There are some who simply assume that George Harrison’s love for Indian music dates from around the time he and the other Beatles went to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s lecture in London, on 24 August 1967. In fact, George’s interest was piqued in April 1965 when The Beatles were filming Help! in April 1965.
“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,” Harrison recalled. 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?’”
In October 1965, George was first recorded playing a sitar, on ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’ for Rubber Soul. “I went and bought a sitar from a little shop at the top of Oxford Street called Indiacraft – it stocked little carvings and incense,” he later said. “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.”
The second of George’s Indian-influenced songs was ‘ Love You To’, recorded for Revolver. His third was ‘Within You Without You’, which opens the second side of the original Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – the only track on the album not written by John Lennon or Paul McCartney.
George began writing ‘Within You Without You’ on a pedal harmonium, and the song was simply labelled ‘Untitled’ when he recorded it at Abbey Road Studios on the evening of on Wednesday, 15 March 1967. As George later recalled, “I’d also spent a lot of time with Ravi Shankar, trying to figure out how to sit and hold the sitar, and how to play it. ‘Within You Without You’ was a song that I wrote based upon a piece of music of Ravi’s that he’d recorded for All-India Radio. It was a very long piece – maybe 30 or 40 minutes – and was written in different parts, with a progression in each. I wrote a mini version of it, using sounds similar to those I’d discovered in his piece. I recorded in three segments and spliced them together later.”
George had an Indian friend playing tabla, and The Beatles’ engineer, Geoff Emerick, does a wonderful job of recording the instrument in a way that enhances the track. George was the only Beatle in the studio that day, and it’s him and Neil Aspinall playing tamburas, with the dilruba and swarmandal played by Indian musicians from the Asian Music Centre in Finchley Road, North London. Two more dilrubas (similar to a sitar but played with a bow) were overdubbed on 22 March; violins and cellos were added on 3 April. Later that evening, George recorded his lead vocals, a sitar part and acoustic guitar. ‘Within You Without You’ was finished and, according to John Lennon, was “one of George’s best songs. One of my favourites of his, too. He’s clear on that song. His mind and his music are clear.”
As a footnote, the version included on The Beatles’ Anthology 2 is purely instrumental and is slowed to its original key and speed. Later in the year 1967, George continued his exploration of Indian musical ideas when he began work on the soundtrack to the film Wonderwall.