Sunday, May 14, 2017

We Were Talking . . .

One more look at a song from the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, released fifty years ago this year, before the big June 1 anniversary release date and some posts about other aspects of the album . . .
Many Lennon-McCartney songs had been prompted by quips that came out of nowhere, as evidenced by the titles.  The title song of A Hard Day's Night was written around one of Ringo Starr's malapropisms, "Eight Days a Week" from Beatles For Sale was inspired by the frustration over long work hours that a chauffeur for Paul McCartney expressed, and Sgt. Pepper's own "Getting Better" was written based on on temporary replacement drummer Jimmy Nicol's answer to how he was doing substituting for Ringo on the first part of the group's 1964 world tour while Ringo recovered from tonsillitis.  George Harrison, ever the non-conformist, wrote a song around an entire conversation.
"Within You Without You" came out of a conversation George had over dinner with German artist/musician Klaus Voormann at Voormann's London home. Voormann, who knew the Beatles in Hamburg, was now a bass player and playing in Manfred Mann's eponymous band.  The conversation - which was hardly the stuff of bourgeois pleasantries - was deeply philosophical, in which George and Klaus began talking about how a cold, modern world could benefit from sharing love after realizing that change was only possible from within . . . and how the space between us was getting in the way of that.  George found his way to a harmonium (a type of organ) that Klaus had in his house and began playing a tune to his thoughts on the conversation - "We were talking . . ."   He had a song in no time.
George brought "Within You Without You" to EMI Studios at Abbey Road as an untitled song on March 15, 1967, but he eventually decided to name it after the refrain, which was the song's central point - "Life flows on within you and without you."  (The title omitted the conjunction.)  George brought in Indian musicians from London's Asian Music Circle to play the tabla, dilruba, tambura and swarmandal, and he had the studio decorated with Indian tapestries - and burned some incense - to create the proper mood.  He gave the Indian musicians, their names lost to history, the basic melody from which they improvised their music; Indian music is all improvisation.   Below is one of the musicians hearing George play the melody.  Wonder if anyone can at least identify him?      
George and Beatles assistant Neil Aspinall each played tamburas along with the Indian musicians, and Western classical musicians would be brought in a week later to add strings.  The result is an incredible fusion of Eastern and Western musicianship weaving together in a profound pop song.
"Within You Without You" is George Harrison's best Indian-flavored Beatles song musically, and it's also considered one of his best sets of lyrics.   Listening to it, you feel transported to a higher, much more pleasant state of being.  And George's paraphrasing of the Gospel According to Matthew in the lyrics ("For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?") was a nice touch.  John Lennon, for one, had nothing but praise for the whole song.  "One of George's best songs," he said in 1980.  "He's clear on that song.  His mind and his music are clear.  There is his innate talent; he brought that sound together."  Ringo Starr called it "brilliant."  
While the music of "Within You Without You" flows seamlessly, there is one moment where the song - indeed, the entire Sgt. Pepper album - is suspended in time.  It occurs at 3:36 into the song; the music just seems to pause and hang there for a split second before fading and then resuming with the tap of the tabla.  It's as if time itself has stopped completely, if only to remind us that everything is fleeting.  The song ends with some laughter from the audience at Sgt. Pepper's band's show, which George threw in to bring some levity to an otherwise philosophically heavy song, though it almost sounds like crying.   
"Within You Without You" is a very special song.  It is the only George Harrison song on Sgt. Pepper, it is the longest track on that album except for "A Day In the Life" (more about that later), and it was the last song to be completed for the album (it was mixed after every other song on the LP had been finished).
It's also the only song on the Sgt. Pepper album, apart from "Lovely Rita," not to be disemboweled for the 1978 movie of the same name. ;-)  

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