Once George Harrison picked up the sitar to add exotic sounds to John Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood”, the pop world turned toward the East, as did luminaries like John Coltrane and composer Philip Glass. Suddenly, the pop charts resonated with sitars and drones and tablas, in hits like “Heart Full of Soul,” “See My Friends” and “Paint It Black” as well as songs by Donovan, Traffic, Richie Havens, the Box Tops, Joe South and the Incredible String Band. John Kruth, who has been known to play the sitar (aka, ‘the 20-string Persian lute”), explains how this happened for PKM.
Although John Lennon claimed the lyrics to “Norwegian Wood” were just “gobbledegook,” a cleverly veiled jumble of images designed to keep his first wife Cynthia in the dark about his extra-marital affairs, it was clear the Beatle was no longer interested in just holding hands.
According to John, the song’s vague lyrics came “from my experiences, girls’ flats, things like that.” But Beatle producer George Martin considered the words to Lennon’s hypnotic ballad “slightly sick.” Paul believed Lennon’s inspiration was “completely imaginary,” and pointed to the true source of his partner’s song: “Peter Asher had this room done out in wood,” he said. “It was pine, really cheap pine. But it’s not a good title, ‘Cheap Pine.’”
While McCartney claimed the song’s punchline was his idea, Lennon said he had no clue how or where he came up with the notion of “Norwegian Wood,” other than possibly the current popularity of Scandinavian furniture in the 1960s.
No matter what took place between John and the song’s mystery girl – whether it was Maureen Cleave, the journalist who broke the scandalous “Bigger than Jesus” story in the London Evening Standard, or model Sonny Spielhagen/Drane – the whole affair seems rather cold.
After too much talk and wine, the decisive moment between the lovers is lost and the singer skulks off “to sleep in the bath.” His only solace comes the next morning after he strikes a match and stands contentedly watching the glow of her blazing love nest.
In an interview with Playboy, Lennon couldn’t or wouldn’t recall if the song was about “any specific woman it had to do with.” He explained, “I wrote obscurely, ala Dylan, I suppose, never saying what ya mean, but giving the impression of something. You know you just stick a few images together, thread ‘em together and you call it poetry.”
However it transpired, John’s Dylan-esque waltz (which Harrison likened to an old Irish folk song) would unwittingly spark the “Indian Invasion” after George, in lieu of his usual guitar, picked up a sitar, whose sinewy tones previously mesmerized him during the making of their second film Help!
And as it went with the Beatles in 1965, so followed the rest of world (well, at least other rock bands and a good percentage of the youth). Along with Harrison’s interest in Indian music came a passion for all things “Eastern,” including exotic fashions (check the Fabs’ matching beige military jackets, complete with Nehru collars and epaulettes when they rocked Shea Stadium on August 15, 1965). Designer Zandra Rhodes would help jolt England out of its conventional attitude for clothes by appropriating exotic Indian and Moroccan fabrics and patterns and designing flowing print vests and caftans worn by young, glamourous rock stars like Brian Jones and Marc Bolan.
Now, thanks to the “Quiet Beatle,” as Harrison was portrayed by the media, meditation, mantras, yoga and burning incense had suddenly become all “the raj” with a younger generation. Beyond Jack Kerouac’s 1958 novel The Dharma Bums and Alan Watts’ illuminating writings and lectures on Zen, Buddhism and Hindu consciousness in the West had previously been the exclusive domain of eccentric academics and peculiar aunts who found Ouija boards, séances and paintings of blue multi-armed and elephant-headed gods a welcome relief from the doldrums of their daily lives.
Harrison and later McCartney (inspired by his wife Linda) became more mindful and outspoken about their diets, adopting vegetarianism not solely for the sake of personal health and to clean up their their karma, but to demonstrate compassion for all sentient beings. Keep in mind that most folks claiming to be vegetarian at the time were generally looked upon with pity. It was just assumed they must have a serious health condition if they eat or digest a proper meal, which usually involved a large portion of meat.
“We were growing very quickly,” George explained “and there were a lot of influences. We were listening to all kinds of music.” But nothing spoke more profoundly to him than the spiraling notes of Ravi Shankar’s sitar. “It seemed very familiar to me. The pure sound just called on me,” he mused. Harrison had to get his hands on the instrument as quickly as possible and soon found “a very cheap sitar” for sale at a London import shop called India Craft.
Although most people became aware of the sitar through the simple melodic phrase he fashioned for “Norwegian Wood,” George later confessed he played the instrument “very badly.” As fate would have it, Ravi Shankar returned to London to perform at the Asian Music Circle. George hoped to arrange a private meeting with the master musician without attracting any unwanted attention from the press. In lieu of creating a public spectacle, plans were made to spirit Shankar to Harrison’s Essex estate, where, accompanied by tabla virtuoso Allah Rakha, he played a private concert for George, John and Ringo. Ravi would also give George his first sitar lesson, instructing him on how to sit and hold the instrument properly, balancing it between his right thumb and the sole of his left foot, along with some basic fingering technique, while introducing him in the intricacies of the Indian classical music form known as the raga.
While McCartney later admitted he found Indian music “boring,” Lennon was charmed by its mystical qualities, although he still maintained a healthy disrespect for any formal method or tradition. While John found certain aspects of the Indian musical system poetic, he couldn’t care less about what time of day or year a certain scale was designated to be played. He simply resonated with the sound of the sitar and was open to the possibilities it had to offer.
According to George, Ringo was completely mystified by the tabla and had absolutely no intention of learning the Indian hand drum as it was “so far out to him.” Why complicate matters with all that fancy technique, mathematics and intricate rhythms when two drumsticks had done the trick for him so far. Meanwhile Harrison was so completely enthralled by the 20-string Persian lute that he claimed he was ready, if necessary, to abandon his home and lovely wife, Pattie, and buy “a one-way ticket to Calcutta” to fully immerse himself in Indian music and culture.
Meanwhile, Ravi Shankar had remained blissfully ignorant of the Beatles’ music, until his niece and nephew played him “Norwegian Wood.” Although thoroughly unimpressed with Harrison’s neophyte noodling, Shankar immediately recognized the tremendous “effect [the song had] on the young people. They were lapping it up,” he enthused. “They loved it so much!”
Despite sporting a wispy moustache, Harrison was immediately recognized by a bell hop at the grand Taj Mahal hotel in Bombay when he traveled to India to study the sitar with Shankar. Suddenly the word was out and “there was such a big flash all around the world,” as Ravi wrote in his autobiography Raga Mala. “It was like wildfire, creating such a big explosion of fascination with the sitar that there was a tremendous demand for my concerts. I had become a superstar.”
“The impact of George Harrison’s life and times has been enormous,” wrote the minimalist composer Philip Glass in his December 2001, New York Times obituary for the “Quiet” Beatle. “He played a major role in bringing several generations of young musicians out of the parched and dying desert of Eurocentric music into a new world.’
Philip Glass recalled meeting Shankar in Paris in ‘65. “It was as powerful, and as important for my musical development, as it was for George,” he said. [Ravi] “was a great mentor for me as he was for George.”
So great was Shankar’s impact on jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, both musically and spiritually, that he named his son Ravi (also an accomplished tenor saxophonist) in his honor.
Suddenly every band on the planet had to have a sitar, whether simply posing with it or struggling to finger the lugubrious lute for a tune or two. Despite the Beatles’ adventurous approach to adding new sounds to Rubber Soul, the Yardbirds were actually the first group to use the sitar in rock. According to their manager/ producer Giorgio Gomelsky, they hired an Indian session sitarist in the spring of ’65 to overdub the exotic lead on their new single, “Heart Full of Soul.”
But few engineers at the time knew how to mike the instrument beyond George Martin, who first recorded it six years earlier in 1959 along with traditional tabla accompaniment for Peter Sellers’ “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” on his album Songs For Swinging Sellers. Dissatisfied with its thin buzzing tone, Jeff Beck picked the song’s classic riff on a fuzz drenched Telecaster, sending the song rocketing up the British charts to Number Two that June.
A month later, the Kinks released “See My Friends,” written and sung by Ray Davies, who claimed the song’s ethereal melody (written for his sister who suddenly died from an undetected hole in her heart) was inspired after hearing a group of fishermen chanting together on a beach in Bombay during a stop-over on the Kinks’ first tour of Asia. Davies later imitated the droning effect of a sitar with the help of feedback from his Framus electric twelve-string guitar. From Pete Townshend’s perspective “See My Friends,” was “the first reasonable use of the drone [in pop music] far, far better than anything the Beatles did and far, far earlier.”
Gomelsky pointed out that it was Jimmy Page, having bought a sitar from the session musician who played it on “Heart Full of Soul,” who first turned George Harrison onto the instrument, not the Byrds’ David Crosby, who claimed to have first introduced George to Ravi Shankar’s music.
“What happened in those days; there was a great period of time where everybody was waiting for the next record somebody else would make, because everybody was discovering new sounds and new ways of doing things,” Ray Davies explained. “And they [the Beatles] were waiting for my new single to come out and asking how I got the sounds on it.”
Following George Harrison’s lead came Brian Jones on the Rolling Stones 1966 hit “Paint It Black.”
Brilliant but undisciplined, Jones, used the sounds of various instruments (including marimba, dulcimer, mellotron, and the recorder) like a musical pallet, intuitively adding their colors to enhance the Stones’ music. Having employed Indian drones of the tampura (a fretless sitar-like lute used to accompany the sitar) on the coda of “Street Fighting Man” he quickly abandoned the sound altogether.
While Texas singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Shawn Phillips played sitar on Donovan’s 1966 smash hit “Sunshine Superman,” the psychedelic Sottish bard employed the tampura to create the heady atmosphere on his “acid folk” anthem “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” as well as on “Sunny South Kensington,” “Breezes of Patchouli,” and “Fat Angel.”
Dave Mason of Traffic would also pick up the sitar to add its transcendental buzz to the band’s classic portrait of ‘60s hippie life, “Paper Sun” and the whimsical stoned march of “Hole in My Shoe,” from their debut album, Mr. Fantasy.
Mason is also said to have played sitar on a few unreleased tracks on Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland as well. While John Renbourn of Pentangle employed the instrument for medieval dance tunes on the Lady & the Unicorn, Mike Heron of the Incredible String Band (arguably the best and most devoted sitarist of all the Brit rockers) used the sitar in lieu of a lead guitar, adding an aura of mystery to songs like “Maya” and “The Iron Stone.”
Richie Havens, like many musicians of his generation who found inspiration in all things Indian, also briefly picked up the sitar (check out the cover of his second album, Something Else Again, where he sits cross-legged, eyes closed, lost in Samadhi while his fingers chased themselves up the neck of the instrument).
“I went out to play my first gig in California at the Berkeley Folk Festival,” Richie Havens told me in 2009. “The first night I hung out in my room watching television. The next day, it’s about six in the morning and the sun’s coming up, I decided to walk up this hill and took my sitar with me. I sit down and tune to whatever vibration I was feeling at the moment, turn my head and there’s a coyote sitting there! So, I stood up very slowly and told him, ‘Okay, I’m gonna cut-out now…’” Havens laughed.
The next morning, I tried it again. I walk out the hotel door and meet this guy. ‘Is that a sitar?’ he asked. ‘Do you know how to play?’ I told him I just got it. He said, ‘You should come to the school’ and he walked me right into the Ali Akbar Khan school for Indian music. He was a teacher there. [The great tabla master] Allah Rahka was there too. We played every morning for two and a half hours. He gave me a lot to work with.”
Although he didn’t stick with the instrument very long, the rhythmic complexity of Indian music carried over into Havens’ unique approach, to strumming the guitar. At a time when guitarists from George Harrison to Roger McGuinn were looking beyond the usual bag of blues and country riffs to the sitar for inspiration Havens’ driving guitar was then and remains in many ways closest to the raga’s source.
For the less nimble and dedicated, an electric sitar/guitar hybrid quickly became available on the market thanks to the clever folks at Danelectro Guitars. Known as the Coral sitar, the six-string Masonite solid body was customized with thirteen sympathetic strings whose electric insect drone could soon be heard all over the Top 40, from the Boxtops’ “The Letter,” to Joe South’s “The Games People Play,” and even infiltrating Motown on Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” Tacky advertisements claiming “You don’t have to be Hindu to play the Coral Electric Sitar” appeared in music magazines, featuring session guitarist Vinnie Bell (the instrument’s designer) wearing a bejeweled turban.
“Sitars,” as author and Gita scholar Joshua M. Greene observed, “were not entertainment instruments originally. They were part of sacred ritual music, intended to inspire listeners to go deeper into their eternal identity. The sitar’s appeal in large measure is its microtones and fretless transitions, which are meant to mirror the heart’s yearning for God. Eric Clapton’s solo in ‘While My Guitar’ does this to a degree.”
The sitar’s modal majesty soon informed nearly every rock guitarist’s approach to crafting their solos. It’s linear, lyrical phrasing inspired an entirely new vocabulary for lead guitarists, catapulting the music beyond the well-worn country and blues riffs that everyone played up to that point. Following Ravi Shankar furious performance at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967, blues-rock string benders like Mike Bloomfield and Jimi Hendrix (who sat, mesmerized in the crowd, studying the master’s every nuance with their mouths agape) began mixing raga-style riffs into their usual bag of licks.
It’s no surprise the sitar became a tool for improvisation with jazz musicians like Hungarian guitarist, Gábor Szabó on his 1966 album, Jazz Raga, and most profoundly with Colin Walcott (an student of Ravi Shankar), whether as a member of the chamber/jazz ensemble Oregon, or working with trumpeter/world music pioneer Don Cherry.
In his unpublished memoir, Shiv Dayal Batish (father of popular sitarist Ashwin Batish) who played sitar on the soundtrack of Help! chronicled his experience with the Beatles and their involvement in Indian music and culture: “Having had a good deal of experience with the Indian movie studios,” Pandit Batish claimed to be “quite impressed” by the working conditions and the atmosphere on the set of Help!
“The studio session lasted for the whole day during which [Batish performed] Vichtra Veena [a droning four-stringed instrument common in Hindustani music] pieces of Beatles songs [along with] background pieces of some ragas which were used in the sequences of the goddess Kali. Working with the Beatles had not only earned us fame and popularity in the West,” Pandit Batish stressed, “it had also brought us respect within our own Indian community.”
The Beatles’ office soon phoned Pandit Batish again. This time it was George Harrison inquiring about dilrubha lessons for his wife, Pattie. A bowed instrument from Northern India with no less than thirty sympathetic strings, the dilrubha (according to the Pandit) produces, “a deep, lush, and dreamy sound.” Its fretboard is like that of a sitar while its body, covered with goat skin, is similar to the sarangi. Two weeks later the dilrubhas that Batish ordered from Bombay arrived. Chauffeured to the Harrison’s house in Sussex County, South London, Batish discovered Lennon’s psychedelic Rolls Royce parked in the driveway when he arrived, “fully painted with a sort of graffiti,” of which he confessed to being “quite amazed with the artwork on its huge body.”
According to Pandit Batish, “Peace was prevalent,” at the Harrison home. “On seeing me entering from the door, Mr. Harrison stood up and came forward with folded hands, observing the Indian style of Namaste and then shook hands with me. A very beautiful young lady who was standing close behind him was introduced as Mrs. Pattie Harrison. She was the one who was to become my future pupil in learning the dilrubha.” Pandit Batish was then introduced to John, Paul, and Ringo, who, he recalled as “real nice and waved their friendly hands as they smiled and then again went on in their serious discussion. I sat with the Harrisons and took out the dilrubha from the cover. Pattie was so filled with awe and wonder to behold the instrument. As soon as they had finished patting the instrument and getting acquainted with it, I took it in my hands and started playing a few notes to show how it sounded. Pattie was simply amazed with the tone, and Mr. Harrison happily thanked me for bringing it in time saying that she was so anxious to get it and start learning on it.”
Apparently, Pattie was a “smart student” who lost no time in learning the rudiments of the instrument. “I found the beautiful couple extremely good-natured and respectful. I cannot forget the kind of welcome which used to be given to me in their house and shall cherish it always.”
Paul McCartney never cared much for Indian music and once confessed he “always used to turn it off,” whenever he heard it on the radio. “George got on this big Indian kick and he’s dead keen on it. We’ve been round to his house a couple of times and he plays it and it’s so boring,” Paul groused. Ever the charming diplomat, and never wanting to insult anyone, McCartney quickly covered his tracks adding, “No, no, it’s good you know, and you sort of hear millions of things in it that I never realized were in it.” Despite his stringent opinion, Paul quickly absorbed everything he needed to know from Indian music. The most driven and competitive member of the Beatles, Paul would beat George at his own game, replacing Harrison’s original guitar break on “Taxman,” the opening track of Revolver, with a brilliant edgy riff infused with raga motifs.
Differences in personal taste and artistic vision within the Beatles became apparent over the next two albums (Revolver and Sergeant Pepper’s) with Paul delivering the tender ballad “Here, There and Everywhere” while Harrison, who no longer needed the help of his bandmates on his latest Indian-inspired composition “Love You To,” would replace the lead guitar with the sitar and employ the tabla in lieu of a drum set. A psychedelic soup of a song built off the mesmerizing drone of Harrison’s sitar, “Tomorrow Never Knows” featured a wash of sound effects including snippets of McCartney’s avant-garde home recordings, in which his laughter sounded more like sea gull squalls. Lennon had instructed George Martin to make his voice sound like the disembodied voice of the Dalai Lama as he enticed everyone to “surrender to the void.”
George’s stunning “Within You and Without You,” the opening track on side two of Pepper stood in stark contrast to McCartney’s vaudevillian valentine, “When I’m Sixty Four.” A complex composition with a soul-searching sermon on karma, “Within You and Without You,” was deemed too serious by the rest of the band. The solution was to tag a laughter track on to the end of the song, in hopes of making George’s sonic sermon seem like a big cosmic joke.
While Harrison’s immersion and devotion to Indian culture and consciousness deepened, it was Pattie who first introduced him to the benefits of transcendental meditation, as taught by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The Beatles would soon board a train for Wales to meet the Maharishi, but just as they sat at the feet of the giggling guru they received news that their manager, (and father figure) Brian Epstein was found dead in his apartment at age 32 from an overdose of sleeping pills.
Stumbling along the spiritual path, the Beatles soon arrived at the Maharishi’s meditation camp in Rishikesh, India for a three-week retreat (along with Donovan, Mia Farrow and the Beach Boys’ Mike Love). But their satori was short lived, ending abruptly with Lennon (wrongly) accusing the Hindu holy man of philandering.
Back in England, the Beatles (despite some of the worst bickering of their career) got down to the long, arduous process of recording 30 songs for the new “White Album.” Disillusioned with “Sexy Sadie” (as he immortalized the Maharishi in song), John soon grew a long beard, dressed all in white and declared himself his own guru.
While George Harrison eventually abandoned the sitar (his last recording of it on a Beatles’ song could be heard on Lennon’s ethereal “Across the Universe”) feeling that he’d never attain a respectable level of virtuosity on the instrument, he never gave up on the beckoning call of his sweet Lord, Krishna. Following the success of his 1970 Number One hit song “My Sweet Lord” in which George managed to subtly work the Maha Mantra into the chorus of a catchy pop song, leading a world-wide sing-along of “Hare Krishna,” he then joined with his friend and mentor Ravi Shankar in organizing the gala benefit Concert for Bangladesh, which featured Bob Dylan’s return to the stage after his five-year retirement from performing, along with Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, and Ringo Starr to raise money for millions of refugees fleeing civil war-torn Bangladesh (formerly known as East Pakistan). Palash Ghosh considered Harrison’s act of charity “one of the greatest moments of post-war global cultural exchange.” George not only talked the talk, but walked the walk, right up to the end. Following George’s death in November 2001, and cremation, his ashes were spread in the Ganges River in Varanasi.
Following the overwhelming response to “Norwegian Wood,” the BBC’s reporter Brian Matthews told George “You can’t use the sitar again because everybody’s using it,” to which Harrison replied, “I don’t care if everybody’s using ‘em you know, I just play it because I like it!” But by early June of 1966, George, who never suffered fools gently, told the press that he was “fed up with the way the sitar has become just another bandwagon gimmick with everybody leaping aboard it just to be ‘in.’ A lot of people will probably be saying that I’m to blame anyway for making the sitar commercial and popular but I’m sick and tired of the whole thing now, because I really started doing it because I want to learn the music properly and take it seriously. The audience at Ravi’s show [at Royal Festival Hall in London, June 1,1966] was full of mods and rockers who, more likely than not, just want to be seen at the Ravi Shankar show.”
While George’s sitar playing profoundly influenced the burgeoning counterculture, introducing the mysticism and exotic charm of the Subcontinent to the West, it all happened quite by accident, without any intent on his part. Journalist Palash Ghosh of The International Business Times felt Harrison was “Handsome, smart and charming, an ideal ‘P.R. man’ for [popularizing] something as remote and incomprehensible as Indian/Hindu culture.”
Although sharing a mutual appreciation for bright clothes, bangles, vegetarian food and droning music, most traditional Hindus abhorred hippie values, such as casual drug use and the notion of free sex (although the carvings of people copulating in every possible, way, shape or form at the temples of Khajuharo might make you wonder). While millions of Brits and Americans were intrigued by India’s unusual fashions and food, Ghosh suspected that “for many Westerners, India and Hinduism was nothing more than a fad, a temporary [and superficial] infatuation that led nowhere.”
By 1970 the “Indian Invasion” was over and most Western musicians dropped the sitar, finding it a challenging instrument to play properly, beyond using it as a sonic condiment to spice their pop songs. Photographs of 1960s rock stars under its spell show that few of them could manage to sit correctly, with back straight, legs intertwined in a half-lotus with the instrument held in the sole of the foot. (Harrison claimed the position hurt his knees.) Add to that, the sitar’s sensitivity to slight changes in temperature, plus twenty strings to tune, by twisting stubborn wooden pegs, and soon one found it hanging on the wall or leaning in a corner, amongst a bunch of dried flowers, like a dusty badge, measuring one’s hipness.
But the sitar has always had its own agenda… Ultimately, you don’t pick it. The sitar chooses you, to play its eternal melodies through.