How the Beatles Experimented with Indian Music & Pioneered a New Rock and Roll Sound

If the Bea­t­les’ exper­i­ments with Indi­an clas­si­cal music helped bridge their tran­si­tion from tour­ing pop stars to avant-garde stu­dio wiz­ards, it can seem less obvi­ous how seri­ous­ly they took Indi­an clas­si­cal music itself, though the band intro­duced mil­lions of West­ern­ers to Ravi Shankar and oth­er Indi­an musi­cians (some of whom did not get cred­it on albums like Sgt. Pep­per’s Lone­ly Hearts Club Band and were only dis­cov­ered decades lat­er). Because of the Bea­t­les, the sitar is indeli­bly asso­ci­at­ed in the West with psy­che­delia, and Indi­an clas­si­cal forms and instru­ments have entered the pop music ver­nac­u­lar to stay. But none of that’s to say the band set out to accom­plish these goals in their first dal­liance with East­ern sounds.

That intro­duc­tion came in the most unse­ri­ous of ways dur­ing the mak­ing of 1965’s slap­stick Help!: a chase scene in a Lon­don Indi­an restau­rant. The Bea­t­les would come to regret mak­ing the movie alto­geth­er, and nev­er quite under­stood it while they were mak­ing it. (“It was wrong for us,” Paul McCart­ney lat­er reflect­ed. “We were guest stars in our own movie.”)

Its sto­ry fea­tured a sin­is­ter, stereo­typ­i­cal “East­ern sect,” as Lennon put it, and the restau­rant scene, he said, was “the first time that we were aware of any­thing Indi­an.”

Lennon lat­er called the movie “bull­shit” but reflect­ed on its musi­cal impor­tance: “All of the Indi­an involve­ment,” he said in a 1972 inter­view, “came out of the film Help!” As George Har­ri­son recalled, the restau­rant scene was life-chang­ing:

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?’

Har­ri­son fol­lowed up the vis­it with sev­er­al weeks of study under Shankar (see them play­ing togeth­er in Rishikesh, India, below) and the Asian Music Cir­cle in Lon­don. He began apply­ing what he learned from Shankar to Bea­t­les songs. “With­in You With­out You,” from Sgt. Pep­per’s, for exam­ple, was based on a Shankar com­po­si­tion.

The first offi­cial Bea­t­les release to fea­ture Indi­an instru­men­ta­tion involved none of the band’s mem­bers. It was, rather, a med­ley of “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and “I Should Have Known Bet­ter,” played on sitar, tablas, flute, and fin­ger cym­bals for the restau­rant scene and released on the North Amer­i­can record­ing of Help! In that same year, how­ev­er, the band used Indi­an sounds them­selves for the first time on Rub­ber Soul when the sitar appeared on the record­ing of “Nor­we­gian Wood.” The track “need­ed some­thing,” Har­ri­son said. “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.” The song has been her­ald­ed as the first appear­ance of “raga rock.” Not long after­ward, Har­ri­son com­posed “Love You To” for Revolver in 1966, a song that not only incor­po­rat­ed the hyp­not­ic drone of the sitar but also inte­grat­ed clas­si­cal Indi­an musi­cal the­o­ry into its com­po­si­tion.

In the video at the top, pianist and teacher David Ben­nett demon­strates how the Bea­t­les did not sim­ply pick up the sitar as a nov­el­ty instru­ment; they found ways to com­bine West­ern rock idioms with a tra­di­tion­al East­ern musi­cal vocab­u­lary. “Love You To” makes “exten­sive use of Indi­an instru­men­ta­tion like sitar, table and tam­bu­ra,” says Ben­nett, “but the song’s treat­ment of har­mo­ny, melody, and struc­ture was also heav­i­ly influ­enced by the Indi­an style rather than being based on a chord pro­gres­sion like most West­ern pop music.” We learn how the song uses a drone note — a root note of C — through­out, “typ­i­cal of Indi­an clas­si­cal music,” and we learn the def­i­n­i­tion of terms like “raga” and “alap”: a short intro­duc­to­ry sec­tion — such as that which opens “Love You To” — “usu­al­ly in free time, where the key cen­ter and raga are estab­lished.”

How seri­ous­ly did the Bea­t­les take Indi­an clas­si­cal music? That depends on which Bea­t­le you mean. In Har­rison’s hands, at least, an explo­ration of the musi­cal tra­di­tions of the sub­con­ti­nent pro­duced a unique body of psy­che­del­ic rock wide­ly imi­tat­ed but nev­er par­al­leled — one that did not use exot­ic instru­men­ta­tion sim­ply as orna­ment but rather as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn and change and adapt to new forms. Find out in Ben­net­t’s video how each of the Bea­t­les’ “raga rock” songs from the mid-six­ties incor­po­rat­ed Indi­an clas­si­cal music in var­i­ous ways, and lis­ten to a playlist of those songs here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Bea­t­les’ 8 Pio­neer­ing Inno­va­tions: A Video Essay Explor­ing How the Fab Four Changed Pop Music

How George Mar­tin Defined the Sound of the Bea­t­les: From String Quar­tets to Back­wards Gui­tar Solos

Hear Bri­an Eno Sing The Bea­t­les’ “Tomor­row Nev­er Knows” as Part of The Best Live Album of the Glam/Prog Era (1976)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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