Four things The Beatles can teach us about creativity
To shape the future, why not take inspiration from the past? 44’s Phil Parrish travels back in time to 1966 for some valuable lessons in creativity from four famous Liverpudlians…
As a week to be British, it wasn’t bad at all. The summer had (typically) been a wet and dull one, yet London was swinging, mods and miniskirts were mesmerising passers-by on Carnaby Street and the previous Saturday, a young Mancunian striker called Geoff Hurst had blasted a hat-trick at Wembley to make his country champions of the world.
Then the following Friday, with the nation still ecstatic from winning the world’s biggest footballing jamboree, the four most famous Englishmen on the planet kicked off the weekend by releasing their brand new album to millions of excited pop fans.
Sadly, those hungry for euphoric anthems may have been disappointed when they listened to The Beatles’ Revolver for the first time on 5th August 1966. There was some sweet pop magic on the record for sure – the romantic tenderness of Here, There and Everywhere, the nursery rhyme jollity of Yellow Submarine and the lusty, brassy energy of Got to Get You into My Life.
But there was oddness too, like the funereal ballad about a lonely girl called Eleanor Rigby who ‘wears her face in a jar by the door’, a sarcastic rant at the Inland Revenue on Taxman, and the exotic use of sitar on the tranquil Love You To. Most bizarre of all though, was the album’s closing number, a blistering, two minute 58 second hurricane of distortive noise unlike anything the quartet had done before.
Tomorrow Never Knows still feels disorientating today: half a century ago it must have felt like the world’s biggest band had recorded it from the padded cells of a lunatic asylum. But to the song’s chief writer John Lennon, it was a quantum leap in the band’s creative evolution, as they withdrew from live performances to concentrate on studio innovation, paving the way to the psychedelic strangeness of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band the following summer.
Aptly enough, retreating within, channelling your creative impulses and expanding your horizons is what Tomorrow Never Knows is all about. From its invitation to ‘Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream’, it plunges you into an exhilarating aural landscape. And amid the arresting percussion, whirring bird sounds and spaced-out vocals, there’s four valuable lessons on creativity for anyone seeking inspiration:
The future is what happens when past meets with present – and Tomorrow Never Knows epitomises that with its daring blend of the ancient and the avant-garde.
The song’s creative origins began 2,000 years ago in the Himalayas, with a sacred Buddhist text called the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Adapted for the sixties hippy generation by psychologist Timothy Leary, the book’s spiritual messages were the chief influence behind Lennon’s meditative, Zen-like lyrics.
Counterpointing these are the song’s signature reverse tape effects, inspired by the weird sonic experiments of German musician, electronic pioneer and Beatles’ contemporary Karlheinz Stockhausen.
It’s this fusion of completely disparate elements that’s the secret to Tomorrow Never Knows’ originality. And it’s also how Stephen King came up with the idea for his breakthrough novel Carrie, when he recalled a Life magazine article about telekinesis at the same time he was thinking about an adolescent girl being bullied at school.
Children don’t care what’s impossible or not – only grown-ups are that boring. And in the mid-sixties, The Beatles were big kids in love with a playground called Abbey Road Studios, where they could play with their toys like restless, excited schoolboys.
The playthings on Tomorrow Never Knows are a dizzying mix of classical instruments and the latest sixties technology: Indian sitars and tanpuras, electric guitars, organs, distorted piano, reverse looping across five different tape machines and a sound-altering Leslie speaker, through which producer George Martin ran Lennon’s trippy vocals to mimic the sound of monks chanting from a distant mountain top.
Tomorrow Never Knows pulsates with playfulness, epitomised by Lennon’s curious, incoherent plea to ‘listen to the colour of your dreams’ and the closing sutra-like incantation to ‘Play the game existence to the end… of the beginning’.
It was the same kind of naïve, liberated creative abandon – who says you can’t do it? – which saw 25-year-old, first-time director Orson Welles make Citizen Kane and change cinema forever, an experience he would later describe as playing with the ‘biggest electric train set a boy ever had’.
Delirious and demented on the surface, Tomorrow Never Knows is actually a simplistic song when it comes to structure, lyrics and rhythm.
A virtuoso percussion loop from Ringo Starr thunders repeatedly throughout, while Lennon’s vocals follow a deliberate two-line sequence of statement followed by present participle (dying, shining, being, knowing, believing), a cadence that reverberates throughout the song like a temple bell calling us to prayer. The result is a taut, focused and lean piece of music, surging forward on a single chord E that sacrifices melody and chorus for the pure, hard shock of the new.
“Simple can be harder than complex,” said Apple founder Steve Jobs. “You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
Or, as fellow perfectionist Leonardo da Vinci once said – a man rumoured to have spent days loitering around the jails of Milan for a model on which to base the shadowed Judas Iscariot in The Last Supper – “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.
When you look beyond its experimental techniques, myriad influences and orchestrated wildness, Tomorrow Never Knows has a very positive, heartfelt message – to release the creative potential we all have within us.
It may have taken fame and money for The Beatles to conceive and record Tomorrow Never Knows, but above all it took self-belief. This inner conviction is echoed in the song’s persuasive plea that through introspection (‘that you may see the meaning of within’), intuition (‘lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void’) and interdependence (‘love is all and love is everyone’) that we can, together, create something more remarkable and out-of-this-world than we could have at first possibly imagined.
To Lennon, the true source of insight and inspiration comes from both inside and out: a process of trusting your instincts, drawing on your own unique experiences and embracing the dizzying array of people, places and perspectives surrounding you.
Open your heart to yourself, the world and all its wonders, say The Beatles. And remember that in truth, tomorrow never really knows. Because tomorrow is a question only we can answer, an idea lying deep within us that’s just waiting to be created.