There is a lot of excitement this week over the final release of the Get Back film, but I’ve been watching The Beatles In India instead.
The Beatles have always had an odd position for me, as their music had been canonised and accepted as a Great British Thing before I was born. Their films, and films and documentaries about them, were established as conventional and respectable entertainment by the time John Lennon was shot and they were a news story again. There were aspects of their work that was strange and unpleasant and adults weren’t happy to explain. I hated and still detest Yellow Submarine, just as I also can’t stand Terry Gilliam’s animations in Monty Python. But it was quite a bit later on before I could listen to all the music and compare it to other pop music I’d heard. I won a full set of their music on CD before I had anything to play it on, and when I finally did I was surprised to find out how downbeat and bleak much of Sgt Pepper really is.
I sort their music into 3 sections. First, the Early Years, all the way up till they stopped touring and after Help! had been released. It’s all good stuff but I can’t be bothered to play those albums when it was really just the singles that they were good at. But then there was the Golden Age, the run of 4 solid gold classic albums from Rubber Soul to The Beatles. And finally, my least favourite part of their career, the Late Period. I’ve just never liked Abbey Road, and though I can hear “Come Together” and “Something” as new sounds in their repertoire, they’re now blurring off into being a 1970s pop group and that doesn’t have any special magic to it. It’s only the final few singles from that time that I really love, and I feel they stopped at the right moment. I don’t want to see the film about it.
The Beatles In India opens rather dramatically with footage of the Blitz in 1942, and the information that George Harrison’s mum enjoyed listening to Indian music when it was played on the radio during wartime. We then move quickly forward to the height of Beatlemania, and the detail that Help! the movie was received badly in India as a collection of terrible stereotypes left over in the British consciousness since the Raj period, which ended less than 20 years earlier. But George had been pushing for a broadening of the band’s sound, and he’d already played sitar on “Norwegian Wood” when he decided to go out to India to get some instruction on how to do it better.
A good thing about George that comes through in this footage is that he is quite clear that the sitar is an instrument that requires years of study and practice and he is not going to become a master after 1 or 2 weeks of tuition with Ravi Shankar. In an interview included in And They All Sang, the latter told Studs Terkel a few years later that his reputation in Indian classical music was damaged by working with western pop stars, as he was seen to have cheapened the art and made it seem easy for any fool to pick up. That isn’t mentioned here but we do see the explosion of interest in Indian music (amongst western performers and audiences) that followed the collaboration. All the westerners talk in interviews as though this was an obscure genre they were bringing to the world, but of course they were only bringing it to a different part of the world, it was already well-known to a lot of people where it originated.
There is footage from A Whole Scene Going in 1966 in which a bunch of quite famous rock musicians sit at the feet of Shankar and ask very respectful questions, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be on-line. You can find Wonderwall online.
Soon the rest of the Fab Four went over to India and getting interviewed and launching Beatlemania in another commercial territory. We have interviews with the pioneering female journalist who talked to them, who had also worked as a war correspondent.
George could be a bit rude and over-defensive about privacy insisting he wasn’t over to sign autographs and wave at fans again, but he seems to have been willing to talk enthusiastically about his new interest and how it was a natural progression for the group.
We also see how Beatlemania took off in India and how it inspired The Savages, the first group of imitators. One of the performers in the group ended up with a writing credit for “Kung Fu Fighting”.
The other side of The Beatles in India was their engagement with, and eventual split away from, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his school of Transcendental Meditation. There is a lot of footage of their 4-month stay at his ashram, and also the ruined state of it today.
The boys were happy to be released from the pressure of the regular working routine, but they soon re-established a creative pattern and worked out the songs of The Beatles whilst there (many of the lyrics were based on incidents at the time, apparently, which I assume is already well-known Beatles lore). The most intriguing part of the saga is the scandal when it was suggested by some left-wing politicians that a CIA radio station was operating in the vicinity and the whole set-up was an American subversion. But at the same time the local KGB officer went along to check out the ashram and concluded that it was all a lot of mumbo-jumbo that could only rot the minds and demoralise western youth, assisting the inevitable victory of Marxist-Leninism.
How true, how true. I hope lots of present-day culture warriors watch this and take notes.
“Within You Without You” is a song that has been further interpreted in a later western tradition of guitar sound.