CULT ROCK (Part 2): Hare Krishna!

CULT ROCK (Part 2): Hare Krishna!

George Harrison's own fascination with India and Eastern spirituality began when he played with a sitar on the set of the movie Help! in 1965. Curiously, the film was about a sinister Eastern cult. A female fan sends Ringo Star a ring but the ring is needed by the cult to sacrifice victims to Kali. The movie sees cult members chasing Ringo and the Beatles to try and retrieve the ring.

The discovery of the sitar soon led Harrison to musician Ravi Shankar. He first met Shankar in London in June 1965 and learned the basics from him.  He then traveled to Bombay with his then-wife Pattie Boyd in 1966 and spent six weeks studying with the Indian music legend. Harrison also practiced yoga and studied Vedic philosophy. Shankar gave him Autobiography of a Yogi by Yogananda and Raja Yoga by Vivekananda.  The trip was pivotal in Harrison's spiritual growth. "I had read enough to comprehend how to see God,” he said.

Harrison signed Shankar to Dark Horse releasing his 1974 album Family & Friends. The record was itself an eclectic mix of East and West; with Billy Preston, Ringo Star and others performing alongside Indian musicians. Harrison played guitar on the album under the name Hari Georgeson.

Musician Shawn Phillips began playing sitar in 1963 after Ravi Shankar taught him the basics in Canada. Phillips taught sitar to Harrison before Shankar did. He lived with Donovan in London and wrote the music for Season of the Witch, but wasn’t given credit. He also played sitar on the 1966 Sunshine Superman album by Donovan. Phillips also gave guitar lessons to Joni Mitchell, toured with Yes and collaborated with Eric Clapton. “I spent three weeks with George,” Phillips said in a 2015 interview. “I would set up a meeting, when I was busy and I ‘d go over to his house, we had dinner and would sit down and play some songs and I was sitting down and teaching him about the instrument.”

Norwegian Wood This Bird Has Flown

The sitar would figure prominently in several of Harrison's songs.  The Beatles track "Norwegian Wood" was their first to use the sitar in 1965, and "Love To You" was released in 1966. The sitar was also used in the Beatle's track "Within You Without You," which was one of John Lenon's favorite songs by Harrison. The Beatle’s experimentation with the sitar led to a cultural flourishing of the instrument in rock music.