Given its enormously rich history and often bewilderingly multifaceted culture, its no real surprise that all things Indian have been inspiring art since times immemorial. In particular, spiritual ideas that have their origin in this piece of the world have much to do with the crafting of some of the world’s best music. Since a lot of these songs tend to be forgotten unless you are as obsessed with the classic side of Youtube (or you have parents who actually collect vinyl ), it’s a good reason for me to nudge you towards some music made unforgettable because of something Indian.
Journey in Satchidananda : Alice Coltrane ( Yes, THAT Coltrane) made an incredibly nuanced set of sounds come to life all thanks to her philosophical engagements with the ideas of Swami Satchidananda, a guru hailing from Tamil Nadu who advocated for “internal yoga” – a system of thought, word and action meant to result in a life that was “Easeful, peaceful and useful”. True to her exposure to his means and methods, Coltrane shaped this album as a jazz-infused passage through nirvana. The sounds twinkle and swirl off each other in an effortless, unbothered matrix. The album is apt for nights when you want to float on top of the world, and have your mind flirt with those momentary lapses into enlightenment. Or, at the very least, you get a taste of your own divinity.
The Beatles : I know, I know. I am Captain Obvious. Its no secret that The Beatles were intrigued by India, though their interaction with the Maharishi did have its share of bumps and bruises (all metaphorical ). They played around with a plethora of sounds, especially those of the Tabla and Sitar. Immediate picks would be Norwegian Wood, Across The Universe and Tomorrow Never Knows (that tanpura buzz). Then there is everything that George Harrison touched during his musical and sentimental alliance with Pandit Ravi Shankar, and I do mean everything. Do yourself an enormous favor and get the four-disc compilation box set of theirs called Collaborations. And this very minute, find “Within You, Without You” by Harrison.
See My Friends : The Kinks’ 1965 single was one of the first pieces of rock to feature the sound of the sitar, despite the fact that the tone was generated by a low-tuned drone guitar. A little disappointing if you are a purist, but try to think of its impact in terms of the proliferation of Indian classical influence.
Heart Full of Soul : The more popular version of The Yarbirds’ big fat hit features a dirty fuzz guitar played by Jeff Beck, but my personal favourite happens to be their first recording of the same which features a surreptitious sitar. Incidentally, this was also their first single after Beck replaced Eric Clapton as the lead guitarist.
Sunshine Superman: The album by British singer-songwriter Donovan scored a massive hit in 1966, including the eponymous single which is riddled with sitar, tambura and table aounds. The album is an early example of psychedelia, and chock full of songs that you would want to play with a touch of the holy green. Fun fact : In the video for the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life“, a close up of a spinning turntable shows the Epic Records version of Sunshine Superman playing.
Paint It Black: Brian Jones decided to crack open a bottle of innovation when he took The Rolling Stones the way of the sitar on the Aftermath album. Having trained under Harihar Rao (a disciple of Pandit Ravi Shankar), Jones turned this track into a perfect tribute to the extent of the sway which Hindustani classical instruments held over far too many of the greatest rockers in the world. Predictably, Jones had a bit of a chat with George Harrison before recording this one, and that is why it could remind you of Norwegian Wood.
Lord Sitar : During the 1960s and 70s, Big Jim Sullian was one of the most sought-after studio musicians in the UK. He played on records by Donovan, David Bowie, George Harrison, Billy Fury, Frank Ifield, Adam Faith, Frankie Vaughan, Helen Shapiro, Johnny Hallyday, Freddie and the Dreamers, Cilla Black, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Dusty Springfield…you get the idea. He played on the first records on the UK to use a fuzz guitar (P.J. Proby‘s 1964 hit “Hold Me“). At some point, he was the only session guitarist in England to own a sitar, and trust me, he used it well. In 1966, he released an album of pop covers…in sitar. You can hear “I Can See For Miles”, I Am The Walrus,” “Blue Jay Way” and my personal favourite, Daydream Believer. This album deserves your love, your money and your obsession.
Paper Sun: The British band traffic released a debut single that introduced me to the term and idea “Sitar fuzz”. Now, while that might sound like a cringing approximation of something that carries both particular and cultural history, it actually sounds way better than I expected. For Paper Sun, Dave Mason played the instrument with a quiet dignity, neither overemphasizing its potential nor merely using it to acquire props for crafting “global music”.
A Rainbow in Curved Air: The experimental and classic minimalist Terry Riley was massively influenced by the Hindustani classical ethos when creating the purveyor of all things psychedelic that is this album. With this one, its less about the instrumentation that is inspired by Indian movements but rather the shaping and structure of the songs themselves. I wish I were more qualified to describe the poeticism of Riley’s phonetic technicalities, but I recommend you just give it a listen. And if my recommendation doesn’t do it for you, possibly the fact that the album inspired Mike Oldfield’s, Tubular Bells, Pete Townshend’s play on the organ on The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Baba O’Riley’,” (a tip-of-the-hat to Riley and to Meher Baba), will.
Black Mountain Side : No, I wasn’t going to do a list of classic rock singles and albums without mentioning Led Zeppelin. This instrumental nugget of gold features Jimmy Page using sitar tuning on his guitar (similar to “White Summer”), and features Vimal Jasani on the tabla. It’s a Led Zeppelin song, so I am confident that I won’t have to tell you to play it (or replay it, as the case might be).
There is, unsurprisingly infinitely more where that came from. I implore that you dive into Google if you aren’t sure exactly how influential Indian sounds has been in shaping some of the most acclaimed, most adored and most fanaticised sounds in the world. Take it from someone who has spent the last four years rifling through the history of rock, it is worth the research.
Read the article in our May 2017 issue: http://bit.ly/2pEYQzL