When someone nonchalantly decorated the set for the Beatles' film Help! with a sitar, they were probably thinking it added a certain Eastern exoticism. In a break between takes, George Harrison picked it up and tried to work out how to play it. That set decorator could never have foreseen how this would change the course of popular culture, if not history itself.
Chances are that George's first efforts were less than dulcet, given he'd have had little idea how to tune the labyrinth of strings. Nonetheless his interest was piqued, and so he sought, well, help.
That mainly came in the shape of Ravi Shankar, one of the great sitar players of the century. A friendship blossomed, as, gradually, did Harrison's ability on the instrument, to the point where he could add sitar to Lennon's Norwegian Wood on the Rubber Soul album. By the time the band came to record Sergeant Pepper's, Harrison was capable of playing his own much more demanding Within You, Without You, the song that, more than any other, turned a generation of Western listeners onto the shimmering enchantment of Indian classical music. From there it was a short hippie shuffle to a fascination with Indian mysticism, meditation and yoga. Suddenly mind-expanding drugs had to compete with mind-expanding philosophies – all thanks to a sitar on a movie set.
Just like seeing your dentist or barista in the supermarket and not quite being able to place the face, instruments have a habit of popping up out of context. The sitar, for example, was also played by Brian Jones (who actually took it up before Harrison) on the Rolling Stones' Paint it Black and by Hillel Slovak on the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Behind the Sun. Jones, whose default state of ennui led to experimentation with both drugs and diverse instruments, played recorder on Ruby Tuesday, oboe on Dandelion, dulcimer on I Am Waiting and marimba on Under My Thumb. The warm, percussive woodiness of the latter instrument would also decorate the White Stripes' The Nurse and become a staple sample in tropical house dance music.
By: John Shand
Source: The Age