Note from the author: I wanted to write this post for a while now. The sitar is my favourite instrument. I think it was an instrument that revolutionised classic rock and added something cool to the table, paving the way for other world music genres to influence classic rock. I believe that incorporation of world music influences in classic rock does a lot of good, broadening the minds of fans. It’s great to see musicians acknowledging their influences and giving credit where due. It’s not cultural appropriation. It’s art and it’s for all to enjoy.
I grew up in a family that taught me about different cultures and encouraged curiosity. Not only did I learn about multiple cultures from being mixed race, I travelled a lot with my parents and my parents encouraged me to read from a young age. I encourage everyone to read about other cultures. I encourage you to travel and try new things. Maybe you can’t afford to travel or you’re unable to for other reasons, but the internet and the library are here for you – great places to learn about the world around you. Life is short, learn about this beautiful planet.
The 60s was a period where you saw Indian inspired fashions and heard Indian inspired music. The term for this embracing of Indian culture is Indomania. It was more than just sitars in psychedelic rock and it wasn’t just superficial, let’s throw in a sitar in this rock song. In this post, you’ll see what I mean.
Sure, some rock bands just took the sitar and threw it into a pop song as a novelty, just to follow trends, but there were musicians like George Harrison who learnt to play sitar and took lessons from Ravi Shankar. George Harrison fell in love with India, it was life changing for him. His music from the late 60s and beyond wouldn’t have been the same.
“It is strange to see pop musicians with sitars. I was confused at first. It had so little to do with our classical music. When George Harrison came to me, I didn’t know what to think, but I found he really wanted to learn. I never thought our meeting would cause such an explosion, that Indian music would suddenly appear on the pop scene. It’s peculiar, but out of this, a real interest is growing.” – Ravi Shankar
There’s a whole debate about whether westerners taking influence from other cultures’ music is cultural appropriation. Of course, different people will think different things, and everything is case by case and depends on the situation. Isn’t music an art for all to enjoy, so long as you’re being respectful and giving credit where it’s due?
As we can see in Ravi Shankar’s quote, he was a bit sceptical that westerners were suddenly getting interested in Indian music, thinking it’s maybe some sort of fad – a superficial interest. And for some people, yes it definitely was a fad. But thinking about this, western interest in Indian music could be considered a good thing for Indian musicians because for those who got into it, they’d go to a record store and find albums by Indian musicians and buy them. Ravi Shankar didn’t have to be friends with George Harrison and teach him sitar. He saw his genuine interest.
The Beatles all travelled to Rishikesh in February 1968 with their wives and girlfriends to go to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation course. Six months earlier, they met Maharishi in London and went to a training retreat in Wales that he taught. Other people who came to the course were Donovan, Jenny Boyd, Mia Farrow, Mike Love, and Paul Horn. The Beatles wrote songs while in India. Not everything went perfectly, and unfortunately there were financial disagreements and mistreatment of the Maharishi by George Harrison and John Lennon. George Harrison did later on apologise.
The Monterey Pop Festival was not Ravi Shankar’s first US performance. Far from it, he toured the US and Europe in the 1950s. He was the first Indian to compose music for non-Indian films, breaking through and crossing over worldwide. Ravi Shankar also performed at Woodstock, on Friday, August 15. Indian religious teacher Swami Satchidananda gave the opening speech for the festival.
American instrument manufacturer Danelectro introduced and manufactured the electric sitar in the late 60s and it was used in many rock songs, as you can see in the examples given below. It was meant to make it easier and more accessible for Western musicians to incorporate the sitar sound in their music. The sitar is not an easy instrument to master and the electric sitar combined the familiar form factor of the guitar with the twangy sound of the sitar. The very first electric sitar was the Danelectro Coral Electric Sitar. One famous player of it is Steve Howe of Yes.
Indian influence in Western pop music can even be heard even decades later with songs like “It Can Happen” by Yes from 1983, “Govinda” by Kula Shaker from 1996 (George Harrison liked Kula Shaker and allowed them to sample one of his songs – something that was never allowed before), “Tsunami” by Manic Street Preachers from 1998, and “Who Feels Love?” by Oasis from 2000.
Quite a few musicians of the 60s and 70s are/were Indian such as Cliff Richard (England’s first rock star), Engelbert Humperdinck, Freddie Mercury, and brothers Eden Kane, Peter Sarstedt, and Clive Sarstedt.
Now let’s talk about 60s and 70s songs that were influenced by Indian music and culture:
See My Friends (1965): By The Kinks. One of the first western songs to use the sitar. Ray Davies was inspired by a stopover in Bombay (now Mumbai). It went to #10 in the UK.
Heart Full of Soul (1965): By The Yardbirds. The version of Heart Full of Soul that everyone knows and gets the most airplay on radio isn’t the sitar version. The Yardbirds preferred the fuzz guitar driven version to the sitar one. I disagree with The Yardbirds, however. The song was written by Graham Gouldman, who would later be in 10cc. It was the first single released after Jeff Beck replaced Eric Clapton.
Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) (1965): By The Beatles, from the Rubber Soul album. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were inspired by Bob Dylan and George Harrison was inspired by Ravi Shankar. George Harrison played sitar on this song. This marriage of folk and raga inspired other musicians to write raga rock songs. This was just the beginning of sitar being incorporated in Beatles songs.
Sunshine Superman (1966): By Donovan. It was his biggest hit, reaching #1 in the US and #2 in the UK. Many people regard it as an anthem of the summer of 1966. The album of the same name features other psychedelic songs and incorporates sitar, tambura, and tabla throughout. “Three Kingfishers” is a great example of raga rock.
Tomorrow Never Knows (1966): By The Beatles on the Revolver Album. This one was a John Lennon composition. George Harrison played sitar and tambura. A droning sitar starts off the song beautifully. To add to the psychedelic instrumentation, John Lennon’s vocals were double tracked using an artificial double tracking system, which doubled the same track – same take and delayed it. Tape loops were used as well. If I had to pick a favourite Beatles song, I think this would be it.
Love You To (1966): By The Beatles on the Revolver album. One of three George Harrison compositions on the album. You can say that it took the Indian influences to the next level, where it is front and centre. George Harrison’s goal in this song was to showcase the sitar. Journalist Ira Robbins said that the song instantly and forever changed Western awareness of the Asian [Indian] Subcontinent. Ethnomusicologist David Reck said that this song stood out in a sea of rock songs that utilised stereotypes of the sitar. Rather than using tropes, the song was genuine.
Paint it Black (1966): By The Rolling Stones on the Aftermath album. What makes this song unique is that it was the first song featuring a sitar to go to #1 in the UK. Brian Jones wanted to try something a bit different, rather than the usual guitar and he incorporated the memorable sitar with the influence of Harihar Rao. He studied sitar under Harihar Rao, who studied under Ravi Shankar. He also spoke to George Harrison before recording “Paint it Black”. Many people compared this song to “Norwegian Wood”.
Turn-Down Day (1966): By The Cyrkle. One of two hits for the band, making it to the top 20 in the US and Canada.
Eight Miles High/Why (1966): By The Byrds. The former was the A-side of the single, and the latter, the B-side of the single. Both songs were very important to the psychedelic rock subgenre with “Eight Miles High” being considered the first real psychedelic rock song. Like George Harrison, David Crosby was inspired by Ravi Shankar. John Coltrane was also another inspiration. “Eight Miles High” was about the band touring and travelling to England. The single reached the top 20 in the US and the top 30 in the UK.
Lord Sitar (1966): Big Jim Sullivan was at one point, the only session guitarist in England to own a sitar. He released an album of sitar covers of pop music during the sitar mania of the late 60s. My favourite on the album is “I Can See For Miles”. A few Beatles covers can be found, and no, they’re not the songs that already included sitar. You can hear covers of “I Am The Walrus,” “Blue Jay Way”, In fact, there were rumours that Lord Sitar was George Harrison, but that wasn’t true.
Raga Rock (1966): A group of studio musicians called The Folkswingers released a raga rock album with Harihar Rao on sitar. Similar to Lord Sitar’s album, there were sitar covers of popular songs from around that time. Some great covers I would recommend are “Paint it Black”, “Eight Miles High”, “Shapes of Things”, and “Hey Joe”.
Paper Sun (1967): Traffic’s first single. This song was written by Jim Capaldi and Steve Winwood. Reached #5 in the UK. Dave Mason played the sitar on this song. This would not be the last time that the sitar would be heard in a Traffic song. This song is a great example of their early psychedelic sound.
Hole in My Shoe (1967): Traffic’s second single released. This single charted higher than the previous one, reaching #2 in the UK and #1 in Ireland. This song was written by Dave Mason.
Within You Without You (1967): By The Beatles, from the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. George Harrison’s second Indian classical style song was inspired by his time in India with Ravi Shankar. Besides the sitar, you’ll hear dilruba and tabla played by musicians from the Asian Music Circle. Some critics thought the song was pretentious, while others believed the song was genius and meaningful. No matter what the critics say, we can see that it was a song that had a lot of impact on the rock music world with many musicians covering it. There’s a nice mashup of this song with “Tomorrow Never Knows” on the album Love.
San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) (1967): By Scott McKenzie. This song was written by John Phillips from The Mamas and The Papas, who was friends with Scott McKenzie. The song was used as a promo for the Monterey Pop Festival.
White Summer (1967): By The Yardbirds. This song was written by Jimmy Page and was heavily influenced by Indian and Arabic music along with Irish folk music. This song would also be performed by Led Zeppelin at concerts. This song inspired the Led Zeppelin songs “Black Mountain Side” and “Over the Hills and Far Away”. Studio musician Chris Karan played tabla on the song. Jimmy Page used a sitar tuning for the guitar.
Monterey (1967): By Eric Burdon and The Animals. The song uses the electric sitar. The song is about the band’s experiences at the Monterey Pop Festival, which the Animals performed at. Another 1967 song by The Animals that incorporates the sitar is the trippy, poetic “Winds of Change”. The album Winds of Change was inspired by George Harrison. The album marked the band’s change in sound from R&B driven to psychedelic. There is also a cover of “Paint it Black” on the album.
Gomper (1967): From the Rolling Stones album, Their Satanic Majesties Request. Brian Jones played more than eight instruments on this song.
Green Tambourine (1967): By The Lemon Pipers. Went to #1 in February 1968. The song also went #2 in Australia and #3 in Canada.
I Was Made to Love Her (1967): By Stevie Wonder. This hit single was released when Stevie Wonder was only 17. The song used the electric sitar. This song peaked at #2, but was kept from being #1 by The Doors’ “Light My Fire”.
Axis: Bold As Love (1967): Not so much the music, but the album cover artwork, which depicts Jimi Hendrix, Noel Redding, and Mitch Mitchell as forms of the Hindu god Vishnu superimposed on religious artwork. The band didn’t have any input in the album artwork design. This album cover was very controversial as you can imagine, with many Hindus feeling offended because of the appropriation of Vishnu. The album artwork was banned in Malaysia a few years ago, in fact. Jimi Hendrix was a big fan of Ravi Shankar, even having some of his albums in his collection.
The Inner Light (1968): By The Beatles. Written by George Harrison and was the B-side to Lady Madonna. The lyrics were inspired by a poem from Tao Te Ching and has this feeling of meditation. The song was recorded in Bombay (now Mumbai) during sessions for the Wonderwall soundtrack.
Om (1968): By The Moody Blues from the album In Search of the Lost Chord. From the title, it is obvious that it took inspiration from “Aum,” a mantra from Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. Justin Hayward played sitar and Graeme Edge played tabla on this song.
Sit With The Guru (1968): By Strawberry Alarm Clock. This is one of the more poppy sounding songs listed in this blog post. It talks about meditation and polytheism. The very end is very Indian influenced with sitars.
After Tea (1968): By The Spencer Davis Group. This song was recorded after Steve Winwood left the band. The song was originally by Dutch band The Tee Set with the title “We Will Be There After Tea”. The sitar is featured prominently in this song. The song did not chart.
Hurdy Gurdy Man (1968): Donovan wrote this song while he was in India. The song reached #5 in the US and #4 in the UK. In the song you can hear tambura along with psychedelic distorted guitars. This song beautifully combines hard rock with psychedelia.
Real Life Permanent Dream (1968): By Tomorrow. The song was written by Keith West. Tomorrow were a short lived band. One famous member who was in the band was Steve Howe, who joined Yes in 1970 (he would play the electric sitar on “Siberian Khatru”). The song starts off with sitars. It is not known who played sitar on this track. While the album that this song was on was not a chart success, the album got its recognition decades later, better late than never, right?
Wonderwall Music (1968): Soundtrack album for the movie Wonderwall and first solo Beatles album. By George Harrison. George Harrison didn’t just include the better known Indian instruments like the sitar, tambura, and tabla; he also included instruments like the shehnai, a woodwind instrument and the sarod, which is similar to the lute. Most of the album was recorded in Bombay. The album combined Western rules of harmony with Indian instruments, resulting in a very interesting sound. My favourite tracks are “Ski-ing”, “Gat Kirwani”, “Dream Scene”, and “Party Seacombe”.
Sattva (1968): By The Rascals. This song has a more grown up and developed sound than their earlier more poppy material such as “Good Lovin’” when they were known as The Young Rascals. The song begins with a sitar intro.
Hooked on a Feeling (1968): No, not the Blue Swede version. This is the original one by BJ Thomas. This version has an electric sitar in the intro and the ending.
Cry Like a Baby (1968): By The Box Tops. This song uses the electric sitar.
Carpet Man (1968): By The 5th Dimension. This single reached #29 in the US and #3 in Canada. The sitar appears at about 2 minutes 37 seconds into the song.
SF Sorrow (1968): Concept album by The Pretty Things. The sitar is incorporated in a few songs on the album such as “SF Sorrow Is Born” and “Death”. Jon Povey played the sitar. This is one of my favourite albums from the 60s and I recommend you listen to it from start to finish, as a concept album should be listened to.
Moog Raga (1968): By The Byrds. This instrumental uses the sitar in a very experimental sounding way. A precursor to electronic music?
Sound Asleep (1968): By The Turtles. Uses the sitar, can be heard very well at about one minute into the song.
The Way (1968): By July. If you like early Pink Floyd, you’ll like this song.
A Rainbow in Curved Air (1969): By Terry Riley. An experimental album that was inspired by jazz and Indian classical music. This song inspired musicians like Mike Oldfield with his album Tubular Bells and Pete Townshend who wrote “Baba O’Riley as a tribute to him and Meher Baba”. The album had two songs: “A Rainbow in Curved Air” and “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band”. Terry Riley travelled to India and studied Indian music. He was taught by Pakistani born Hindustani classical voice teacher Pandit Pran Nath.
Across The Universe (1969): By The Beatles. The song was written by John Lennon. The song has some sitar played by George Harrison. Not only do you hear sitar and tambura, John Lennon also sang the mantra “jai guru deva om”. John Lennon thought that this song had some of his best lyrical work.
Black Mountain Side (1969): By Led Zeppelin. An instrumental that “Your Time is Gonna Come” segues into. The song is inspired by Celtic folk and Indian classical music. Like “White Summer”, Jimmy Page uses sitar tuning on the guitar. Viram Jasani played tabla on the song.
Tommy (1969): Pete Townshend’s inspiration for this album was the teachings of Meher Baba, an Indian mystic and spiritual master. Meher Baba was born in India to Irani Zoroastrian parents. From the age of 31 to his death at the age of 74 he was silent, communicating with a board and gestures. Some of his teachings were incorporated into the influential 1969 rock opera. Meher Baba inspired Pete Townshend’s music for years to come. Here is something Pete Townshend wrote about Meher Baba.
I’ll Go Alone (1969): By Humble Pie. The song was written by Peter Frampton. The beginning of the song starts off with a sitar played by session musician Lyn Dobson. Peter Frampton played tabla on the song. By far, this is my favourite track on the album.
Fat Man (1969): The sitar is used on this Jethro Tull song. The percussion goes well with the sitar.
At Home (1969): Album by Shocking Blue. The album had a few songs that used the sitar such as “Love Buzz” and “Acka Raga”. In later albums, the sitar would be used in songs like “Water Boy”, “Hot Sand”, “Inkpot”, and “I’m A Woman”.
Once I Had A Sweetheart (1969): By Pentangle. Uses a sitar and it can be heard at about 1:40 in.
My Sweet Lord (1970): By George Harrison. This song praises the Hindu god Krishna. George Harrison converted to Hinduism. This is not the only song about Hinduism he sang. He also sang the song “Gopala Krishna” and he performed the “Hare Krishna Mantra” with the Radha Krishna Temple. George Harrison made the song relatable to two Abrahamic faiths – Judaism and Christianity, including gospel influenced Hallelujahs in the song. You can also hear part of the Maha Mantra. “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama”. References to Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva can be heard too. It’s a song that unites people, no matter what their religion is. I am an atheist, and I love this song because it only expresses love and I like slide guitars. This song went #1 in many different countries around the world including Australia, Canada, France, The Netherlands, Germany, Spain, the UK, and the US.
Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours (1970): By Stevie Wonder. Uses the electric sitar.
Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1970): Originally by The Rolling Stones, covered by Ananda Shankar, nephew of Ravi Shankar. On his 1970 self titled album, he covered “Light My Fire” by the Doors. Other great songs on the album include “Metamorphosis” and “Raghupati”.
Baba O’Riley (1971): By The Who. Originally was supposed to be for the Lifehouse concept album, which never materialised, this track ended up on the fan favourite Who’s Next. This song is one of the Who’s most recognisable. The title is a portmanteau of sorts of two inspirations of Pete Townshend’s: Meher Baba and Terry Riley. The intro of the song is inspired by the synthesisers used in the album A Rainbow in Curved Air.
Siberian Khatru (1972): By Yes. This song was on the album Close to the Edge. Steve Howe played electric sitar on this song. At about 3 minutes in Steve Howe plays an electric sitar solo.
Do it Again (1972): By Steely Dan. From the album Can’t Buy A Thrill. This song features an electric sitar solo by Denny Dias, founding member of Steely Dan. The electric sitar appears again in a later Steely Dan song, “Bad Sneakers”.
Tales From Topographic Oceans (1973): By Yes. Inspired by a footnote about four bodies of Hindu text in the book Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. Each song stands for one of the shastras. You can hear sitar on “Ritual,” which is part of the last track of the album. Jon Anderson and Steve Howe wrote and composed all the songs on the album. Each song is 20 minutes, give or take a few. This book is a good read because it’s yoga from an Indian point of view rather than a western point of view. While Rick Wakeman was not a fan of the album, it proved popular, reaching Gold certification in the UK.
I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe) (1973): The first charting single by Genesis, making it to #21 in the UK charts. The electric sitar begins at approximately 35 seconds in and you can hear it throughout the song.
Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth) (1973): By George Harrison. This was his second #1 in the US. This song is also religious in theme and it’s about George wanting to be free from karma and rebirth. No sitar in this song, but there is a religious theme to it and Hinduism meant a lot to George Harrison. Another religious song I would recommend is “Gopala Krishna”.
Come and Get Your Love (1974): By Redbone. This song uses the electric sitar. Lolly Vegas played the electric sitar on this song.
Chrome Sitar (1976): By T. Rex. A sitar is in the intro of the song and can be heard throughout. In the credits it does not say who played sitar.
Wild Mountain Honey (1976): By Steve Miller Band from the album Fly Like An Eagle.
The Steve Howe Album (1979): Steve Howe uses the Danelectro Coral Sitar Guitar on the songs “All’s a Chord” and “Look Over Your Shoulder”.
Philby (1979): By Rory Gallagher from the album Top Priority. The song is about a double agent for the British and Soviets. Rory Gallagher used the electric sitar for a more eastern feel due to the theme of the song.
Am I missing your favourite Indian inspired classic rock song? Have good things to say or constructive criticism? Let me know in the comments section and give the post a like if you enjoyed it. Feel free to share this post with your friends.