Sgt. Pepper and the Beatles: It Was Forty Years Ago Today

By Olivier Julien | Go to book overview

Chapter 5
The Beatles and Indian music

David Reck

When the nasal twang of the Indian sitar first appeared playing John Lennon’s mesmerizing tune in ‘Norwegian Wood’ (Rubber Soul, 1965), few realized – perhaps least of all the Beatles – that here was an unprecedented event, unique in pop music history, one which was to have ramifications in perhaps as many as 20 songs over the years spanning the mid- to late 1960s.

‘Norwegian Wood’, we all know, is autobiographical: a one-night stand disguised (he was married at the time) in Lennon’s lyrics’ caustic wit and the evocative and succinct scene-painting. In our mind’s eye we (at least anyone who has lived through the 1960s) can almost imagine a video to the song: the ‘bird’ with long straight hair à la Joan Baez, black turtleneck, mini skirt; the pickup at a club fuelled by Lennon’s storied gift of the gab; turning the key to the girl’s ‘pad’; the camera scans the mattress in a corner on the floor, no furniture, pillows on a rug in front of a fireplace, a bookcase comprised of planks on stacked bricks containing Sartre, McLuhan, Kerouac, maybe Allen Ginsberg, the I Ching, Hesse’s Siddhartha, certainly the Tibetan Book of the Dead as interpreted by Timothy Leary. There is no doubt that the ‘bird’ is cool in a 1960-ish sort of way. The sharing of a joint, the obligatory Buddhist-Hindu-existentialist philosophical pre-coital dialogue (they ‘talked until two’ – don’t believe the ‘slept in the bath’ part). And on the stereo we imagine… a recording of Ravi Shankar with Alla Rakha pattering away on tabla.

The sitar, then, in ‘Norwegian Wood’ is not just a gimmicky exotic guitar. It is, first, a recognition (perhaps intuitive) by Lennon that his repetitive tune with its major/minor interplay and modal harmony shares sonic qualities with the north-Indian classical music which he, his band mates and millions of other young listeners in the West heard as Ravi Shankar began his meteoric ascent from ethnic Asian musician to international superstar. Secondly, the sounds of Hindusthani instrumental music, primarily that of Shankar’s sitar, but to a lesser extent the sarod playing of Ali Akbar Khan as well, became associated in the collective mind of the counterculture, European and American – and despite Shankar’s protestations – with the spaced-out alternative consciousness state induced by drugs ranging from marijuana to LSD, peyote and other hallucinogenics. North India’s classical music with its expanded time-sense, perceived repetitiveness and hypnotic harmonics of the tambura drone made it, as Lillian Roxon has pointed out, ‘background sounds for the drug experiences of that period’ (Roxon 1969, p. 168). Elements of classical Indian music in Beatles songs – drones, scales, instruments, rhythms, ornaments, timbre – became a code for ‘trippiness’. The sitar in ‘Norwegian Wood’ thus must be interpreted as part of a soundscape with very 1960-ish associations, essential both to Lennon’s storyline and in establishing the mood and setting of the song.

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