The Sitar in Norwegian Wood

George Harrison and the sitar, the Beatles

Beatles remain a favorite of mine and I have always liked the perky number Norwegian Wood. The opening chords stayed stuck in my memory and the other day I was wondering about how this instrument got used for the song, assuming naturally that it followed from the much talked about visit of the Beatles to Rishikesh and George’s training sessions with Ravi Shankar.  As I started checking it out, I found that the song predated their visit to India and that it had an interesting story behind it. So for those who like the song and the Beatles, here goes…

1964, The Beatles had a great tour in America, George Harrison the lead guitarist characterized it ‘every bit a knock-out’ and it was a time when they met equals like Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. Beatlemania spread in America and a second tour was announced for 1965. The last two shows at the Hollywood bowl were smash hits.

Just before they crossed the Atlantic once again, they finished shooting for their second movie tilted Help! It was a kind of comedy film with a crass Indian tilt, replete with multiple armed goddesses and Swamis played by non-Indians. The synopsis reads - An eastern cult (a parody of the Thuggee cult) is about to sacrifice a woman to the goddess Kaili. Just as she is about to be killed, the high priestess of the cult, Ahme, notices that she is not wearing the sacrificial ring. Ringo Starr, drummer of the Beatles, has and is wearing it; it was secretly sent to him by the victim in a fan letter. Determined to retrieve the ring and sacrifice the woman, the great Swami Clang, Ahme, and several cult members including Bhuta, leave for London. After several failed attempts to steal the ring, they confront the Beatles in an Indian restaurant. Ringo learns that if he does not return the ring soon, he will become the next sacrifice. Ringo then discovers that the ring is stuck on his finger.

On April 5th and 6th, The Beatles filmed the Rajahama Indian restaurant scenes for Help! at Twickenham Film Studios. The interior kitchen and dining scenes were filmed on a purpose-built set. What is relevant in this context is the Indian restaurant, where they had Indian looking waiters, people standing on their head and all kinds of silly stuff. The restaurant also had a live Indian band playing Indian instruments such as the tabla and sitar and the song ‘A Hard Day's Night’ is played by them as an instrumental. George Harrison watching the filming, was intrigued by the Sitar played by this Indian performer and took the opportunity to check it out, its sound and balance.

Harrison explains - We were waiting to shoot the scene in the restaurant when the guy gets thrown in the soup and there were a few Indian musicians playing in the background. I remember picking up the sitar and trying to hold it and thinking, 'This is a funny sound.' It was an incidental thing, but somewhere down the line I began to hear Ravi Shankar's name. The third time I heard it, I thought, 'This is an odd coincidence.' And then I talked with David Crosby of The Byrds and he mentioned the name. I went and bought a Ravi record; I put it on and it hit a certain spot in me that I can't explain, but it seemed very familiar to me. The only way I could describe it was: my intellect didn't know what was going on and yet this other part of me identified with it.

And so it was around that time that I bought a cheap Sitar from a shop called India Craft in London and it was lying around, I hadn’t really figured out what to do with it.

The Beatles did not particularly enjoy the filming of the movie (despite the fact that they were high on pot, for Ringo says - A hell of a lot of pot was being smoked while we were making the film. It was great. That helped make it a lot of fun), nor were they pleased with the end product and later in 1970, John Lennon said they had felt like extras in their own movie. Shooting was completed in April and the movie premiered in June 1965.

Actually it was 5 months later that he purchased the sitar and it took another month before he did something with it. It would take yet another before he used it for a song.

The second tour to America in Aug 1965 was also a hit and they returned to Britain a million dollars richer and had six weeks to rest and recuperate. Harrison decided to goof around with his Gibson J-160E guitar by moving its pickup from the neck to the bridge, for he wanted a new sound. Their next LP had to be released before Christmas and so they met again at Abbey road in Oct. to work on a project titled Rubber Soul. After the first song ‘Run for your life’ was recorded, the group started working on Norwegian Wood (This bird has flown).

The concept for the song came from Lennon, who wanted to include a comedy song in the LP, touching the topic of a one night stand experience of his. The real meaning is still being debated and both Lennon and others have professed different meanings and attributes, but it is an intriguing song. 

The lyrics go thus

I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me...
She showed me her room, isn't it good, Norwegian wood?
She asked me to stay and she told me to sit anywhere,
So I looked around and I noticed there wasn't a chair.
I sat on a rug, biding my time, drinking her wine
We talked until two and then she said, "It's time for bed"
She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh.
I told her I didn't and crawled off to sleep in the bath
And when I awoke, I was alone, this bird had flown
So I lit a fire, isn't it good, Norwegian wood.

As it appears, Lennon meets somebody (purportedly Sonny or Maureen) starts out a one night stand with her (or maybe not, he got miffed when she started to laugh and say she had to go to work in the morning), and went to sleep in the tub, to wake up in the morning and see that the girl had gone away. The bird is a girl, the Norwegian wood supposedly low cost paneling (has also other subtle meanings) and McCartney mentions that he was the one who suggested Lennon imply that he wanted set fire to the room as he left, not just lighting a fire for warmth. It is anyway, one of those unfinished and surreal ballads.

The rehearsals did not quite gel, and Harrison felt it needed something extra. The usual arrangement of two guitars, bass and drums did not give the right feel to this gobbledygook of a song.
He explains – It was quite spontaneous. I just picked up the sitar and kind of found the notes and I just kind of played it. We miked it up and put it on and it seemed to hit the spot. That was how the overdub on Lennon’s guitar riff after 9 days of hard effort made this song so unique with its nasal twang. Harrison had the sitar tuned to western notes.

The structure changed to 4 bars each of A, B and A on Lennon’s guitar followed by Harrison repeating the same on the sitar. It is explained thus – When the listener first hears the AB and then hears the second A, he expects a B to follow but instead this jumps to a third A, creating the complex ABA sequence followed up with the unprecedented sitar routine. After the instrumental opening, the song goes back to the BA chords.

But there is more detail to all this. In fact even though many people mention that this is the first time a Sitar was used for pop music, there is some error in the statement. Though it was the first time it was released in a recording, it was previously used by other musicians, namely Shawn Phillips and Donovan. Philips worked with the sitar as early as 1962 while at Toronto and had heard Ravi Shankar playing there. He was soon hooked to the instrument. His first commercial recording was in Dec 1965, two months after the Beatles had completed Norwegian wood. It then took another two years for ‘Sunny South Kensington’ to be officially released. Guitarist Big Jim Sullivan also played the sitar in the early 1960’s, influenced by Vilayat Khan in 1964 and learning the craft from Nazir Jairazbhoy, a music lecturer at OSAS in London. By 1966, there was a good number of rock Sitarists in London and this was to bring about the invention of the electric Sitar. Jimmy Page - Led Zepplin’s guitarist also played the sitar those days.

Then there was Kinks with their ‘See My friends’ recorded before Norwegian wood, while another group working with a sitar was the Yardbrids, recording their album ‘heart full of soul’.  As it went, the Yardbirds manager Gomelsky approached the manager of their local curry house and were recommended an Indian troupe from Kenya. They decided to record these Indian origin musicians but hit all kinds of rough weather. The musicians could not play to the rock beat (timing of 4/4) and a lot of time was wasted. As the studio had a busy schedule, they decided to do away with the two Indian players and asked Jimmy page who was passing by for help. He concocted a manageable track with similar sounding chords using his mastery over the guitar but in passing purchased the sitar from the perplexed Indian, paying GBP25.00, complete with its cloth cover. Later Beck himself figured out a solution with the guitar and by bending the notes slightly off-key, managed to get his guitar track sound like a sitar. The aborted sitar version did come out many years later. "It was very hard to record [the sitar] because it has a lot of nasty peaks and a very complex wave form," said EMI engineer Norman Smith. "My meter would be going right over into the red, into distortion, without us getting audible value for money (but that was likely due to Harrison’s improper playing of the instrument and perhaps due to the wrong location of the pickup, according to Lavezzoli)

Many others started to use the Sitar for pop music compositions and the Coral electric sitar was developed by Danelecto in 1967, though finding few takers. The first one was gifted to Harrison, but he claims that it was hijacked by Spencer Davis.

Bellman explains the lead up - Harrison had recently bought a sitar along with Ravi Shankar’s albums Portrait of Genius and Sound of the Sitar. Harrison’s conversations with David Crosby about Shankar while they were tripping last August had inspired him. Also, when they arrived back to the UK from the States, the Kinks were at No. 10 on the charts with the Indian-influenced “See My Friends.” When the Kinks had toured Australia and Asia at the beginning of the year, they had a stopover in Bombay. Ray Davies said, “I remember getting up, going to the beach and seeing all these fishermen coming along. I heard chanting to start with, and gradually the chanting came a bit closer, and I could see it was fishermen carrying their nets out.”

Ian MacDonald adds - The Kinks’ song had no Indian instruments, but the band’s guitar imitated a tambura while Ray’s vocal whine and drone lent his singing an Indian quality. Author/jazz musician Barry Ernest Fantoni recalled hanging with the Beatles one night when they heard the Kinks’ song. Realizing Davies’ guitar sounded like a sitar, they discussed getting one for their next record

Back to the surreal Norwegian wood and now quoting Damian Fanelli writing at Guitar World   - The
October 12 version of the song, then called simply "This Bird Has Flown," features the sitar in the intro and in the middle eight, as Harrison, sometimes clumsily, mimics Paul McCartney's harmony vocal. Also notable about the October 12 recording is that Ringo Starr is playing drums. Unhappy with the first version, the band attempted the song nine days later, when, on the fourth take, they nailed it. Lennon's acoustic guitar opens the track, and Starr, as he did for "And I Love Her," eschews drums completely, in favor of other percussive instruments, in this case finger cymbals and a tambourine. The first listeners of Norwegian wood equated the sitar sound to a guitar with a cold. As they say, that western tuning and playing in the diatonic scale did it, emphasizing the mark of a genius (as you can see, it matters less what you know than what you do with what you know).

In a Playboy Interview in 1980 Lennon states that the song was completely his and was suitably vague because he did not want his wife Cyan to know he was having an affair, and thus undertook a sophisticated attempt at writing Norwegian wood, through a smoke screen. Though he mentions that he does not recall who the woman was, others in the know allude to Sonny Freeman (she did have a wood paneled flat below John’s) while biographer Coleman sates that it was a prominent journalist Maureen Cleave.

Quoting Rolling Stone magazine - Lennon put it bluntly, "I was trying to write about an affair without letting me wife know I was writing about an affair. I was writing from my experiences, girl’s flats, things like that. As McCartney later explained, it was popular for Swinging London girls to decorate their homes with Norwegian pine. "So it was a little parody really on those kinds of girls who when you'd go to their flat there would be a lot of Norwegian wood," he told biographer Barry Miles. "It was pine really, cheap pine. But it's not as good a title, 'Cheap Pine,' baby." Lennon had however admitted to Rolling Stone earlier that "Paul helped with the middle eight, to give credit where it's due." But according to McCartney, Lennon came to him with just a first verse: "That was all he had, no title, no nothing."

Looking back in the 1990s, Harrison described the sitar on "Norwegian Wood" as "very rudimentary. I didn't know how to tune it properly, and it was a very cheap sitar to begin with." But "that was the environment in the band," he pointed out, "everybody was very open to bringing in new ideas. We were listening to all sorts of things, Stockhausen, avant-garde - and most of it made its way onto our records."

There is also the incident of the broken string while Harrison practiced after the Western tuning. It appears that George Martin suggested he contact Ayana Angadi, the co-founder of the Asian Music Circle (AMC). Shankara Angadi, Ayana's son, recalls, "As luck would have it, we did have some sitar strings in the house, and the whole family went down to the studio at Abbey Road and watched them record, from behind the glass."  (Quoting Cepcani – Biographer).

Ravi Shankar had by this time become a well-known exponent of the Sitar, after a stint with dancing together with his brother Uday. He later became an expert with the Sitar and Hindustani after sporadic training by Alaudin Khan, founded the Kinara music school in Bombay and his fame reached Harrison through the American group Byrds.

A report states that Harrison was introduced to Ravi Shankar by David Crosby of the Byrds at a 1965 party - Roger McGuinn, the founder of the Byrds, told the Telegraph how he had introduced the late George Harrison to Ravi Shankar's sitar music at a party at Zsa Zsa Gabor's Bel Air mansion in 1965. They were both on LSD at the time, he said, but the sound inspired Harrison and the Beatles to travel to India where they met Pt Shankar and took sitar lessons from him.

George continues – It (the sitar) just called on me ... a few months elapsed and then I met this guy from the Asian Music Circle organisation who said, 'Oh, Ravi Shankar's gonna come to my house for dinner. Do you want to come too?' That was how they met for the first time in June 1966.

In July 1966 the Beatles made an unscheduled stop over in Delhi and were stranded there for a week (after getting a rough sendoff following a Manila concert - due to not paying their respects to Imelda Marcos at Philippines). So they hung around at the Oberoi, and went to Riki Ram and sons to purchase new sitars and other Indian instruments, to take back to Britain. Harrison fell in love with sitar and India.

Following the group’s last live concert performance at Candlestick Park, San Francisco in August 1966, he travelled to Mumbai to study the sitar with Ravi Shankar.

George states - "I went to India for about six weeks. Ravi would give me lessons, and he’d also have one of his students sit with me. My hips were killing me from sitting on the floor, and so Ravi brought a yoga teacher to start showing me the physical yoga exercises. It was a fantastic time...," Harrison once recalled.

Ravi Shankar says - The down-to-earth quality in George was something I could relate to with such joy. He would crack up when I told him all my jokes; we had such fun! We always competed with each other in punning. When I told him that I was known as a "pundit" because of my punning, he said something hilarious, connecting the old Hindu scriptures of the four Vedas (Rigveda, Samveda, Atharvaveda and Yajurveda). He said: "Do you know the four Wether brothers? They are Ric, Sam, Arthur and George Wethers."

What did the master Ravi Shankar think of Norwegian wood? Shankar in a 1999 NPR ‘Fresh air’ interview with Terry Gross said - I never heard it before. And it was only much later on, my nephew and nieces, they played it for me and I thought it was terrible, in the sense - in the sound that was produced on the sitar. The song was nice. I liked the song very much but it was a peculiar sound. It didn't sound like sitar even. So he had had little lesson from a person in London who's a student of a student of mine, who is to be in London at that time. And I told him frankly that it's fine. People like it and you are happy but I didn't find it interesting enough because the very sound of sitar, it is something which we have developed since last 750 years. And - but I - he understood and that's why he wanted to learn.

George Harrison continued to be fascinated by India for the rest of his life, became a Hindu and remained good friends with Ravi Shankar, often collaborating with him musically. Later in 1968 the Beatles went to Rishikesh, spent time with the Mahesh Yogi learning meditation and so on but left after (getting bored or disgusted at the Yogi’s materialism?) and following a spat involving their use of hard drugs coupled with the Guru’s supposed act of impropriety with Mia Farrow.
Later on, many other Beatles songs were to feature Indian instruments and other Indian embellishments.

And that was how the Beatles ended up lapping up much of the credit with using a Sitar, eclipsing the works of Kinks and Yardbirds. But that does not really matter, does it? And, if you were to ask who was first to take Hindustani music and the sitar out west, look at my article on the femme fatale Mata Hari – It was Inayat Khan, the father of the princess spy Madeline – Noor Inayat khan. But Carnatic music had reached Europe even earlier, see my article on the Bayaderes who traveled west in 1838

And as I conclude, I wonder how many of the people I research individually, go on and get connected somehow or the other. As they say, a small world indeed…

Beatles Gear:  By Andy Babiuk, Mark Levisohn, Tony Bacon, The Beatles
The dawn of Indian music in the West – Peter Lavezzoli
Strange Sounds: Offbeat Instruments and Sonic Experiments in Pop - Mark Brend
The Songs of John Lennon: The Beatles Years - John Lennon
John Lennon: The Life - Philip Norman
Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties Ian MacDonald
The Exotic in Western Music - Jonathan Bellman
Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles - Kenneth Womack
Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now - Barry Miles
If you want to read all those interesting takes on what could have happened in the room, read this

pics - google images - thanks to all the uploaders....

Other tidbits
Bob Dylan is supposed to have made a dig at Norwegian wood with his ‘4th time around’ which his fans state was made after Dylan thought Lennon had copied his writing style.

It is probable, listening to Ravi Shankar’s comments, that Harrison got his first sitar lesson from that grand disciple of Ravi Shankar who was performing for the AMC guys in the Help! Film. That person’s identity is alas not known!

Annu Malik’s Tumko sirf tumko- from Kuch Khatti Kuch Meethi was inspired by 'Norwegian Wood'
Dil Se Kya Sahi (Imaan) - In this R.D. Burman song, the line “Aaj Jhoomen Zara…” is an adaptation of the line “I Once Had A Girl…” from Norwegian Wood. Humne Kabhi Socha Nahi (Jeevan Mukti, 1977) is another adaptation.

That the movie Help! helped swing the Beatles towards mystic India is shown by another incident. While filming an outdoor scene on bicycles one day, the Beatles stopped for a short break. A Krishna devotee walked up to each Beatle and handed them a book on Hatha yoga. This was perhaps a precursor to their Maharishi Mahesh Yogi trip to Rishikesh.

Indian Music – How did an Englishman get so hung up an Indian music? When asked in a Detroit free press interview in 1966, George said

"A whole lot of things got me interested," he said. "The more I heard it, the more I liked it. It's very involved music. So involved. That's why the average listener doesn't understand. They listen to Western music all their lives. Eastern music is a different concept. "The main hang-up for me is Indian classical music. Really groovy, to pardon the expression, as opposed to the hip things in Western music which are opposed to Western classical music... Indian music is hip, yet 8,000 years old. "I find it hard to get much of a kick out of Western music. Even out of Western music I used to be interested in a year ago. Most music is still only surface, not very subtle compared to Indian music... Music in general, us included, is still on the surface."

"On 'Norwegian Wood' on the Rubber Soul album I used the sitar like a guitar. On the new album I developed it a little bit. But I'm far from the goal I want to achieve. It will take me 40 years to get there. I'd like to be able to play Indian music as Indian music instead of using Indian music in pop... It takes years of studying, but I'm willing to do that."