On Friday 9th June, the Philharmonic Hall hosts a concert with the lengthy title GEORGE HARRISON, THE STORY OF THE BEATLES AND INDIAN MUSIC. The concert is made of chances, but so was George Harrison’s discovery of, and love affair with, Indian music. Dr Mike Jones, lecturer in Music Studies at the University Of Liverpool, has spent the past two years as a detective trying to find the uncredited Indian musicians who played on Sgt. Pepper. He explains how it all came together.
The concert came about because of an email I received in May 2015 from the son of one of the Indian musicians who played on Within You, Without You. Utkarsha Joshi told me that his father, Anna, had played dilruba on the session and that neither he nor the other musicians had ever been credited with playing. By chance, my next-door neighbour is a tabla player of high standing – John Ball was a bass player with various Stoke bands until, one day, the dole office sent him to Mr. Kiplings cakes as a punishment for missing his signing-on day. Half way through his first night-shift checking squiggle consistencies on French Fancies, he went to the canteen which he found strictly-segregated between white workers and Indian workers. He sat with the Indians. One of them lent him his cassette player and he heard Indian classical music for the first time. A year later he was in India, seeking out a tabla guru.
I asked John to check for me who were the Indian musicians on Sgt. Pepper, and a few hours later he came back with the news that “nobody knows”. At the same time, he said he was sure that someone would, and so we began a detective story. This detective story is still going on but we now have enough to tell a large part of an even bigger story – why was George Harrison transformed by Indian music, and why did his transformation have so much impact on the Beatles? Who were those musicians and why were they not named?
By early 1965, George Harrison was in need of ‘transformation’ – simultaneously he was one of the most famous people in the world, but in his own band he was still very much the junior partner as far as singing and songwriting were concerned. He couldn’t ‘move’ in any direction, except inside himself, and that’s where he went. One of the most exceptional facts about the Beatles is how fast and how enormous the changes they experienced were. In early 1965, the band shot the film Help in just over two months, but in those two months three chance encounters changed George’s life and subsequently that of the other three Beatles. On location in the Bahamas, George was introduced to Indian spiritual thought by Vishnu Devananda; on returning to London he encountered the sitar; and, at almost exactly the same time, someone spiked his coffee with LSD.
There are many quotes by George on the impact of each experience: the sound of the sitar – “It was if I already knew it”; LSD – “An illumination goes on inside: in 10 minutes I lived a thousand years”; Indian spiritual thought – “To read, ‘Each soul is divine. The goal is to manifest that divinity’, was very important to me.” For someone who had long been sceptical of the Catholicism that he was born into and who had then, as a Beatle, gained the status of, effectively, a living God, the collisions between Indian classical music, Indian spiritual thought and LSD helped him realise that what counted was his spirit, and not its materialisation as ‘The Quiet Beatle’.
Perhaps George could best be thought of as the ‘Silenced Beatle’, such was John and Paul’s domination of the band – but John and Paul and Ringo were also exposed to the force of fame and, certainly, John was in need of his own set of explanations. George’s bringing his sitar to the recording session for Norwegian Wood became the transformative moment in the lives of the Beatles because it was a symbol that resources existed that would help explain ‘the meaning of – crazed Beatles – life’.
In India, there were ideas and reflections and ways of being that seemed to offer far more insight than ‘tea and Meet the Wife’. As Devananda put it in the introduction to the book he gave to all four Beatles, “The truth can be experienced only when one transcends the senses and when the mind and intellect cease to function”. From their meeting with The Byrds in the Summer of 1965 through to the return from Rishikesh in the Summer of 1968, all four Beatles were gripped by the idea of ‘transcendence’ – getting above and beyond, getting away from “the mania” as George put it, and finding out not so much who they were, but who they had become and how to live that way.
David Crosby played George Ravi Shankar albums while he tripped for the second time. George took his sitar to Abbey Road and broke a string. George Martin rang the one Indian music contact he had, Ayana Angadi who ran the Asian Music Circle. One of Ayana’s daughters answered the phone and the family heard her ask, “Ringo who?”. A rush to the phone, followed by a rush to Abbey Road. The Angadis were the first Indian family George had met in the UK and so taken was he by them that he spent every weekend at the Angadis’ house in Finchley, being introduced to Indian instruments and Indian classical music. Suddenly, George was the source of inspiration, the ‘Silenced Beatle’ became, temporarily, the ‘Listened to’ Beatle. Sitar, tabla and tamboura made their way onto Revolver; drones seemed to reflect the experience of acid, Indian spiritual works inspired new lyrical concepts. What then followed was the extremely fraught Philippines visit followed by the chaotic ‘Bigger than Jesus’ tour of the USA that culminated in the last ever Beatles gig.
George went straight to India in September 1966. He had been introduced to Ravi Shankar by the Angadis. Shankar had agreed to be his sitar guru. By this time, apart from touring, George had more-or-less given up guitar in favour of sitar. So alienated was he from being a Beatle that he made very little contribution to Sgt. Pepper, apart from the stunning, Indian-influenced piece Within You, Without You.
The recording of Within You, Without You called for the involvement of several Indian musicians. In the June 2017 issue of Mojo magazine, those musicians are still referred to as ‘unknown’, but their names were always known – they were known to themselves and to their families. They were also known to Sir George Martin, who identified three of them in his book Summer Of Love, published to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the album’s release. Even so, very few people had reached out to contact them. As John and I started our hunt, we began with our first contact, Utkarsha Joshi. Through talking to him, other names emerged of people who were likely to have played on the album. Web searches revealed contact details and, gradually, we began to piece together the story of the recording session. What was remarkable was how finding those musicians began to change what was known of their contribution.
One interview I conducted was with Sir Peter Blake, who, with his then wife Jann Haworth, created the sleeve for Sgt. Pepper. By this time I knew, or thought I knew, that either three or four Indian musicians had played on the album, but when I asked him how many he had seen on the night George recorded his sitar part, Peter replied “oh, about 20!” “About 20” – take that history books! So, since then we have been identifying musicians. The Abbey Road tape boxes only name three musicians but, this far, we have the names of three more. Three are dead, and of the three living musicians, two will play at the concert at the Philharmonic Hall. It was by chance that I was emailed, by chance that I know a tabla player, by chance that I had a contact to Sir Peter Blake, by chance that John made contact with the ‘fourth’ musician, and by chance that he located the family of one of the now dead musicians. Take a chance, and come to see this concert – we can pick up the story from there.
George Harrison: the Story of The Beatles and Indian Music takes place at the Philharmonic Hall on 9th June, as part of the 50 Summers Of Love celebrations. The biographical concert features a hand-picked Liverpool-based band starring Thomas McConnell, together with an ensemble of outstanding musicians, led by Jasdeep Singh Degun, playing Indian classical music. Tickets are available at liverpoolphil.com.