The sound of the sitar is one of the defining sonic traits of the original psychedelic era. While some harder edged psych proponents like the 13th Floor Elevators, The Seeds, and others coming from the garage school of the early ’60s can’t be said to share this trait, it’s hard to argue with the fact that many elements of Indian and other Eastern cultures were benevolently co-opted by Western psychedelic culture, beginning in the Beat era.
The story of the sitar in Western pop/rock is one where the ending, or perhaps “climax”, is well known: George Harrison’s interest in Indian music and culture brought his teacher, Ravi Shankar, to the attention of the world, and these sounds and cultural elements became huge in 1960’s popular culture and beyond, especially in 1967 when a major sitar fad went down. The Coral “electric sitar” was even created around this time to help players add this flavour without learning a new instrument (yes, the one from that tune!). The most interesting, and possibly lesser known part of the story, is the beginning. The sitar had appeared on Western jazz recordings as early as the late ’50s, and an important working relationship between violinist Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi Shankar began as early as 1952, but the audience for these was decidedly ‘niche’.
The first Western pop tune to be heard featuring this instrument was The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”. Some pundits, however, will point you to The Kinks’ “See My Friends” as the first Western pop tune to have an Indian vibe, and they are absolutely correct. According to Jonathan Bellman’s book The Exotic In Western Music, Eastern experimentation was “in the air” in the London rock scene in 1965, including the Yardbirds doing a quickly abandoned sitar overdub on “Heartful Of Soul”, which, had it worked out and been released, would have beaten “Norwegian Wood” as the first. The Kinks’ Ray Davies had actually been to Bombay, on a stopover on the way to Australia on an early 1965 tour, and was melodically inspired by an approaching troupe of fishermen, who were singing what, judging from the end result, seems like something from the Khammaj family of ragas. Without a single “exotic” instrument on the recording, “See My Friends” is based around a drone, while not confined by it entirely, and succeeds in creating a vibe that may indeed have influenced Harrison’s (and pop/rock’s) first genuine attempt at full blown Indian fusion, “Love You To”.
Interestingly and ironically, a movie script written by Marc Behm (Charade, Lady Chatterley’s Lover) would be the catalyst for the sitar explosion of 1967, via, of course, Harrison. This xenophobic script cast an unfavourable light on Indian culture, albeit in a playful way that was a subtle satire of James Bond films, and within the tradition of British comedy. The script was for the 1965 film, Help, and the storyline found Ringo being chased by a crazed, sacrifice-performing Indian cult. To be fair, this Kali-worshipping “cult” did have some basis in reality, but having a sitar flourish sounding nearly every time these villains appear on screen is akin to a Bollywood soundtrack triggering a Mozart riff for a “Western” villain. The set of Help is where Harrison first encountered and tried out a sitar, played by some musicians in one of the film’s scenes. Forces beyond the Beatles (in the form of film composer Ken Thorne) provided several instances of Indian Classical instruments playing early Fab Four tunes on this film’s soundtrack, plus a sitar cameo in the James Bond quote at the top of the album’s title track. Although outside of the Beatles’ artistic control, this film is what began a long-standing association of The Beatles with Indian culture and sounds. Both Help (the film) and the Kinks’ “See My Friends” were released a day apart in July, 1965.
On a break from their 1965 North American tour in late August of that year, The Beatles had some down time in LA and rented a house in Benedict Canyon, where they held what quickly turned into an LSD party (it was still legal at the time) that was attended by Peter Fonda, who brought along the Byrds, including David Crosby. This evening is the one where Fonda’s conversation with Lennon became fodder for “She Said She Said”, but more significant was the after-party hang that went down with the two bands. Crosby had been introduced to the music of Ravi Shankar some time prior to this by producer Jim Dickson, who had Crosby sit in on the recording sessions for Shankar’s 1964 album “Portrait Of Genius”. This had made an Indian music ‘convert’ out of Crosby, who insisted that Harrison (who still hadn’t done much genuine exploring of Indian Classical music) check out Shankar’s work. The seed that had been planted in Harrison on the set of Help now found a focus – to seek out the great sitar player’s music. Within a month of this encounter, the Beatle purchased a sitar at Indiacraft on Oxford Street, London. Within another month, in October of 1965, he recorded with this new instrument on “Norwegian Wood”.
The Exotic In Western Music – Jonathan Bellman
The Dawn of Indian Music in the West – Peter Lavezzoli