The Beatles' guitarist first picked up the sitar during the filming of the group’s preposterous slapstick film Help! in 1965. There was a break in filming during a restaurant scene in which someone gets thrown in a vat of soup while Indian musicians play on in the background, and one of the instruments caught George’s eye. Said Harrison in The Beatles Anthology, “I remember picking up the sitar and trying to hold it and thinking, ‘This is a funny sound.’” He decided to go pick up one of his own an Indian shop in London called India Craft -- and it made its debut on the Beatles’ song “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).”
George went on to study at the feet of Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar, one of the most profound bonds of his life. But he became discouraged in his lessons. In his autobiography I Me Mine, he spoke of his eventual decision to stick to guitar: "I decided ... I'm not going to be a great sitar player ... because I should have started at least fifteen years earlier." No matter, because the seeds had been planted; Indian music’s aim to cry out to God and the cosmic erasure of boundaries encoded in its DNA had permanently stretched George’s mind for the rest of his life. In the concluding moments of his final album, Brainwashed, you hear George and his son, Dhani, chant a touching Hindu prayer together for the last time.
George never became a true sitar player, but the ripple effect of his fascination with Indian art forms rewired the collective mindset of a generation. It really took a perfect storm of time, place and context to somehow green-light God-consciousness into the ears of rock fans all over the world. From that fateful moment on the set of Help! to Harrison’s death in 2001, here are 7 great moments in which Harrison collided with Indian music and culture.
1966: John and George Chant Hare Krishna on a Sailboat With Banjoleles For 6 Hours
Paul McCartney has spent decades now on the campaign trail that he was every bit as cosmic as John or George. In The Beatles Anthology, Paul disingenuously muses on how it was actually he who spearheaded the Beatles’ endlessly-chronicled 1968 India trip: “I think generally there was a feeling of: 'Yeah, well, it's great to be famous, it's great to be rich – but what it's all for?'" Actually, both Paul and Ringo seemed to go home rather unfazed by their little vay-cay in the Inner Light. And although John went on to write a mean song about the Maharishi (just a smile? would lighten? everything?!), he still showed authentic interest in this philosophy that was captivating George. In a November 1980 interview, George remembered that he and John would get a kick out of chanting the Hare Krishna mantra together for long periods of time back in ‘66. He said, “I remember singing it just for days, John and I, with ukulele banjos, sailing through the Greek islands. Like six hours we sang, because you couldn’t stop once you got going. It was like as soon as you stop, it was like the lights went out.”
1968: George Releases Some Zonked Indian Music as a Soundtrack to the Film Wonderwall
If you ask the average Beatles fan what the first solo album recorded by one of its members was, you may get a response ranging from All Things Must Pass to Plastic Ono Band. What if it was actually a jumble of instrumental tracks with titles like “Greasy Legs” and “Ski-Ing,” the latter being an entire track of Eric Clapton losing his mind on a guitar solo? Welcome to Wonderwall Music, a soundtrack album released all the way back in 1968 to Joe Massot’s forgotten film of the same name. In retrospect, that soundtrack seems to be Harrison’s first frustrated artistic spasms as he was coming into his own as a songwriter but not being cut much slack on Beatles records. His new infatuation with Indian music was taking him places, and he needed to get it out. In an interview with Musician magazine in 1987, George put it this way: “I was getting so into Indian music by then that I decided to use the assignment as an excuse for a musical anthology to help spread the word.” The results veer between weird sections of rock n’ roll and music hall, mostly recorded at the home base of EMI Studios, and brilliant bits of Indian music he’d recorded in Bombay with shehnai, tabla, surbahar and sitar players.
1971: Ravi Shankar and Co. Tune Up at The Concert For Bangladesh, Get Big Applause
The Concert for Bangladesh was by far the first concert of its kind, with a gaggle of superstars joining together at Madison Square Garden to raise money for refugees. Even though the actual benefit to the war-torn country was dubious, with the concert raising a paltry $250,000 and its triple-album’s sales getting frozen in an IRS escrow account, the concert resonated. So many parts of the concert are memorable -- Billy Preston howling and yowling over the organ, Badfinger in the corner with their acoustic guitars, George’s awful beard -- but the most charmingly awkward moment is right at the beginning, when Ravi Shankar and his ensemble taking the stage. Ravi uncomfortably exhorts the longhairs up front to not smoke during the solemn performance, and then gets a misunderstanding burst of applause as the group tunes up. Ravi's dry, wooden response never gets old: “If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you'll enjoy the playing more.”
1974: George Parades Around the Globe as the Far East Man, Receives Humble Pie
George’s 1970 hit “My Sweet Lord” is still a delightful single, injecting Krishna-consciousness into a pop context that still sounds sweet rather than pedantic. He was emboldened by the idea that he could use rock n’ roll to guide his audiences into spiritual concerns, and he took it further with his follow-up, Living in the Material World, an even richer listen that nonetheless starts getting pretty preachy. Therein, George lovingly shakes his head at the unenlightened masses: “It's funny how people, just won't accept change / As if nature itself they'd prefer re-arranged.” What happened next was dividing line in George’s spiritual journey. George released a vaguely arrogant, half-cocked album called Dark Horse, took mountains of cocaine, split with Patti Boyd, briefly got with Ringo’s wife, flew around in a private plane with a giant Krishna logo on it and was roasted by the press for a laryngeal, cocaine-fueled 45-show tour with Shankar. At this low point, George wasn’t just living in the material world -- he was trashing the place, becoming exactly who he was singing against. George never toured again, save for a brief 1991 Japan tour with Eric Clapton. He also toned down his religiosity for future albums, eventually referring to himself as a “closet Krishna” -- perhaps understanding he’d flown too close to the sun. Tellingly, when the lyrics to his song “World of Stone” appeared in his autobiography, he gave a twist to one of the lines: “Such a long way from OM.”
1981: George Releases a Hit Tribute to a Universal God
The influence of Indian music mostly took a time-out for the next few decades of George’s ever-slowing output, with only subtle hints here and there: the gorgeous sitar drone on “Here Comes the Moon”; his soft-rock ode to Indian yogi Paramahansa Yogananda, “Dear One.” But “Life Itself,” released in 1981, was his best single in years because it didn’t lecture, it praised. Lyrically, the tune extends his devotion to Krishna to a more universal, interfaith God -- “They call you Christ, Vishnu, Buddha, Jehovah, Our Lord,” he sings. No matter which religious walk of life you approach this beautiful song from, his wizened gratitude looked good on him. Any road will take him there.
1997: George and Ravi Stop by VH1 to Wax Mystically About the Nature of Death
The rest of the Beatles’ absorption with Indian culture mostly ended when they left the country in a huff back in 1968, but George’s friendship with Ravi lasted decades. (Shankar’s young daughter, Anoushka, affectionately called him “George Uncle.”) Come 1997, George had wrapped up production on Ravi’s Chants of India -- re-released today on HariSongs -- and the two stopped by VH1 to plug it. They met up with the nervous-looking host John Fugelsang, who didn’t know what he was in for, later remembering he was under the impression that “they were going to come and give us a little 10-minute sound bite and then take off.” Instead, George was feeling chatty -- and what transpired from there was an example of what happens when a man seems to spiritually fill the entire building. Harrison waxed on the big subjects of transcendence, dualism and how to deal with death, even picking up a guitar to sing “All Things Must Pass.”
2001: George Signs Off With a Moving Prayer Featuring His Son
George’s final album Brainwashed wasn’t released until a year after his death, with notes to finish the album left for collaborators Dhani, Jeff Lynne, Jim Keltner and others when he passed away. But if you truly want to understand the essence of George, the one that only fitfully came through even in the Beatles or “My Sweet Lord” or Concert for Bangladesh, Brainwashed is your ticket in. Ruminations on death? Check. An old-timey Hoagy Carmichael cover? Yup. Bone-dry humor? All over the place. A lecture or two? We wouldn’t have it any other way. Every song is a jewel, but the title track to Brainwashed, which concludes the album, is akin to having an undiluted dose of George unloaded on you via Mack Truck. It simply runs the gamut of emotion, with George stomping around the song listing off everything in society that’s got your number, pausing for a brief reading from the book How to Know God, and ending in the most touching piece of music George may have ever recorded. Over a soft Eastern drone, George and Dhani offer a prayer as father and son: the Namah Parvati. The sound lingers in the air for a bit. Then just silence.