To misquote the opening lines of the classic Beatles album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it was 30 years ago today [Wednesday 8 December] that John Lennon was shot dead in New York. One aspect of his work often overlooked is the way he was influenced by Indian music and culture. Lennon wrote some of his best known songs in India and only recently, an unknown song called 'India, India' from the 1970s was finally found in the archives.
John and his bandmates in The Beatles spent part of the 1960s looking for ways to “broaden their perspectives on the world”, as he put it in an interview in early 1967. They were experimenting with all kinds of drugs, and that experimenting helped lead to groundbreaking records such as the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP, which was issued in June 1967. The band had become interested in Indian culture through George Harrison.
In 1965, during the shooting of the Beatles-film ‘Help!’, George met a couple of Indian musicians who appeared as extras in the film. They introduced him to the sitar, an instrument which was gaining something of a following due to Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar’s growing popularity. A few months later, George had bought himself a sitar which he played on ‘Norwegian Wood’, composed by Lennon.
With George being heavily influenced by Indian music, the band recorded two Harrison-penned songs, 'Love you to' (from the Revolver album) and 'Within you, without you' (Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), both of which featured Indian instruments.
In 1967, The Beatles wanted to dig deeper into Eastern cultures and attended a lecture by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, where they were introduced to transcendental meditation. Curious to learn more, they accepted the Maharishi’s invitation to visit his retreat in India.
The Beatles, including John and his then wife Cynthia, and other Western artists left for India in February, 1968, where Mahesh Yogi had built his ‘International Academy of Meditation’, a 14 acre compound near Rishikesh in the north of the country. The region was already known as ‘the yoga capital of the world’ and was home to many ashrams – places where people go to meditate in peaceful surroundings.
Watch a clip of The Beatles in India (story continues below):
The sessions at Rishikesh were received well initially, but after a few weeks tensions began to grow – Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney left early amid speculations about a falling-out with the Maharishi over alleged drug use by The Beatles at the ashram (and Ringo didn’t make any new friends when he compared the place to a Butlin's holiday camp back in the UK).
Also, John and Cynthia – whose relationship was already rocky – felt they had grown apart, especially due to John’s burgeoning relationship with Yoko Ono (who was not present in India).
George and John finally left abruptly in April, apparently because they felt the Maharishi only wanted them there for the publicity and for his own gain.
Creatively, however, the time in Rishikesh was one of the most rewarding periods in the Beatles’ career. John and Paul wrote dozens of songs, many of which ended up on the final three Beatles albums The Beatles, Abbey Road and Let It Be, with some songs heavily influenced by the Indian surroundings: 'Dear Prudence', 'Julia', 'Sexy Sadie' (a direct dig at the Maharishi) and 'Why Don’t We Do It In The Road' (apparently inspired by monkeys mating in the road).
Newly discovered song
The Beatles’ time in India has often been ridiculed, but the four members shared fond memories of the period with the Maharishi. Years later, after the Beatles had disbanded and John Lennon had moved to New York with his new wife Yoko Ono, Lennon described his memories in a song called 'India, India', which he wrote for a play that never saw the light of day. Hidden in Lennon’s personal archives for years, the song was discovered only recently.
In the lyrics, John says: “India, take me to your heart / Reveal your ancient mysteries to me” and “I sit here at your feet so patiently”. He then goes on to say: “I’m waiting by the river but somewhere in my mind / I left my heart in England with the girl I left behind”, probably referring to his ex-wife Cynthia.
Watch a clip featuring the song 'India, India' (Story continues below):
'India, India' has never been released officially, but it shows John’s fond memories of that short period he spent in the Rishikesh ashrams. Although the compound fell into disrepair, after the Maharishi left India in the 1970s, the legacy of that period can still be heard in the songs on The Beatles or Abbey Road – and in dozens of other songs written by other Western artists who finally discovered, through Lennon & McCartney’s songs, that India’s music had so much to offer.