1965 was a pivotal year for The Beatles; it seemed to be the moment that a lot of things fell into place. At the centre of it was the release of the Help!, a film a million miles away from your usual band fodder whereby Ringo Starr found himself the human sacrifice target of a cult. This not only signified their steady fade-out from normality, but the film itself had a profound impact on the sound of the band.
The summer prior to its release, the group had been relaxing in a Manhattan hotel. “I remember it pretty well y’know,” Paul McCartney explains on the Adam Buxton Podcast, “We were staying in that hotel [the Delmonico in New York City] and we were on tour, so we were all together in the hotel suite. We were having a drink and then Bob [Dylan] arrived and disappeared into a backroom. Then Ringo went back to see him and after a couple of minutes Ringo came back into the suite looking a little dazed and confused and we said, ‘what’s up?’ and he said, ‘oh Bob’s smoking pot back there’, and we said, ‘oh, well what’s it like?’ and Ringo said, ‘the ceiling feels like it’s coming down a bit’.”
It is a pop culture flashpoint that has gone down in history as a seismic event, capturing the imagination and spawning thoughts well beyond the simple happenstance that it represented. “Because we had never had it before,” explained McCartney, and thus the meeting has been catapulted towards the rarefied tag of a historic moment. It is remembered in pop-culture publications as the first time that The Beatles delved into drugs, a magical mystery ride that would leave an indelible mark on the band’s back catalogue forevermore.
As Peter Brown, the music mogul present with the Beatles on the night, explained in the Steven Gaines novel, The Love You Make: “[Dylan didn’t believe the band had never smoked pot before] he looked disbelievingly from face to face. ‘But what about your song?’ [Dylan] asked. ‘The one about getting high?’ The Beatles were stupefied. ‘Which song? John managed to ask. Dylan said, ‘You know…’ and then he sang, ‘and when I touch you I get high, I get high…’ John flushed with embarrassment. ‘Those aren’t the words,’ he admitted. ‘The words are, ‘I can’t hide, I can’t hide, I can’t hide.’”
Over half a century later, the incident is shrouded in more smoke than the fatefully hazy room in the Delmonico itself, but there is no doubting that it was a turning point. As McCartney has famously declared: “He was our idol. It was a great honour to meet him, we had a crazy party that night we met. I thought I had gotten the meaning of life, that night.”
Soon after, both the philosophical wherewithal of Dylan and the effects of cannabis imbued the band’s output with a mellower, more introspective side. Around their spliff smoking peak, the four-piece put out Help!, an album that saw a much more wistful approach to songwriting, with dreamy songs like ‘It’s Only Love’ sounding like they were plucked from the ether of a plume of puffed-out smoke.
On the accompanying film to the record, things also got funky. As John Lennon told David Sheff in the novel, All We Are Saying: “The Beatles had gone beyond comprehension. We were smoking marijuana for breakfast. We were well into marijuana, and nobody could communicate with us, because we were just glazed eyes, giggling all the time.” The band could barely remember their lines for the Help! picture, and they spent most of their time on set gorging themselves on cheeseburgers. Despite all the gluttony, there was one moment in particular while filming that would prove to be somewhat of a spiritual event for George Harrison, and he remained piously devoted to it for the rest of his days. It was the moment he discovered the sitar, and with it, the spiritualism of India.
From the sitar’s beginnings in a land that seems older than time, it floated its way into the acid laden language of the counterculture movement. Peace, love and pretty things were in the air, and no instrument embodied this quite like the ubiquitous presence of the great Indian overture. Sadly, this is now often bleached out in the wash of the sixties tie-dye swirl as no more than a colourful footnote. It resides in the aeons of rock history as a snapshot in the corner of the room or as some crossed-legged tableau of hippy pretence, but in truth, it changed music indefinitely.
The hefty instrument typically has 18 strings and 20 moveable frets, which allows for an amorphous melodic sound, with the moveable frets creating a sonorous humming undercurrent below the surface twangs. When listened to live in isolation, it is easy to see how George Harrison and the likes were seduced by its beguiling mysticism.
Initially, the sitar was confined to the realm of Hindustani music. Then, however, inspired to wander the world aimlessly in search of nothing in particular by beat literature beatniks, hippies, and the occasional recently divorced geography teacher, waved a middle finger to the suburbs and clambered aboard a spiritual bandwagon weaving a path to the answer-chocked lands of the past in Nepal and India. This was the start of the sitar’s rise. However, it wasn’t until 1965 that it crash-landed from the celestial realm of shrouded history to make its mark amid the fuzz-pedalled kaleidoscope of sixties musicians with severe incense addictions.
As the tale goes, during the filming of Help!, in the April of ’65, an Indian band played background music in a groovy restaurant scene that set George Harrison agog. He tried his best to make a mental note of the ungainly instrument and the emotional wallop it dealt him. Later, in casual conversation with Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, Harrison would mention this mind-bending moment, and McGuinn would fatefully slip the ‘Quiet Beatle’ a copy of Ravi Shankar.
As George Harrison famously declared: “Ravi was my link into the Vedic world. Ravi plugged me into the whole of reality. I mean, I met Elvis—Elvis impressed me when I was a kid, and impressed me when I met him because of the buzz of meeting Elvis, but you couldn’t later on go round to him and say, ‘Elvis, what’s happening in the universe?’” A few years earlier, Harrison and the rest of the Fab Four would’ve had no cause to even bother asking such questions; they were young lads interested in holding pretty girl’s hands. Now, however, they were fucking with the fabric of the cosmos.
Many artists who followed The Beatles would be noted for their ever-evolving styles, all the way from David Bowie to the Arctic Monkeys and back to Dylan going electric, but the Liverpudlians were as mercurial as anything in music. And it happens to be a relatively bizarre footnote that the moment they found the sound of their sui generis second birth was in a fictional Indian restaurant on the set of an oddball stoner flick akin to a sixties Harold & Kumar.