Read Simon Morley’s essay ‘Staring into the Contemporary Abyss’ Next, choose any body of work that you feel explores the sublime. It may be a photographic project, a work of literature, cinema, or any other medium; write at least 300 words describing how you believe the work you’ve selected relates to the sublime. Use Morley’s text to support your argument.
– (LPE Coursebook: 51)
I was fourteen, maybe fifteen, when I first heard the last track on the Beatles’ 1966 album, Revolver; the recording was already more than ten years old, but it sounded like nothing I had ever heard before. Indeed, when I listened to it again before I starting to write this, it still impresses me as being a strange and ungraspable ball of sound, rather than another song by what was, at the time they recorded it, the most popular pop group in the world.
The song is called Tomorrow Never Knows, and if you don’t know it, take a break from reading this and listen to it now:
It is easy to find ideas in Morley’s article that are directly related to what is going on when you listen to it. Firstly, if the song is ‘about’ anything, it is about the experience of transcendence.
…radical philosophers in France […] hoped, by seeking to understand aspects of human experience that seemed to lie beyond the controlling structures imposed by the status quo, to keep open a pathway leading to some kind of possibility of emancipation.’
If the 19th century viewer was invited to share the place of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer, staring into the fog swirling around the lesser mountain peaks arrayed below below him, then the listener to Tomorrow Never Knows is positioned within John Lennon’s head as he recites (psychedelic ‘guru’ Timothy Leary’s paraphrase of) words from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, urging us to turn off your mind, relax and float downstream… We are offered the possibility of becoming one with the universe, and the recording seems to mimic that experience through the way it sounds.
The song was assembled in a studio: the drums are compressed; guitars are recorded backwards; Lennon’s voice is put through a spinning Leslie speaker; snippets of sound are looped and faded in and out around the central rhythmic thrust of the recording. It is a work of construction; an aural installation, rather than a piece of music. It occupies the space identified by Morley as one of the two contexts for the contemporary sublime – technology.
‘a desire to define a moment when: special and psychological codes and structures no longer bind us; we reach a sort of borderline where rational thought comes to an end; we suddenly encounter something wholly and perturbingly other’
Morley suggests that ‘the most sublime artworks these days tend to be installations‘ and gives examples of disorientating installations in an Art context. Like the more recent dance music it prefigures, Tomorrow Never Knows provides something for listeners to lose themselves in, an opportunity to become one with some bigger… thing. Of course, it also is an invitation to go ahead, take the pill, Alice – go on, you know you want to; what have you got to lose? It is not dying; it is being… Tomorrow Never Knows is almost a dare.
Where the song does not follow Morley’s template for the sublime, is in the way that it retains (for me at least) the power to challenge and to disturb; the essay makes the point that ‘what once may have seemed sublime quickly becomes its opposite – the beautiful’ but Tomorrow Never Knows – a song containing only one droning chord for its whole 2’59” duration remains resistant to this half-life decay of the sublime into more base material.
I cannot imagine many couples would choose it to be ‘our tune’ (or to be the first dance at their wedding reception, for that matter, although starting your married life by dancing wildly to a piece of music called Tomorrow Never Knows, would be a brilliantly sublime act!) – 55 years after it was recorded, it still strikes a strange and discordant note
The Beatles (1966) Tomorrow Never Knows. [Streaming] London: Parlophone Records. At: https://open.spotify.com/track/00oZhqZIQfL9P5CjOP6JsO?si=8FjE5WB3TVy55I7oeJ_x8A (Accessed 01/03/21)
Morley, S. (2010) Staring into the contemporary abyss: the contemporary sublime. At: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/staring-contemporary-abyss. (Accessed 28/02/21).