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volume 4
april 2001

West meets East


  Or how the sitar came to be heard in western pop music
by Frederick W. Harrison
  In 1965 Indian music and rock music met as the sitar, or at least a guitar trying to sound like that instrument, made its entrance in some very popular rock songs. The scene was set by the introduction of Indian music on the nodal points connecting jazz with classical music and with folk music. The first appearance of the sitar in a rock song seems to be the recording of the Yardbirds' "Heart Full Of Soul" of April 1965, although the version with the sitar would not see release for another nineteen years. The song became a major hit in June 1965 in another version with Jeff Beck doing an expert imitation on an ordinary guitar. Almost simultaneously, but independently, the Kinks and the Beatles were soon to follow.
1 Part 1: Modality and the folk tradition. Before the development of equal temperament or tonal system — the standard major and minor scales — in the Baroque era, music was classified according to its mode — a specific eight note pattern of whole and half steps. There were eight modes in total — four authentic and four plagal or derived modes. The modal system and its rudimentary notation served as the basis for European art music until it was supplanted by the major/minor system, but it is still used today in third world and folk music. Gregorian chant, Medieval (Early) music, and music of the Middle Ages were all written in the modal system, which is a good starting point for listening. With the rise of popular music the modal system returned to Western music, facilitating the incorporation of old folk as well as third world music styles. One of those was Indian music, which initially found its way into jazz-folk and jazz-classical music streams in the mid 1950s and from there into the emerging rock scene in the United States and England.
2 Ravi Shankar during a TV broadcast in Delhi 1954

Part 2: The jazz-folk and jazz-classical connections to Indian music. The arrival in 1955 of Ali Akbar Khan, via an invitation to record from Yehudi Menuhin, led to the release of the first album of Indian music available via a major label in North America and Europe: Music of India. Morning and Evening Ragas (Angel, 1955). The success of this album led to Ravi Shankar — Khan's brother-in-law — coming to the West in 1956 and embarking on a series of concerts. By 1959 Shankar was starting to play larger halls, which led to an interest in his music from the jazz community. This interest bore fruit in the form of the new directions taken by Miles Davis on "Kind Of Blue" (1959) and John Coltrane — who had played with Davis. Jazz was shifting to a modal style of playing — as opposed to set chord changes/progressions based on a familiar song such as "My Favourite Things" from "The Sound Of Music". In Coltrane's case, this was accompanied by an interest in eastern spirituality, and a move to Impulse Records which led to the recording of such seminal albums as "Live At The Village Vanguard" (1961), "Impressions" (1961-1963), and "A Love Supreme" (late 1964).

  The beats and their successors, the hippies, had been following the latest developments in jazz and took the new influence in stride, as it was a rejection of all things Western in favour of the exotic East. Definitely counter-cultural, it laid the groundwork for the Maharishi, meditation, yoga, and eastern mysticism to move into the West in the 1960's. Also carried over from the jazz scene was the use of marijuana and harder drugs, supposedly a means of enhancing/expanding the listening experience. The drug experience would be forever changed with the arrival of LSD, however.
  Ravi Shankar collaborating with composer Philip Glass

In the field of classical music the Indian influence was also being felt. La Monte Young and Terry Riley took note, and passed on the influence to Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. Riley would release "In C" in 1964, inaugurating what would become known as minimalism. Philip Glass encountered Ravi Shankar while studying composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and seized upon Indian classical music as a new stream of possibility, having become disillusioned with serialism and aleatoric (chance) music. In the emerging New York art scene classical and rock music did meet in the flesh, as their protagonists were visiting the same places — they for instance took to using the loft of avant-garde artist Yoko Ono as a place to hang out and perform.

In those meeting points in the art scenes John Cale for instance picked up these new sounds, while he was studying classical music at the Eastman Conservatory, New York, on a scholarship under the aegis of Aaron Copeland, no less (West, 1982). Thence the influence went on to the Velvet Underground — ever wonder where they got their weird tunings and droning guitars? Cale's first influence was John Cage, and from him La Monte Young who was to become his main source of inspiration. [1] About these influences Cale said himself:
  "La Monte was perhaps the best part of my education and my introduction to musical discipline. We formed the Dream Syndicate, which consisted of two amplified voices, an amplified violin and my amplified viola. The concept of the group was to sustain notes for two hours at a time. La Monte would hold the lowest notes, I would hold the next three on my viola, his wife Marion would hold the next note and this fellow Tony Conrad would hold the top note. That was my first group experience and what an experience it was! (...) it [was] the only example of that kind of music in the world. The Indians use the drone also, but they use a totally different tuning system and though they attempt a scientific approach. They don't really have it buttoned down like we did" (Bockris & Malanga, 1983).
  The information also found a wider public by the records themselves. Riley's later recording "A Rainbow In Curved Air" (1969) would greatly influence the VCS3 organ and A.R.P. synthesizer playing of Pete Townshend on "Who's Next" (1971).
Davey Graham

By the early 1960s a British folk guitarist named Davey Graham was blending jazz, folk, blues, and Indian ragas and inventing a whole set of alternate tunings for the guitar. As folk music was already familiar with the modal system, it was a natural extension of the music. In 1963 he would arrange a traditional ballad — "She Moves Through The Fair" — as a guitar raga. He influenced Paul Simon, Donovan, and Bert Jansch and through Jansch a whole generation of British guitar players — most notably Jimi Page, who got turned on to Jansch by Al Stewart and ended up "borrowing" Jansch's arrangement of "Black Water Side" (1966) for a Yardbirds and later a Led Zeppelin track. [2]

  Meanwhile in New York, folk singer Fred Neil had experimented with the same sort of fusion and tunings. Among his fans and collaborators were pre-fame Bob Dylan, John Sebastian, Felix Pappalardi, and David Crosby. Crosby was also into Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane and brought those influences to the Byrds, most notably in "Eight Miles High" (1966) which was built around a fragment of Coltrane's "India" and embellished with raga influenced soloing. But that would not be recorded until 1966.
  The West Coast folk scene also fell under the influence of the new sounds in jazz and Fred Neil (via David Crosby), which led to traditional folk and bluegrass guitarists trying their hand at raga based soloing. That was how the Jefferson Airplane (who made their debut at the Matrix in August 1965), Grateful Dead, and Quicksilver Messenger Service came to incorporate the Indian influence into their music. Most notably, the Grateful Dead combined it with their country/bluegrass roots, resulting in the extended soloing and improvisation that built the band's reputation.
3 Part 3: 1965 - The birth of Raga Rock. In February 1965 the Yardbirds went into the studio to record their next single, a Graham Gouldman song titled "Heart Full Of Soul". The Yardbirds had experimented with a number of styles / instrumentations of music — Gregorian chant on "Still I'm Sad" apparently, and harpsicord on "For Your Love" — so innovation was already in their blood. The first version of "Heart Full Of Soul" was recorded with a sitar player but didn't make it past recording the backing track and a guide vocal as the take with sitar didn't have the oomph needed for a single release. Enter new member Jeff Beck who was able to mimic the sound of the sitar on his electric, thus giving the song the edge it needed. Result: a major hit upon its release in June 1965. The original take remained unheard until the release of the "Shapes Of Things" box set on Charly Records in 1984. It is now readily available on several compilations.
The Yardbirds: Hearts Full Of Soul (30 sec.)
  The Yardbirds

In the booklet that came with the "Shapes Of Things" box set was a press clipping written by Penny Valentine titled "Yardbirds Try For An Indian Sound". Although the article is not dated or the magazine it appeared in mentioned, there is reference to the Yardbirds appearing with the Beatles in Paris the following week and, as the Beatles played Paris on June 20, this would place the article as having been written sometime in the week previous. The article provides the following information:

  "If the Indian gentleman sitting cross-legged on the floor of the control room had been a little more tuned to pop music and a little less tuned to classical music then he might well have ended up on the Yardbird's new single. The boys originally wanted the sound that a sitar — an ancient Indian string instrument — produced on "Heart Full Of Soul". And the only way they could get one was by hiring an Indian musician to play it on the session. Apparently the man, a highly proficient classical musician who had never worked with a pop group before, spent the entire session saying, according to Keith Relf, "Oh dear me, I'll get it in a minute." He didn't. So they turned to ace guitarist Jeff Beck who managed to do an expert imitation on an ordinary guitar."
The Yardbirds: Hearts Full Of Soul — Sitar Version (30 sec.)
  In the book "Yardbirds" by John Platt, Chris Dreja, and Jim McCarty, Jim McCarty recalled that "the riff on the demo suggested a sitar, and Giorgio [Gomelsky, their manager] actually hired an Indian sitar player and tabla player."
The Kinks in NME, July 30th, 1965 (click on the picture for a larger view)

There was something hanging in the air, because the next month, in April, the Kinks recorded the single "See My Friends" which also featured a guitar mimicking a sitar. The song was released as a single in July 30th. In an interview, appearing at the release date, Ray Davies told about the song and mentioned that he'd been impressed with Indian music that he heard during a tour stopover in December 1964. Ray said that he asked his brother, Dave Davies, to try to replicate the sound of the "droning" Indian instruments and takes some pride in the fact that "See My Friends" accomplished it with a Western guitar. [3] The Kinks toured with the Yardbirds from April, 30th til May 23rd, but that's not where they got their idea. That happened earlier on as they were doing a tour in Australia in February that same year and spent some time in India on their way. In an interview with Rolling Stone Ray Davies told:

  "I got that idea from being in India. I always like the chanting. Someone once said to me "England is gray and India is like a chant." I don't think England is that gray but India is like a long drone. When I wrote the song, I had the sea near Bombay in mind. We stayed at a hotel by the sea, and the fishermen come up at five in the morning and they were all chanting. And we went on the beach and we got chased by a mad dog — big as a donkey" (Cott, 1969).
The Kinks: See My Friends (30 sec.)
  The Yardbirds single was released in June 1965 — just one month before the Kinks' song. So, the honour of the first sitar-sounding guitar in pop/rock goes to the Yardbirds — Davey Graham, notwithstanding. The Yardbirds were also the first band to use an actual sitar in their recordings, although the version with the sitar would not see release for another nineteen years.
  Advert for the Kinks single in NME

In the meantime the Beatles were also discovering Indian music on their own, ironically as a result of the filming of "Help!". In his book "The Love You Make" Peter Brown (1983) claims that George acquired his interest in Indian music by becoming interested in the instrument after seeing and hearing it in the set of "Help!". Brown claims this took place in the Bahamas, but as the scene in which the instrument is seen and heard is the one where Clang's henchmen incapacitate the musicians and staff in the Rajahama Indian restaurant and proceed to take their place, playing "A Hard Day's Night" on their instruments. It's also the scene where Clang (Leo McKern) explains the significance of the ring and attempts to cut off Ringo's hand to retrieve it. This scene was filmed in London at Twickenham studios on April 5th and 6th, 1965, according to Mark Lewisohn's "The Complete Beatles Chronicle". So if the old story of George Harrison picking up and being intrigued with a sitar on the set of "Help!" is true, that is the date marking the beginning of George's interest in Indian music. It would not be until October 12th before the first fruits of George's study of the instrument would be used in recording "Norwegian Wood" (a.k.a. "This Bird Has Flown").

  Curiously, Lewisohn cites George's use of the sitar as the first time it had appeared on any pop record. But one best selling pop recording had already featured the instrument: the North American release of "Help!" (Capitol SMAS 2386) which was released on August 13th, 1965. For there on side two, sandwiched between "Another Girl" and "Ticket To Ride" is the instrumental "Another Hard Day's Night" in which is performed a medley of "A Hard Day's Night", "Can't Buy Me Love", and "I Should Have Known Better" on sitar with tablas, flute, and finger cymbals — the music used in the restaurant scene in the movie. One tends to forget these tracks since they were not performed by the Beatles and have been left off the official CD issues of the "Help!" album as they did not appear on the UK version. Ironically that track beats George to the honours by almost four months — even though it was included as filler and was intended to have a comedic effect.
4 Part 4: The aftermath - The George Harrison Factor and beyond ... After "Norwegian Wood" the use of sitar and Indian influence spread. An electric version of the sitar was produced to mimic the sound of the real thing — also to spare the would-be musician the long months of practise needed to master the instrument as the electric version had fewer strings and looked and played more like a guitar.
  A Beatles sitar lesson

George expanded the use of Indian instrumentation on his songs, culminating in "Within You Without You" and "The Inner Light" before returning to more Western musical idioms, inspired by the Band's first album, "Nashville Skyline" Bob Dylan, and Elmore James. He would go on to develop a slide technique that would suggest something of the twang and resonance of the sitar. He returned to the sitar for his contribution to the Bunbury Tails soundtrack, accompanied by his son Dhani. He also recorded or produced several albums of Indian and Indian/Western music, most notably the Shankar Family & Friends (Dark Horse) and the Radha Krishna Temple (Apple). Of course, his "Wonderwall" album certainly had its share of Indian music, along with Apple albums "Raga" (a soundtrack featuring Ravi Shankar) and a double live album of Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. George also appeared on Shankar's "Tana Mana" album (Private Music) and facilitated perhaps one of the most unlikely song writing collaborations in pop music — Ravi Shankar and Duane Eddy on "The Trembler" from Eddy's self titled album (Capitol 1987).

For the rest of the pop world the sitar became the fad instrument of the next few years and Indian musical influences spread to the pop charts. The Rolling Stones put the instrument to good use in their song "Paint It Black" and The Monkees included one on their debut album "This Just Doesn't Seem To Be My Day". The Box Tops would use an electric sitar on "Cry Like A Baby", as would the Lemon Pipers on "Green Tambourine", Joe South on "The Games People Play" and the Hollies would approximate a sitar sound with banjo and echo on "Stop Stop Stop". In-between 1967 and 1969 the Danelectro Company of Nathan Daniel even started building electric guitars, simulating the sound of sitars — like the Coral Sitar with extra drone strings and an adapted "buzz" bridge. It was their simpler Danelectro Sitar, by the way, that was used by the Box Tops for their song "Cry Like A Baby". [4] For the adults, an album of pop favourites performed instrumentally by Lord Sitar was available — somebody obviously listened to the track on "Help" and figured there was a market waiting to be exploited à la Hollyridge Strings; they were mistaken.
Cover of the "Keep On Wombling" album (1974)

But by the waning months of 1968 a new sound had replaced that of the sitar — the Moog synthesizer via the contributions of (Paul) Beaver and (Bernie) Krause and especially Walter (now Wendy) Carlos whose "Switched On Bach" became a best seller. Curiously, George Harrison was one of the first people in England to own one, using it to embellish "Abbey Road" and "All Things Must Pass", as well as record "Electronic Sounds" — though the question of who actually performed that album is under dispute. The sitar gradually fell from favour by the 1970s. British children's TV character/pop star Orinoco Womble was shown holding one on the cover of the Wombles "Keep On Wombling" album released in December 1974, which seemed to indicate that it was no longer an instrument to be taken seriously. [5] But by the mid 1980s interest was rekindled with the Indipop bands, most notably Sheila Chandra with Monsoon. This led to its use in dance music where it can still be heard even today, most notably with Talvin Singh. And, lest we forget, Yes would use it on "It Can Happen" from their comeback album "90125".

But the most serious use of the instrument came from Colin Walcott who, as sitar and tabla player and percussionist, worked with The Paul Winter Consort — George Martin would produce their "Icarus" album, pronouncing it the finest album he ever made, which, given his recording career, is high praise indeed — and later the quartet Oregon (formed by four former members of the Consort), as well as solo and collaborative works with Codona and Meredith Monk. He was killed in a car crash in 1984 and the band carried on, replacing him with Trilok Gurtu, but it was never the same. [6]
  Colin Walcott

And, by way of closing, let us not forget the racial climate in England in 1965. Here were the Beatles poking fun at an ethnic group in a manner that would not be tolerated today. But then in 1965 the immigration from India to the UK which occurred after the war had created a large enough community and hence market for Indian music that the Beatles couldn't help but be exposed to it. Awareness of the Indian community was certainly large enough in the British consciousness that Peter Sellers was able to record a comedy song "Goodness Gracious Me" with Sophia Loren, based on characters they played in the movie "The Millionaires". In the song he adopts a distinctly Indian accent — was Gandhi the inspiration for this? It was a #4 hit in the UK in 1960 and could not have escaped the notice of the Beatles, who were certainly fans of Sellers.

  As one writer pointed out (in Mojo, I think), the irony was that the very culture the Beatles were mocking would eventually be embraced by them. I think especially of the scene where a syringe is produced, eliciting shocked reactions on the part of George and John ("See what you've done with your filthy Eastern ways!") — both of whom would later become heroin addicts. But in 1965, the Summer Of Love, Maharishi, 1968, Enoch Powell, "Get Back" and a January sojourn at Twickenham Film Studios were years away, Brian Epstein was still alive, and the Beatles were still very much together and on top of the world.
1. John Cale was already introduced to the American avant-garde by Cornelius Cardew while he was studying in London at Goldsmith's College. The Dream Syndicate — a collaboration of Young, Cale and possibly also Riley — was an early to mid sixties ensemble that explored the drone as a form of music. A mono performance tape of the ensemble that was released on a very limited edition album back in 1964, shows their music as mostly a drone on one chord (root-fifth-octave), uncannily reminiscent of "Metal Machine Music" (1975). Was Reed mocking Cale's classical background when he released it, simply trying to get out of his RCA contract, or a bit of both? Cale would later collaborate with Riley on "Church of Anthrax"(1970). Another band by the name of Dream Syndicate, by the way, was formed in the early 1980s. Though heavily influenced by the Velvets, it bears no personal relationship with the earlier ensemble. Return to text
2. "She Moves Through The Fair" became a classic in the tradition of Folk Rock. The words to this song were written by the Irish poet Padraic Colum set to a mixolydian melody, derived by collector/arranger Herbert Hughes from a traditional Gaelic air. Davey Graham's reworking appeared in September 27th, 1963 on the EP "From A London Hootenanny" by "The Thamesiders and Davey Graham" (Decca). The song was subsequently performed by Graham on ABC TV's Hullabaloo, telerecorded around June/July 1963 (see: Harper, 2000: 325). Two years later Graham made an album — "Folk Routes, New Routes" (1965) — with traditional folk singer Shirley Collins because, as Graham says her husband "thought that my Indian stuff would blend with her native Sussex style. It was quite an innovation. Shirley was impressed but not very enthusiastic, while I think that some of my best work is on that record" (Leigh, 1990). Return to text
3. See for the information on this song the contribution of D.L. MacLaughlan (saki) to the newsgroup rec.music.beatles of 2001-03-12. Joseph Brennan's (1994) reconstruction of the Kinks' messy recording history on the Pye label sets the recording date of the Kinks' "See My Friends" in April 1965. The song was released on July 30th, 1965 (Pye 7N 15919). The NME interview probably is from the same date; see: Dave Emlen's Unofficial Kinks Web Site. Return to text
4. The George Martin quote was reproduced on later reissues of the CD and originally appeared in Martin's autobiography (Martin & Honsby, 1979). Oregon's "Crossing" album (ECM 1985) was dedicated to Colin Walcott and Jo Haerting, assistant to the band, who were both killed in a car crash in Magdeburg, GDR on November 8, 1984. Return to text
5. Thanks to Heinrich Zois for pointing at the information about the electric sitar of Nathan Daniel. Return to text
6. The "Keep On Wombling" album features the sitar on its front cover, but not in the music. The album was, in my opinion, the Womble's best album and perhaps their most ambitious as the first side was arranged as a suite of songs titled "Orinoco's Dream: Fantasies Of A Sleeping Womble" — a definite wink at concept albums. The sitar on the cover was likely a send up of the pretentiousness of the prog rock scene in the UK. The Womble's next album was a direct parody of two Rick Wakeman albums whose slightly altered titles became the title of a song "The Myths and Legends Of King Merton Womble and His Journey To The Centre Of The Earth." Return to text
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  The short sound fragments on this page are copyrighted: "Hearts Full Of Soul" 1965 © Charly Records / Victor; "See My Friends" 1965 © Pye / Castle. They are used here according to the rules of fair use and academic quoting.
  2001 © Frederick W. Harrison / Soundscapes