The King Features’ version of "Tomorrow Never Knows"

Michael Gerber
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Robert Freeman's rejected cover for Revolver, 1966.

Robert Freeman’s rejected cover for Revolver, 1966.

A Tomorrow Never Knows cartoon? It happened. The Beatles cartoon is wince-worthy, for sure, but have a little sympathy for the animators. As the years passed, they had to shoehorn what The Beatles were becoming—that is, overtly weird-ass—into the family-friendly Fabs from 1964. After watching the clip below, the following scene popped into my noggin….

The time: June 1966.
The place: Conference room “B” at King Features Syndicate, here in Southern California. There’s acoustic tile. Fluorescent lights. Shitty coffee. At the west end of a grim metal table ringed by uncomfortable chairs, hangs a portrait of Snuffy Smith—on which someone has scrawled “Segregation Forevah!” It’s the only clue that art is made here.
Outside the door, an army of guys in horn-rims slump in their cubicles, painting acetate cels and getting high off fixative. The BOSS, a veteran of the Bulge who still wears his crew-cut, comes in, pissed. Smog-weakened light meanders into the room through windows in desperate need of cleaning; the boss closes the Levalors with a snap, and turns to his fractious staff.
Okay, shitbirds: Pouch from England came yesterday. Who’s heard it?

That’s a song?

‘Tomorrow Never Knows’? What’s that even mean?

I liked it.

You would, Ferlinghetti…

>Kids’ll never buy that crap. These guys are done.

You don’t think they could be on the dope, do you?

The Capitol rep assures me that they’re clean-livers.

What the hell for? Nobody’s told them about The Pill?

Girls today, they’re crazy for it.

Not with you, they’re not.

The conversation fractures: declarations of what could be accomplished if one were still single, memories of postwar Berlin’s red-light district, etc.

All right, all right, break it up. I’m already late for a story conference on Popeye. Get the storyboard on my desk by Friday. Usual rules apply.

No sex– 


–definitely no drugs–

–and very little rock and roll.

The boss leaves. There’s a long silence, broken only by ANIMATOR #1’s nervous habit of tapping his pencil against his teeth. ANIMATOR #2 shoots him a dirty look.

President Kennedy did that. Read it in the Manchester book.

You’ll end up like him if you don’t knock it off.

It’s impossible. Have you listened to this song? It’s not “boy meets girl.” It’s more like “boy meets disturbing psychic entity.”

All right, college boy–shut up and draw. Otherwise we’ll ship you to Viet-Nam.

Feel free. This is impossible.

Screw it, let’s just jam ’em all into a phone booth or something. Or they’re swimming, and there’s an octopus…

You guys, we can do this–will you do exactly what I tell you?

Will you keep me out of the infantry?

ANIMATOR #3 produces a small brown bottle and puts it on the table with a click.

Hash oil, gentlemen. Imported all the way from Afghanistan. I hope your afternoons are clear…”

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  1. Avatar drasil wrote:

    I think I said “I cannot believe this is real” out loud to nobody three times while watching this. maybe four.

    my lack of knowledge of this is definitely sourced to my near-total ignorance of the beatles cartoon, after having seen two reruns of it on the disney channel in the 80s when I was a kid and never wanting to see it again. I had a similarly anachronistic young friend who was into the monkees, and I didn’t ever want to see the beatles reduced to that level.

    anyway, back to surreality. I’m really not sure what to mention first–the bizarre juxtaposition of the 1964-suited “beatles playing” stock animation with the crazy backdrop/headdresses, or the animators’ weird idiosyncratic interpretation of the set and setting of the song, or their casting of the tape loops as horns, or… are those dinosaurs?

    I think your sense of the total bewilderment on the part of the animators coming through in crystal clarity here is spot on. I don’t know about the hash oil bit, or for that matter, some of the youtube commenters’ likeminded observations about this being someone’s “acid trip” in animation, etc… I think what I’m reacting to most strongly is how the thing alternates between cliche and grasping at straws, in the same way the whole rest of the series did, only now that there’s this song behind it, its hacklike qualities become so dreadfully apparent that you’re right, you really do cringe while watching it.

    “they’ve had it,” indeed.

  2. Avatar Michael wrote:

    Thanks Drasil! I wasn’t 100% serious about the hash oil, it being a sketch–but what I saw here was a collision of pre-hippie culture and what came after, and wanted to externalize that; in the same way I made all but one of the illustrators Greatest Generation squares–when, it must be noted, people like Robert Crumb were drawing for American Greetings in 1966.

    IMHO, The Beatles cartoon isn’t exactly hackwork, as hacky as it feels now–to me, hacks don’t know any better; that’s what makes them hacks. Yellow Submarine, produced by the same team, and perhaps in production at the time this cartoon was made, shows that they were making a choice with The Beatles cartoon.

    What’s interesting is that between 1964 and 1968 what a cartoon could be, and who it might be for, changes. If you were born in 1920, cartoons are for kids (who might not notice repeating backgrounds); if you were born after 1945, your ideas are totally different. So this is kind of a mid-step. And it’s totally weird! The transformation in cartoons happened in every art, and those of us in pop culture are still dealing with it today. (And I dare say that a lot of what people find invigorating today–cheap irony, self-awareness, the humor of embarrassment and microcultures–is gonna wear just as poorly as those Beatles cartoons.)

    Getting back to the cartoon: The story of those generations slamming together, and the impossibility of the task that the hippies had set themselves–to remake society entirely in the space of, like, five years–is the story of the Sixties. It’s certainly the story of The Beatles, and in large part why their breakup was felt so keenly in the world outside of music. Part of the reason I posted the film was I admired how hard the animators worked to make sense of the song in that old idiom. And if you take it totally out of its context, I think it kinda…works? The bats, the dinosaur, Lennon as high priest…Dude, I’m freaking out. 🙂

    Anyhoo–it’s an amazing little snippet. Glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Avatar Nancy wrote:

    Love that dialogue, Michael. The cartoon creators had to be wondering what they’d gotten themselves into when “Revolver” came out.

    Drasil, I had the same reaction to the moptop-era suits in this clip: the music’s moved on, but the haberdashery in the cartoon hasn’t caught up even to “Help,” let alone to “Tomorrow Never Knows.” I’m reading David Leaf’s great book about the Beach Boys right now, and in the middle 60s they experienced a real-life version of this dilemma. Brian Wilson was recording “Smile” while the other Boys were out on the road, performing the surfing hits and wearing those striped shirts. But in the case of the Beach Boys, the music was the casualty, not the clothes.

    And Michael, I also think this thing kind of works, wacked as it is. The bit at about :27 when two Lennons are singing to each other captures something about how this song is about an inner landscape.

    All the “primitive” features (cringe-inducing as the racist/sexist overtones are now) also seem in line with the message in “Tomorrow Never Knows” to let go and return to something more basic and primal. The appearing and disappearing headdresses suggest all the ways the Beatles were exploring and “trying on” different traditions and musical styles, too. (Not that I’m saying the animators had any of this consciously in mind, necessarily.)

    And hey, music videos — the gyrating female reminds me of a huge number of 80s videos, where the gyrating didn’t have anything much to do with the lyrics. I guess some things are timeless!

  4. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Interesting to see what they would have done with “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road.”

  5. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Pinky and the Brain meet the Beatles (the Feebles) and YoYo NoNo.

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