The music and philosophy of India had a key effect on The Beatles’ music, particularly between 1965 and 1968. They tentatively began using traditional Indian instruments in 1965. Between 1966 and 1968 the group wrote three songs written by George Harrison in the Indian style.
The Beatles’ exposure to Indian music occurred while they were making Help!, their second film.
We were waiting to shoot the scene in the restaurant when the guy gets thrown in the soup and there were a few Indian musicians playing in the background. I remember picking up the sitar and trying to hold it and thinking, ‘This is a funny sound.’ It was an incidental thing, but somewhere down the line I began to hear Ravi Shankar’s name. The third time I heard it, I thought, ‘This is an odd coincidence.’ And then I talked with David Crosby of The Byrds and he mentioned the name. I went and bought a Ravi record; I put it on and it hit a certain spot in me that I can’t explain, but it seemed very familiar to me. The only way I could describe it was: my intellect didn’t know what was going on and yet this other part of me identified with it. It just called on me … a few months elapsed and then I met this guy from the Asian Music Circle organisation who said, ‘Oh, Ravi Shankar’s gonna come to my house for dinner. Do you want to come too?’
Billboard, December 1992
The first time that we were aware of anything Indian was when we were making Help!. There was an odd thing about an Indian and that Eastern sect that had the ring and the sacrifice; and on the set in one place they had sitars and things – they were the Indian band playing in the background, and George was looking at them.
We recorded that bit in London, in a restaurant. And then we were in the Bahamas filming a section and a little yogi runs over to us. We didn’t know what they were in those days, and this little Indian guy comes legging over and gives us a book each, signed to us, on yoga. We didn’t look at it, we just stuck it along with all the other things people would give us.
Then, about two years later, George had started getting into hatha yoga. He’d got involved in Indian music from looking at the instruments in the set. All from that crazy movie. Years later he met this yogi who gave us each that book; I’ve forgotten what his name was because they all have that ‘Baram Baram Badoolabam’, and all that jazz. All of the Indian involvement came out of the film Help!.
I went and bought a sitar from a little shop at the top of Oxford Street called Indiacraft – it stocked little carvings, and incense. It was a real crummy-quality one, actually, but I bought it and mucked about with it a bit. Anyway, we were at the point where we’d recorded the Norwegian Wood backing track and it needed something. We would usually start looking through the cupboard to see if we could come up with something, a new sound, and I picked the sitar up – it was just lying around; I hadn’t really figured out what to do with it. It was quite spontaneous: I found the notes that played the lick. It fitted and it worked.
However, Norwegian Wood wasn’t the first Beatles release to feature a sitar. The North American version of the Help! album featured an instrumental, called Another Hard Day’s Night; a medley of A Hard Day’s Night, Can’t Buy Me Love and I Should Have Known Better performed on a sitar, tablas, flute and finger cymbals.
Although The Beatles didn’t perform on it, Another Hard Day’s Night soundtracked the film’s Rajahama restaurant scene. The music was written by Ken Thorne. The US Help! album was issued in August 1965, four months prior to Rubber Soul.
George Harrison recorded three songs with The Beatles which were influenced by the Indian classical style. Love You To was recorded for Revolver in 1966. The following year the second side of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band opened with Within You Without You.
Harrison’s Indian trilogy was completed by The Inner Light, the b-side of the Lady Madonna single. Its lyrics were based on the Taoist holy book Tao Te Ching. The song’s backing track was recorded with Indian musicians in January 1968 in Bombay, where Harrison was producing the soundtrack to the film Wonderwall.
The Beatles and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
At the end of the lecture they had a private audience with the Indian master of Transcendental Meditation. Suitably inspired, they agreed to travel the following day to Bangor, Wales, to attend a 10-day series of seminars.
Their stay in north Wales was cut short following the death of Brian Epstein. A planned trip to Rishikesh, India, was also postponed while The Beatles agreed to press on with the Magical Mystery Tour film and soundtrack.
John and George, plus their wives Cynthia and Pattie, arrived in Delhi on 16 February 1968, and took the 150-mile journey by taxi to Rishikesh. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, with Jane Asher and Maureen Starkey, arrived four days later.
John and George were going to Rishikesh with the idea that this might be some huge spiritual lift-off and they might never come back if Maharishi told them some really amazing thing. Well, being a little bit pragmatic, I thought in my own mind, I’ll give it a month, then if I really really like it, I’ll come back and organise to go out there for good, but I won’t go on this ‘I may never come back’ thing, I won’t burn my bridges. That’s very me, to not want to do that. I just see it as being practical, and I think it is.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles