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.