December 3: The Beatles use the sitar for the first time in “Norwegian Wood”

Dylan hung out with the Beatles a couple times at the Warwick Hotel when they were in New York August 13-17 for The Ed Sullivan Show and the Shea Stadium gig. Whenever the visited the Beatles, he brought copies of his new records to play for them. “Hey John, listen to the lyrics, man.”

But Lennon was getting high and drunk on wine. “Forget the lyrics!”

Lennon recalled, “You know, we’re all out of our minds; are we supposed to be listening to lyrics? No, we’re just listening to the rhythm and how he does it.”[i]

But whether he was aware of it, Lennon continued to borrow words from Dylan songs. For Help!’s “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” he took the image of “facing the wall” from Dylan’s “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met).” In an attempt to make it less Dylanesque, he replaced the harmonica was a flute. In fact, Lennon stopped playing harmonica entirely, which he had done on eleven earlier Beatle songs.

The Beatles returned to London on September 1 and entered the studio on October 12 to record their new album. That day they did the first take of “This Bird Has Flown,” the working title of “Norwegian Wood.” The guitar sounded close to Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” The track needed something to set it apart.

Harrison had recently bought a sitar along with Ravi Shankar’s albums Portrait of Genius and Sound of the Sitar. Harrison’s conversations with David Crosby about Shankar while they were tripping last August had inspired him. Also, when they arrived back to the UK from the States, the Kinks were at No. 10 on the charts with the Indian-influenced “See My Friends.” When the Kinks had toured Australia and Asia at the beginning of the year, they had a stopover in Bombay. Ray Davies said, “I remember getting up, going to the beach and seeing all these fishermen coming along. I heard chanting to start with, and gradually the chanting came a bit closer, and I could see it was fishermen carrying their nets out.”[ii] The Kinks’ song had no Indian instruments, but the band’s guitar imitated a tambura while Ray’s vocal whine and drone lent his singing an Indian quality. Author/jazz musician Barry Ernest Fantoni recalled hanging with the Beatles one night when they heard the Kinks’ song. Realizing Davies’ guitar sounded like a sitar, they discussed getting one for their next record.[iii]

Lennon asked Harrison if he could add it to “Norwegian Wood.” “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.”[iv]

Harrison’s sitar flourishes, as rudimentary as they were, kicked the nascent Indian craze into high gear. Soon Donovan, Them, the Moody Blues, the Pretty Things, Paul Butterfield, the Doors, and Traffic all employed “raga rock,” as the Byrds’ publicist coined it for the release of their sitar-inspired “Eight Miles High.” Even the Velvet Underground appropriated the Indian drone. Next year Harrison would travel to India to study with Shankar, the beginnings of a life-long friendship. Just as Harrison’s twelve-string arpeggio at the end of “A Hard Days Night” birthed the sound of folk-rock, his growing fascination with Indian instruments would soon expose millions of Beatle record-buyers to world music. When that led him to pursue Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi, it encouraged countless baby boomers to look into Eastern philosophy.

Still, despite the sitar, Dylan knew Lennon had borrowed from him again. Three months after Rubber Soul’s release, Dylan mocked both the waltz time and storyline of “Norwegian Wood” in “4th Time Around,” then ended the song with an appeal not to ask for his crutch. Al Kooper recalled, “I asked him about it – I said, it sounds so much like Norwegian Wood, and he said, ‘Well actually, Norwegian Wood sounds a lot like this. I’m afraid they took it from me, and I feel that I have to, y’know, record it.’ Evidently, he’d played it for them, and they’d nicked it. I said, ‘Aren’t you worried about getting sued by The Beatles?’ and he said, ‘They couldn’t sue me!’”[v]

Dylan played “4th Time Around” for Lennon in a hotel and asked Lennon what he thought about it. Lennon said he didn’t like it. Still, Dylan played it to all of London at the Royal Albert Hall the final night of his ’66 world tour. Lennon later admitted to interviewers it made him very paranoid,[vi] and he ceased writing Dylan-inspired songs. It seemed ironic for Dylan to complain, considering he had appropriated melodies from other sources for “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Hard Rain,” “Don’t Think Twice,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “It Ain’t Me Babe,” and “She Belongs To Me,” to name just a few.

On the surface Lennon’s short and abstract lyrics were the antithesis of Dylan’s, but the American had freed him up to express alienation and ennui in a way that hadn’t been done before. And Dylan convinced him he didn’t need to separate the part of his brain that composed pop songs from the one that wrote the subversive wordplay of his books, and the two sides began to meld together.

“Norwegian Wood” itself concerned an extra-marital affair in the apartment of a young lady who owned nothing on which Lennon could sit, just the ‘60s version of Ikea, the “Norwegian wood” of the title. Peter Asher, who lived down the hall from McCartney in the Asher household, “had his room done out in wood; a lot of people were decorating their places in wood … But it’s not as good a title, Cheap Pine, baby,” McCartney said.[vii]

In the song the woman tells the singer she has to go to work in the morning. He ends up sleeping in the bathtub, then when he wakes up she’s gone so he lights a fire. McCartney elaborated that the female in the song “led him on, then said, ‘You’d better sleep in the bath.’ In our world the guy had to have some sort of revenge. It could have meant I lit a fire to keep myself warm, and wasn’t the decor of her house wonderful? But it didn’t, it meant I burned the fucking place down.”[viii]

 

References:

[i] The Beatles Anthology, 158.

 

[ii] Jonathan Bellman, The Exotic in Western Music, 294.

 

[iii] Ian MacDonald, Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, 165.

 

[iv] Badman, The Beatles: Off the Record,190.

 

[v] Andy Gill, Bob Dylan: The Stories Behind the Songs 1962-1969, Google eBook.

 

[vi] Jonathan Cott, “John Lennon: The Rolling Stone Interview,” November 23, 1968, http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/john-lennon-the-rolling-stone-interview-19681123

 

[vii] Miles, Many Years From Now, 270-271.

 

[viii] Miles, Many Years From Now, 270-271.

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