One of John Lennon’s favourite Beatles songs showed off George Harrison’s “innate talent”
When The Beatles set their sights on creating a concept album whereby they could leave the image of the Fab Four behind and simply become Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, they knew that their music was going to challenge everything they had done beforehand.
The new record provided the perfect place for Paul McCartney and John Lennon to experiment as the LSD wave hit British shores, The Beatles got a little trippy themselves. It meant that the new record was chock-full of psychedelic and avant-garde sounds and concepts. But perhaps the most intuitive was one George Harrison song which John Lennon ranked as one of his favourites.
“One of George’s best songs,” John Lennon told Playboy’s David Sheff back in 1980. “One of my favourites of his, too. He’s clear on that song. His mind and his music are clear. There is his innate talent; he brought that sound together.” Of course, Lennon is referring to Harrison’s Indian masterpiece ‘Within You Without You’.
It is the only song on the 1967 Sgt. Pepper album not to have been written by Lennon or McCartney and, looking back, it is hard to disagree with Lennon and see anyone but George Harrison writing this song. “‘Within You Without You’ came about after I had spent a bit of time in India and fallen under the spell of the country and its music,” retold Harrison in 1967.
The previous year Harrison had travelled through the country as part of The Beatles’ own Transcendental Meditation retreat with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and fallen in love with the Eastern philosophy which permeated the country and, in turn, himself. The Beatle hadn’t only been swayed by the culture of the country but its vast musical heritage too.
It encouraged Harrison to return with some new instruments and with a new outlook on life. During the swinging sixties, arriving back in London with so many unusual stories and instruments, Harrison’s trips became the stuff of legend. “I had brought back a lot of instruments,” recalls the guitarist of the song’s conception. “It was written at Klaus Voormann’s house in Hampstead after dinner one night. The song came to me when I was playing a pedal harmonium.”
I’d also spent a lot of time with Ravi Shankar,” the sitar legend with whom Harrison would share a lifelong friendship, “trying to figure out how to sit and hold the sitar, and how to play it.”
The song then would become an interpretation of Shankar’s own music, “‘Within You Without You’ was a song that I wrote based upon a piece of music of Ravi’s that he’d recorded for All-India Radio. It was a very long piece – maybe 30 or 40 minutes – and was written in different parts, with a progression in each. I wrote a mini version of it, using sounds similar to those I’d discovered in his piece. I recorded in three segments and spliced them together later.”
Though the song has sometimes been labelled as dull or uninteresting—a piece of flotsam in the way of Sgt. Pepper’s experimental path—it did provide Harrison with a reflective moment on an otherwise imposing record. The song discusses a lot fo the world that was surrounding The Beatles at the time, making references to the counterculture movement, LSD and the ever-increasing ego.
Perhaps most usefully though, the song allowed Harrison another avenue to express himself. The guitarist’s songwriting had started to flourish and although he was routinely batted down during the recording of Sgt. pepper, thanks to McCartney’s vision of the album, on this song he is allowed to let himself go, fully realised, and provide one of The Beatles finest songs.