Planting seeds in India
Much of the White Album was written in India. The Beatles had visited Rishikesh in February 1968 to spent time learning Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, staying for a number of weeks. Although Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney left earlier than the others, all found it a stimulating environment which facilitated the writing of new music.
In India they predominantly wrote on acoustic guitars, which influenced the sounds of their subsequent recordings. Donovan, one of the fellow meditators at Rishikesh, taught John Lennon a fingerpicking method which was put into use on Dear Prudence and Julia.
Dear Prudence was one of the songs which was directly inspired by India; others were The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill, Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?, I’m So Tired, Mother Nature’s Son and Sexy Sadie - Lennon’s scathing attack on the guru he felt had let him down.
Other musicians at Rishikesh included Mike Love from The Beach Boys and flautist Paul Horn, and there was a carefree atmosphere in the camp with proved conducive to songwriting and collaboration.
I wrote quite a few songs in Rishikesh and John came up with some creative stuff. George actually once got quite annoyed and told me off because I was trying to think of the next album. He said, ‘We’re not fucking here to do the next album, we’re here to meditate!’ It was like, ‘Ohh, excuse me for breathing!’ You know. George was quite strict about that, George can still be a little that way, and it’s like, ‘Oh come on, George, you don’t have a monopoly on thought in this area. I’m allowed to have my own views on the matter.’
I was doing a song, I Will, that I had as a melody for quite a long time but I didn’t have lyrics to it. I remember sitting around with Donovan, and maybe a couple of other people. We were just sitting around one evening after our day of meditation and I played him this one and he liked it and we were trying to write some words. We kicked around a few lyrics, something about the moon, but they weren’t very satisfactory and I thought the melody was better than the words so I didn’t use them. I kept searching for better words and I wrote my own set in the end.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
The Beatles’ extended stay in India resulted in a huge creative outpouring. Towards the end of May 1968 all four gathered at Kinfauns, George Harrison’s Esher bungalow, to record demo versions of their recent compositions.
They recorded at least 23 songs, seven of which were subsequently released on 1996′s Anthology 3. It quickly became clear that they had more than enough to fill both sides of an LP, and plans for The Beatles’ first double album were put in place.
Not all the Kinfauns songs subsequently appeared on The Beatles. Some, including Child Of Nature, Circles and Sour Milk Sea, were never properly recorded by the group in the studio. Others, such as Mean Mr Mustard and Polythene Pam, weren’t recorded until the Abbey Road sessions in 1969.
Crucially, by the summer of 1968 The Beatles were increasingly working separately. India appears to have been something of a watershed moment, in that they no longer felt bound by the previous ties that led them to unite for much of their activities.
They came in with a whole welter of songs – I think there were over thirty, actually – and I was a bit overwhelmed by them, and yet underwhelmed at the same time because some of them weren’t great.
The remarkable synergy which contributed to the success of many of The Beatles earlier project had largely dissipated by the summer of 1968, and it seems ironic that, despite titling the album The Beatles, the group were at their least united while making it.
That was just saying: ‘This is my song, we’ll do it this way. That’s your song, you do it that way.’ It’s pretty hard trying to fit three guys’ music onto one album – that’s why we did a double.
All four members were increasingly exploring their own interests, from George Harrison’s passion for Indian culture to Paul McCartney’s exploration of the London cultural scene. Their burgeoning individuality had two effects on the group: it resulted in one of their most creatively fertile periods, and caused relations among the members to become strained.
Furthermore, John Lennon had split from his wife Cynthia, had fallen in love with Yoko Ono, and had succumbed to the allure of heroin. Ono’s presence in the studio marked a turning point for The Beatles; The Beatles had hitherto rarely invited outsiders – including those they were in relationships in – into the studio. Paul McCartney’s girlfriend Francie Schwartz was also present at several of the sessions.
Two songs in particular signalled Lennon’s increasing independence from the group. Revolution 9 was a sound collage inspired by – and produced with – Yoko Ono. On Julia, meanwhile, he paid tribute to his late mother; it was Lennon’s only Beatles song to feature no other members of the group.
Now John had to have Yoko there. I can’t blame him, they were intensely in love – in the first throes of the first passions – but it was fairly off-putting having her sitting on one of the amps. You wanted to say, ‘Excuse me, love – can I turn the volume up?’ We were always wondering how to say: ‘Could you get off my amp?’ without interfering with their relationship.
It was a very difficult time. I felt that when John finally left the group he did it to clear the decks for his relationship. Anything prior to that meant the decks weren’t clear – he had all his Beatle baggage; all his having to relate to us. He just wanted to go off into the corner and look into Yoko’s eyes for hours, saying to each other, ‘It’s going to be all right.’ It was pretty freaky when we were trying to make a track.
Looking at it now you can be amused by it, and it was quite a laugh, really. But at the time, this was us and it was our careers. We were The Beatles, after all, and here was this girl… It was like we were her courtiers, and it was very embarrassing. The White Album was a very tense one to make.