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It was fifty years ago today that the Beatles had their first recording session for what would eventually become Revolver.

The first song they worked on was “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which of course ended up being the last song on the album. Five days previously, according to The Beatles Bible, John Lennon had purchased a copy of The Psychedelic Experience by Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, and Ralph Metzner, which contained the following line:

When in doubt, relax, turn off your mind, float downstream.

A lot of people have mixed feelings about Tim Leary, an important and influential thinker who was also a relentless self-promoter and didn’t seem to think much about the consequences of his actions. But his significance in Beatles history is undeniable. He was also the inspiration for “Come Together,” which began life as a theme song for Leary’s campaign for “president or whatever he wanted to be” (said Lennon; actually governor of California).

As for “TNK,” to this day it is a shocking piece of music for a pop band to have produced: psychedelic but not in a cute way, it finally fulfilled Lennon’s ambition of writing a song that uses only one chord. Droning, relentless, off-kilter, it must have made for a strange way for the Beatles to spend a Wednesday.

Far-out as it is, the album version of “TNK” is toned down considerably from the original version, which had the working title “Mark 1.” According to Mark Lewisohn, author of The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, it was “a heavy metal recording of enormous proportion, with thundering echo and booming, quivering, ocean-bed vibrations.” You can hear an early version on The Beatles Anthology 2, and while it’s not quite as heavy as all that, it gives you an idea of where the song must have started.

It’s a tribute to the Beatles’ clout at the time that no one apparently batted an eyelid at their beginning work on their new album with such a startling departure. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is not rock’n’roll as we understand the term. I’m not sure what to call it, exactly. Anyone?

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