A brief look at use of Indian sounds on pop records, looking at whether the Beatles pioneered it or just helped popularise it. George Harrison and Ravi Shankar may be the top names when you think about the sitar and the 1960’s but does that mean they were the first?

The Beatles were at the forefront of many things in the 1960’s. There are many people who claim that the Beatles were the first to pioneer the use of Indian sounds on pop records, a style that was oft imitated afterwards. The truth was, although the Beatles helped popularise it they were not the first to incorporate it.

Almost a year before George Harrison had began taking sitar lessons with Ravi Shankar there were two massive songs in the charts that had something of the Indian about them. The first was ‘Heart Full Of Soul’ by the Yardbirds, the second was ‘See My Friend’ by the Kinks. Although a sitarist and tabla-player had been present at the Yardbirds session, neither were used; the band much preferred the sound of Jeff Beck’s guitar playing. Beck was renowned for his Eastern-sounding leitmotifs; not just in the Yardbirds but in his earlier band The Tridents also. Perhaps the Yardbirds song was a ‘cheap’ imitation, the Kinks song was more like the real thing. The song was written by Ray Davies. It is alleged that when the Beatles first heard the song, one of them said that the guitar sounds like a sitar and that they would need to get one of them.

Image via Wikipedia

The plot thickens at this point. There are also stories that Jimmy Page was at the Yardbirds recording session and on seeing and hearing the sitar player he just had to have it. After some negotiation it was purchased for a pricely sum of £25. Page showed it to session guitarist Jim Sullivan, who subsequently told George Harrison about it.

Whichever of these two stories is the most correct there is one that can be discounted immediately. Philip Norman (Beatles biographer) claimed that Harrison first came across the sitar while the Beatles were filming Help!. The problem with that story is the fact that, although he may have come across the guitar, Harrison didn’t play the sitar until the song ‘Norwegian Wood’ the following year. It wasn’t long after that, that other bands started getting in on the act. The Rolling Stones used the sitar on both ‘Mother’s LittleHelper’ and ‘Paint It Black’ in 1966, Chris Farlowe even swapped the saxophone for a sitar on one of his songs.

Trace elements of Eastern musical theory could be found in folk and jazz but it wasn’t until the mid 1960s that it came more and more to the fore. Forget about the influence of the Beatles or the Stones at this juncture. Credit has to go to people like John Mayer, John Renbourn and Gabor Szabo. Their song titles included words like nirvana, Krishna and Ravi (named after Ravi Shankar).

Image via Wikipedia

To the average man on the street in Europe in the early to mid 60s, Shankar was unheard of; it wasn’t until he came into the life of the Beatles that more and more people became aware of him. But it was actually David Crosby of the Byrds that first enticed George Harrison into listening to Shankar after recommending his 1965 LP ‘Portrait of Genius’. The friendship that ensued between Harrison and Shankar meant a lifetime change to the way Harrison saw music. It wasn’t until the spring of 1966 that the two finally met.

Harrison had been trying to teach himself the sitar (as heard on ‘Norwegian Wood’) but it was proving quite hard for him. Shankar told him it was hard to teach yourself and instead it would be better to be accepted as ashishya (somewhere between a student and disciple). Shankar wanted Harrison to travel to India to study sitar with him but Beatles previous engagements meant this was impossible, instead Harrison had to make do with tape-recorded lessons.

Image via Wikipedia

Shankar’s association with Harrison and thus the Beatles themselves was a good move all round but mainly it opened up a new style of music to the masses. The common man on the street was now aware of a type of music that before had been totally alien to them.

The Beatles themselves, and George Harrison inparticular, did not pioneer the use of Indian sounds on pop records, they were just soaking up influence from everywhere else. Learning. Evolving. Because of that and because of their mass popularity, what they did instantly became the ‘done’ thing and spawned many imitators. The Beatle may not have been the first but they certainly did help to popularise it.

P.S. This article was originally published by the same author on Triond on the 22nd of January 2010 and can be found by clicking HERE.