Happy Birthday George Harrison: George Plays Sitar

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Today marks what would have been George Harrison’s 77th birthday. As NME reported, the city of Liverpool announced The George Harrison Woodland Walk will open in 2021, 20 years after his death. A park is appropriate as George loved gardening and nature, traits that were only enhanced by his practicing of Indian spiritualism.

Harrison played a big role in bringing Indian music and philosophies to the wider western world. George first came across the sitar on the set of The Beatles 1965 film Help!, which included a scene with a classical Indian ensemble. “George was looking at them,” John Lennon recalls in The Beatles Anthology film. The encounter made a lifelong impact on Harrison.

Later that year, The Beatles were recording their album Rubber Soul and a song penned by Lennon just needed something more. The Beatles were entering a highly experimental phase and Harrison was leading the charge.

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“We’d recorded the ‘Norwegian Wood’ backing track and it needed something,” Harrison noted in The Beatles Anthology. “We would usually start looking through the cupboard to see if we could come up with something, a new sound, and I picked the sitar up – it was just lying around; I hadn’t really figured out what to do with it. It was quite spontaneous: I found the notes that played the lick. It fitted and it worked.”

Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) via The Beatles

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“Norwegian Wood” became the first known western pop song to feature sitar. But the classical Indian instrument isn’t necessarily something you just just pick up. Here’s how famed sitarist Ravi Shankar described hearing “Norwegian Wood” during a BBC interview in 2000. “I couldn’t believe it,” he remembered, “it sounded so strange. Just imagine some Indian villager trying to play the violin when you know what it should sound like.”

As the story goes, David Crosby had introduced Harrison to the music of Ravi Shankar when The Byrds toured the UK in 1965. George would meet the renowned musician a year later, just after The Beatles recorded their groundbreaking album Revolver. The album included a full-on classical Indian piece, “Love You Too,” played mostly by musicians from the North London Asian Music Circle.

Love You Too via The Beatles

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Harrison started taking lessons from Shankar and they showed as Harrison, once again backed by Indian musicians, recorded perhaps his finest Indian composition, “Within In You Without You” on The Beatles iconic 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Within In You Without You via The Beatles

Geroge’s, as well as Lennon’s, affinity for Indian music and culture led The Beatles to India in 1968 to study transcendental meditation under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. While the band’s relationship with the yogi didn’t quite work out, George would continue his tutelage with Shankar.

Harrison Practicing With Shankar via pulpobeatle

Ravi was impressed by Harrison’s enthusiasm for Indian music and spiritualism and the two formed a tight bond, with Shankar counting Harrison as a younger brother. In 1975, Harrison toured with Shankar to support the former’s Dark Horse album. Check out Harrison, Shankar and more performing “I Am Missing You” from that tour below:

I Am Missing You via BobsArtGallery