George Harrison was an innovator who brought a mercurial edge to the universe of The Beatles, and his experimental nature not only elevated his band but everyone around him too. His magnificent work on one Beatles effort not only gifted us with one classic, but it inspired The Rolling Stones to create another to boot.
While it’s famously been documented that The Beatles and The Rolling Stones shared a fractious relationship, the truth is somewhat more benign. The so-called ‘rivalry’ wasn’t as intense as perceived, and the two bands enjoyed a relatively tight-knit relationship. If it wasn’t for George Harrison, not only would The Stones not have got their deal with Decca Records, but they’d also not have one of their most-loved songs.
Rubber Soul was a landmark moment in the career of The Beatles. The record saw the band advance their sound like never before and prove that they were streets above any other group on the planet. ‘Norwegian Wood’ was a poignant moment on the record, in which The Fab Four embraced change. The addition of the sitar by George Harrison on the track was nothing short of a masterstroke.
Harrison was new to the instrument at the time of recording, even though he sounds like he’s playing it all of his life. The Beatle was introduced to the sitar by The Byrds’ David Crosby, who first introduced Harrison to the instrument after being enlightened by Shawn Phillips. He then felt compelled to pass the joy of the sitar on.
The Fab Four guitarist then immersed himself in studying the sitar with Indian musician Ravi Shankar, which helped expand Harrison’s horizons as a musician and his life outside of music and created an everlasting friendship in the process.
John Lennon later explained the use of the sitar in ‘Norwegian Wood’ in conversation with Rolling Stone. He recalled: “I think it was at the studio. George had just got the sitar and I said, ‘Could you play this piece?’ We went through many different sort of versions of the song, it was never right, and I was getting very angry about it, it wasn’t coming out like I said. They said, ‘Well just do it how you want to do it’ and I said, ‘Well I just want to do it like this.’
Adding: “They let me go and I did the guitar very loudly into the mic and sang it at the same time and then George had the sitar and I asked him could he play the piece that I’d written, you know, dee diddley dee diddley dee, that bit, and he was not sure whether he could play it yet because he hadn’t done much on the sitar but he was willing to have a go.”
It was a risk to include the sitar on the track, but the gamble paid off emphatically. Soon enough, the instrument had embedded itself into the Western musical lexicon, with Brian Jones from The Rolling Stones adopting the sitar for ‘Paint It Black’.
“I always used to see Brian in the clubs and hang out with him,” Harrison remembered in Anthology. “In the mid-Sixties he used to come out to my house – particularly when he’d got ‘the fear’ when he’d mixed too many weird things together. I’d hear his voice shouting to me from out in the garden: ‘George, George…’ I’d let him in – he was a good mate. He would always come round to my house in the sitar period. We talked about ‘Paint It Black’, and he picked up my sitar and tried to play it – and the next thing was he did that track.
“We had a lot in common, when I think about it. I think he related to me a lot, and I liked him. Some people didn’t have time for him, but I thought he was one of the most interesting ones.”
The sitar plays a nuanced role in both ‘Paint It Black’ and ‘Norwegian Wood’, which is subtly at the heart of both tracks, providing both a sprinkling of magic that makes the songs spellbinding gems that have stood firm to become classics. Harrison and Jones both saw the world through a similar lens, while their roles in their respective bands are often not giving their due headlines — look no further than these two tracks for a glimpse at their genius.