with what they could do inside a pop song, the Beatles asked what kind of music a pop song might be.

The track changed the rules of pop in several ways. It uses just one chord and a single drum beat throughout. The recording features such heavy studio processing, experimentation, and random interference that it could not, at the time, be played live—and, according to George Martin, it could never be recorded in the same way again.

To get the vocal sound he wanted, Lennon had suggested that he tie himself to a rope and swing around the microphone while singing. Instead, Martin built a special speaker cabinet. Multiple tape machines played pre-recorded loops throughout the Abbey Road studios, each machine monitored by a technician who held a pencil in the loop to maintain “proper tension.” John, Paul, George, and Ringo manned the faders on the mixing console, while Martin controlled stereo panning and 19-year-old engineer Geoff Emerick kept “a general eye on the meters to make sure no one was doing anything excessive.” Rather than a group of kids banging on drums and guitars, the process conjures images of scientists in a lab, using technology to will a new sort of music into existence.

With its pounding rhythm, droning guitars, and lyrics of mental and physical surrender (cribbed from Buddhist death prayers via Timothy Leary), “Tomorrow Never Knows” laid the foundations for much of the psychedelic music that followed—and its pioneering use of audio manipulation was a key moment in the development of electronic and dance music.

The clients and the SCDP brass (and even, at times, George Harrison) considered the group “just a little dance hall band,” but, with “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the Beatles crossed a pop-music rubicon, into a realm where rules and conventions were abandoned and anything seemed possible. Though they continued to push songwriting (and recording) boundaries throughout their career, no step they took was as singularly radical as the final track of Revolver.

Over at the Mad Men TV Club, John Swansburg points to the moment on last night's episode when Don stares into an empty elevator shaft, a metaphor for the abyss of his future. “Tomorrow Never Knows” serves a similar function: As Don listens to the song, he’s hearing a musical future free from formal constraints or limitations, itself an abyss of sorts, albeit a more hopeful one. Though this bit of trivia is debated, the original working title for the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” was reportedly “The Void.”

Chris Wade is a producer for Slate Video and occasional contributor to Brow Beat. Follow him on Twitter.

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