The Beatles FAQ
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The Beatles FAQ

How was George Harrison introduced to Indian music?

A Beatles covers tribute sparks a lifelong fascination

The first time George Harrison saw a sitar was on the set of Help in April 1965. A group of Indian musicians had been recruited to add an authentic Indian ambiance to the restaurant scene. They played a Beatles medley (‘Another Hard Day’s Night’) using sitar, flute, tabla, ghunghroo and tanpura.

Listening to foreign musicians cranking out tribute covers of their songs was usually a dreary experience for The Beatles. India was, however, one of the few countries that bypassed Beatlemania. The Beatles, in turn were cheerfully ignorant of Indian musical traditions. The snatches they had heard were usually of dubious authenticity and used for comic effect.The George Martin produced Goodness Gracious Me (1960) was a notorious example.

These session musicians performing Beatles songs in an Indian style were also being employed for comic effect but to his surprise, Harrison found himself entranced by the sound. ‘George was fascinated by the instruments they used,’ John Lennon later reported. He wanted to hear more and over the next few months Harrison began researching traditional Indian music.

The Beatles guitarist discussed his new interest with David Crosby, who toured the UK with The Byrds in August 1965. Crosby told him about Ravi Shankar, then virtually unknown outside India. Crosby also lent Harrison a Shankar LP that he ‘carried in his suitcase’.

It was love at first listen for Harrison, who immediately ordered his own sitar and began experimenting with it, approaching the challenge of learning a completely different musical tradition with the same determination that characterised his mastering of the guitar.

George introduced the sitar to the other Beatles, who were intrigued if not entirely convinced of its potential. By October 1965 he felt confident enough to use his new instrument during the recording sessions for ‘Norwegian Wood’. This caused serious technical problems as the sitar’s sound levels were not adjusted to the other instruments.

Resolving this issue meant trial and error and several takes. Harrison later said this process had been “quite spontaneous from what I remember”, adding, “We miked it up and put it on and it just seemed to hit the spot”. This is not quite how the Abbey Road studio technicians recalled the process but the final result did indeed ‘hit the spot’.

First ‘Indian pop song’?

‘Norwegian Wood’ is not the first pop song to display an Indian influence. ‘Ticket to Ride’ also included a raga-like drone, as did The Kinks ‘See My Friends. Where ‘Norwegian Wood’ did break new ground was in the use of a genuine Indian instrument on western pop song.

In today’s more censorious climate, The Beatles might be accused of cultural appropriation. Indian instrumentation was, however, thematically consistent with the concept of Rubber Soul. The album title openly signals a sound that draws on other traditions.

At the time, Harrison’s passion for all things Indian was assumed to be a passing one. It was, in fact, a starting point in a journey towards creating music that could genuinely claim to be in the Indian classical tradition. He would first achieve this aim with Love You Too on the following Beatles album, Revolver

Love You Too

Harrison’s first serious attempt at an ‘Indian’ composition had the unpromising working title of “Granny Smith”. As ever, George struggled with the lyrics, as he revealed in an interview with Maureen Cleave for the London Evening Standard in February 1966.

He wishes he could write fine songs as Lennon and McCartney do, but he has difficulty with the words. “Pattie keeps asking me to write more beautiful words,” he said. He played his newest composition… ’Love me while you can: before I’m a dead old man…’ George was aware that these words were not beautiful.

Evening Standard readers may have had the impression that “Love You To” was a love song celebrating George’s recent marriage to new Pattie (Boyd). The couple had, after all, just returned from honeymoon in the (then) impossibly glamorous Barbados.

Perhaps more pertinent, however, was another Maureen Cleave’s observation from the same interview. Indian music and culture, she noted, “has given new meaning to [his] life”. In fact, George would later admit that this new passion had threatened to overwhelm any marital obligations.

I felt I wanted to walk out of my home that day and take a one-way ticket to Calcutta. I would even have left Pattie behind in that moment.

Anyone play tabla?

George booked studio time to record “ Love You To” in April 1966. On the day of recording a snag emerged. “I can do the sitar part,” George announced, “but we need a good tabla player”. This request created blank stares amongst Abbey Road staff. The tabla — a two-handed drum- was an instrument unfamiliar to western musicians.

Ever resourceful, George Martin contacted the north London-based Asian Music Circle. They recommended Anil Bhagwat, a twenty-five year old engineering student. The young man was astonished to find himself being whisked to the royal court of the pop world.

A chap called [Ayana] Angadi called me and asked if I was free that evening to work with George … he didn’t say it was Harrison. It was only when a Rolls-Royce came to pick me up that I realised I’d be playing on a Beatles session. When I arrived at Abbey Road there were girls everywhere with Thermos flasks, cakes, sandwiches, waiting for the Beatles to come out.


Inside the studio, Bhagwat found Ringo & John playing chess, while Paul had apparently gone home

George then arrived, with a basic demo track he had recorded with Paul earlier in the day. The two men from contrasting musical traditions then listened on headphones. Bhagwat was struck by what he termed the ‘Beatle elements’ — the stops and starts and fixed structure.

George told me what he wanted and I tuned the tabla with him. He suggested I play something in the Ravi Shankar style, 16-beats, though he agreed that I should improvise. Indian music is all improvisation.

Sitting on the studio floor, Bhagwat and Harrison rehearsed by playing along to the demo track. After after around a dozen run-throughs, they were ready to record

To capture an ‘in your face sound’, they recorded into high performance ribbon microphones. These had been ingeniously integrated into the instrument speakers by sound engineer Geoff Emerick.

They completed six takes, and chose the final one. At the end of the session, a car took Baghwat to his flat in Earls Court. Very unusually, his contribution was name-checked on the back cover of Revolver.


When Revolver was released in August of the same year, Love You To” was greeted with astonishment. Many were suspicious about the high quality of Harrison’s sitar playing, but decades later Bhagwat has insisted that these doubts were unfounded

It was George on the sitar throughout. There were no other musicians involved. It was just me and him source: Steve Turner Beatles 66 p.149

Peter Lavezzoli has suggested that “Love You To” is “the first conscious attempt in pop to emulate a non-Western form of music in structure and instrumentation”. In other words, the song that began as Granny Smith became foundation disc of what would become known as world music.



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