Paul McCartney is working on a new project utilizing vintage gear he once used to make tape loops for The Beatles’ landmark track “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
“I’ve dusted off the same two old machines that I used for ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’” McCartney told me during a wide-ranging phone interview to be published soon by Wired.com. “We’re having trouble finding spare parts. But my man Eddie Klein, who works in my studio and is an old Abbey Road guy, is a real boffin and has got the machines working again.”
Inspired by the musique concrète of German composer and early electronic music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen, McCartney’s recombined found sounds for “Tomorrow Never Knows” created an aural sensation utterly new to pop music when the song appeared on The Beatles’ epochal 1966 album Revolver.
Combined with The Beatles’ other technical and stylistic experiments — including John Lennon’s transcendental lyricism, engineer Geoff Emerick’s studio innovations, George Harrison’s Eastern drone and Ringo Starr’s proto-hop percussion — “Tomorrow Never Knows” helped plot the coordinates of future music.
The song has since become known as a masterpiece of electronic music and one of the most influential dance tracks of all time.
‘”Tomorrow Never Knows’ is one of those songs that’s in the DNA of so much going on these days that it’s hard to know where to start,” said DJ Spooky, electronic music virtuoso and author of Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture. “Its tape collage alone makes it one of the first tracks to use sampling really successfully. I also think that Brian Eno’s idea of the studio-as-instrument comes from this kind of recording.”
”I’m also a guy who was really interested in tape loops, electronics and avant-garde music. That just doesn’t get out there on a wide level, but it’s true.”
McCartney’s early technological and musical experimentation is often overshadowed by Beatles classics like “Hey Jude.” But spend any time researching his resume, and it quickly becomes clear that the pioneering composer’s wide-ranging interests helped lay the foundation for music that many would rarely associate with him.
“Electronic music is something I’ve always been into,” said McCartney, whose recently remastered and reissued solo releases McCartney and McCartney II, arriving June 14, paved trails for everything from home recording to hip-hop.
“What’s often said of me is that I’m the guy who wrote ‘Yesterday’ or I’m the guy who was the bass player for the Beatles,” he added. “That stuff floats to the top of the water, you know? But I’m also a guy who was really interested in tape loops, electronics and avant-garde music. That just doesn’t get out there on a wide level, but it’s true. I’ve really been fascinated by this stuff.”
The mind reels, pardon the pun, at what McCartney might come up with after tinkering around with the same tape machines that skewed “Tomorrow Never Knows” strange. His 2008 electronic-music effort Electric Arguments, composed with The Killing Joke’s Youth under the alias The Fireman, was an alternately incendiary and captivating exercise. But according to the always-busy McCartney – who plays HP’s 2011 Discover conference Thursday as thanks for Hewlett-Packard digitizing the one-time Beatles’ exhaustive library of 1 million items – his current tape-loop recombinations are still in the formative stage.
“The new project is going to take a couple years,” said McCartney. “It’s very long-range. I’ve no idea when it is actually going to happen, but I’m really into it.”
Once it does happen, renewed interest in The Beatles’ technocultural influence, which I’ve been compiling on Wired.com and elsewhere in the continuing series Geek The Beatles, will likely follow. The Beatles reached their 50th birthday last year, and rarely has a band from the past so securely locked a foothold in the future.
The experimental nature of “Tomorrow Never Knows” is a major reason why.
“‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is the ultimate future moment for The Beatles,” Autolux guitarist Greg Edwards told Wired.com last year, before the band’s drummer, Carla Azar, revised the song with The Kills’ Allison Mosshart for Zack Snyder’s techno-fantasy film flop Sucker Punch. “That song basically transcends time. It still lands years ahead of us, no matter when we hear it.”
The song exerts widespread influence decades after its recording, said DJ Spooky, who cataloged a star-studded list of artists who have used the song in their own music or generally been shaped by its sound.
“Flaming Lips? Check,” he said. “Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head? Check. Anything from Radiohead? Check. Sonic Youth? A Tribe Called Quest? Check. The song has one of those kind of cinematic breakdowns that artists like Danger Mouse and David Lynch could check out again and again. The only thing that the record didn’t affect was Jamaican dub, but the Jamaican scene was smoking something different than John Lennon’s LSD trips, so that’s another story.”
Regardless of the drug in question, McCartney’s tape-loop experimentalism was a mind-blowing musical exercise for the artist himself, as well as for Beatles fans.
“When I made my first tape loops, man was it a buzz!” McCartney said. “Bringing tape loops into the studio as I did, finding out that John has got a really funky tune called ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ that needed a solo…. Well, what was better than the crazy stuff I was doing?”
This article appeared at WIRED