Magical mystery tour
Earlier this month, the Beatles turned 50. A look at their relationship with India
In a scene from the 1965 movie Help, the Beatles go to an Indian restaurant. It's luridly painted, all arches and curtains, with turbaned musicians and a curvy dancer dressed like Helen. Paul McCartney gets a sinister warning from the woman he's dancing with, while another turbaned figure collapses in a corner. A ring, a secretive eastern sect and a tiger that will spring unless you sing the "Ninth Symphony" also feature in the movie. It was on the sets of Help that George Harrison first came across sitars, which would be the beginning of a long association with India. Looking back 50 years after their first single, "Love Me Do", was released, it seems the Beatles' encounter with India would always have shades of that scene in the Rajayama Restaurant: moments of brilliance spiralling into loopiness and at times, something darker.
After George's discovery, Indian instruments and themes became part of the experimentation found in Beatles albums from the mid-1960s. George used sitar licks to great effect for the song "Norwegian Woods", on their 1965 album Rubber Soul. "Within you, without you", from Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), packs in a sort of half-baked eastern mysticism along with the sitar — "And the people-who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion/ Never glimpse the truth-then it's far too late-when they pass away." Sandwiched between the carnivalesque "Being for the benefit of Mr Kite" and the music hall jauntiness of "When I'm sixty-four", eastern mysticism comes close to pastiche in Sgt Pepper's, part of the fantastic, theatrical world of the album. Sometimes the pastiche is unintended. In the otherwise beautifully worded "Across the Universe", John Lennon insisted on inserting the lines "Nothing's going to change my world/ Jai guru deva, om". Then the World Wildlife Fund decided it would be just right for its new environmental awareness album, changing the first line to an insinuating "No one's going to change my world". Birds twitter and waves crash in the background in the WWF version, as the Beatles make a mystical plea for gambolling panda cubs.