The Space Between Us – Within You, Without You

March 15, 2016

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. 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?”

George and ravi
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. 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’ for Revolver in 1966. His third was ‘Within You, Without You’ that opens the second side of the original Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band LP; the only track not written by John or Paul on the album.Beatles-Sgt-Pepper

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 so much. George was the only Beatle in the studio that day and it’s him and Neil Aspinall playing tamburas with the dilruba and svarmandal played by Indian musicians from the Asian Music Centre in Finchley Road, North London. Two more dilrubas, it’s 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, “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 that is included on The Beatles' The Anthology 2 is purely instrumental and it is heard slowed to its original key and speed. Later in the year George continued his exploration of Indian musical ideas when he began work on the soundtrack to the film Wonderwall.

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23 comments

  1. The Lisanator
    Reply

    Cool, I had always assumed that he just sang while Indians played their traditional instruments. Also had no idea that was a sitar on Norwegian Wood. George Harrison was so awesome! Thank you for this.

    1. tony q
      Reply

      When Ravi Shankar first heard Norwegian Wood he told his wife, “I thought he was more advanced than this.” When he listened to the Sgt. Pepper track he felt George had redeemed himself.

  2. John
    Reply

    Within You Without You is a great song and basically George’s first solo recording as Yesterday was Paul’s. Both released under The Beatles moniker!

  3. Steve Beach
    Reply

    George was so under appreciated for so long…it’s a shame he barely got highlighted on Beatle recordings

    1. Cloud
      Reply

      George Harrison was one of the music giants in how he was not afraid to try new things in his music. Too bad he was not given more songs on the Beatles albums.. that would have enhanced them greatly.

  4. Sherwin
    Reply

    This song will last for centuries. That is because it speaks an eternal verity. Amazing message coming from a rock and roll star.

  5. Michael Browning
    Reply

    I never underestimated George,s talent as a writer of both lyrics and music. In my opinion by far his best work is to be heard on the triple album : All Things Must Pass.

  6. Diane Young
    Reply

    My favorite song of all time. The words are just
    awesome. Knowing the story behind the song only
    makes it better.

  7. GARY YUKICH
    Reply

    It seems Ravi Shankar always gets the credit for teaching George Harrison the sitar when I have been told by Shambu Das,Ravi’s number 1 disciple, George learned a lot from Shambu Das.I know this because I was studying sitar at York University in Toronto from Shambu Das and also a friend of mine was studying from Shambu downtown and he told us stories about teaching George Harrison which I believe to be true.

  8. paul clements
    Reply

    The person on Dilruba was Amrit Gaajar.. l know this because my uncle drove Amrit to Abbey Rd. after work each evening from the Kodak Lab in Morden, South London. My uncle was allowed to sit in on the recording….. he also took some photos and collected all of The Beatles autographs!

  9. Kim Andrews
    Reply

    George’s addition of the sitar to the music recorded with the Beatles opened up my own door to the love of the sitar, Indian music, and later on, Indian culture and Sanaatan Dharma. Endless love to him for this!♡♡

  10. Julie Thompson
    Reply

    I read just recently that when George was still in the womb. His Mother played all kinds of music for him invetro.One kind of music was East Indian music! Who knows where these stories come from but…..maybe that’s the unknown draw!

  11. Tim
    Reply

    Excellent article. I love reading about the mechanics behind the Beatles songs. I would appreciate if you could send me any more links in regards to this. Thanks.

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