In 1968, the Beatles went to India looking for enlightenment. They found a new sound.
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Published February 26, 2018
Published 3 months ago
When the Beatles traveled to India in February 1968, they were emotionally drained and at a creative crossroads. The previous summer, their longtime friend and manager Brian Epstein had died. Their psychedelia-infused “Magical Mystery Tour” album, meanwhile, had left many listeners scratching their heads. (That didn’t stop it from topping the charts in the U.S. the previous fall.) But at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in northern India, the four musicians and their friends meditated, chanted — and grew inspired. They wrote scores of songs, 18 of which ended up on their eponymous 1968 masterpiece, a.k.a, “The White Album.” Here, we take a closer look at some songs from that landmark double-record that were directly inspired by the sights and sounds the Beatles encountered in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Keystone Features/Getty Images“Back in the USSR”The opening track on “The White Album” was written by Paul McCartney as a sort of Beach Boys parody, inspired by Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA.” Beach Boy Mike Love, who was studying Transcendental Meditation alongside the Beatles at the Maharishi's ashram, said that McCartney came down from his room one day playing the tune that would become “Back in the USSR” on his guitar. Love reportedly told him, "You ought to put something in about all the girls around Russia.” (Pictured: From left to right, Pattie Boyd, Lennon, Mike Love, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Harrison, Mia Farrow, John Farrow, Donovan, McCartney, Jane Asher, Cynthia Lennon at the Maharishi's ashram, March 1968.)
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“Dear Prudence”The actress Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence were also guests at the Maharishi’s ashram at the same time as the Beatles. Prudence, who at 20 already owned her own yoga studio and had spent years studying the teachings of Swami Satchidananda, was particularly dedicated to the practice of meditation.
In a posthumously published interview with Playboy magazine, Lennon claimed that “She was trying to find God quicker than anyone else. That was the competition in Maharishi's camp: who was going to get cosmic first.” The song “Dear Prudence” — with its memorable lyric, “won’t you come out to play?” — was addressed to Farrow. (Pictured Left: Prudence Farrow practices yoga with Swami Satchidananda, November 24th, 1968, Pictured Right: John Lennon plays the flute during his stay at the Maharishi's ashram in India, March 18, 1968.)
Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”Lennon supposedly hated “Ob-La-Di,” which he started writing with McCartney in the hills of India, and even referred to it as “Paul’s Granny music.” Turns out Lennon wasn’t alone. In a 2004 online poll, it was voted the worst song ever recorded. To put that in perspective: Meat Loaf’s dreadful “I’ll Do Anything For Love” was deemed better. (Pictured: Paul McCartney records music with the Black Dyke Mills Band in Saltaire, England, June 1968.)
Susan Wood/Getty Images/Getty Images“The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”Lennon wrote this song about another student at the ashram, Richard A. Cooke III, who took occasional breaks from his search for enlightenment to go on tiger hunts. Lennon found this contradictory and amusing, later telling Playboy, “It's sort of a teenage social-comment song and a bit of a joke." (Pictured: John Lennon plays the guitar for Yoko Ono, December 1968.)
Cummings Archives/Redferns“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”For George Harrison, the trip to India was a time of spiritual and musical growth which culminated in the writing of his “first truly great Beatles song.” Originally composed in India, Harrison didn’t write lyrics for the track until the band’s return to England. (Pictured: George Harrison, with the Maharshi and Ringo Starr at a party to celebrate Harrison's 25th birthday in Rishikesh, India, February 25, 1968.)
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images"Julia"Scottish singer Donovan, who was a friend to the Beatles well before they traveled to the ashram, taught Lennon a new fingerpicking style on the trip. Lennon used the technique on “Julia,” a song he’d written for his mother. (Pictured: John Lennon plays the guitar in Rishikesh, India.)
Susan Wood/Getty Images/Getty Images“I’m So Tired”Newly sober and pining for Yoko Ono — despite having traveled to India with his then-wife, Cynthia — Lennon wrote “I’m So Tired” as an open letter to Ono about his weary state of mind. He later described the surprisingly generative exhaustion he experienced at the ashram: "I wrote hundreds of songs. I couldn't sleep and I was hallucinating like crazy, having dreams where you could smell.” (Pictured: Lennon and Ono in December 1968.)
Jurgen Schadeberg/Getty Images“Sexy Sadie”The Beatles’ stay at the ashram ended on a sour note when Lennon confronted the Maharishi over rumors that he’d made unwanted sexual advances toward Mia Farrow and other women students. The first version of the song’s opening lyric was, “Maharishi, what have you done? / You made a fool of everyone.” Harrison objected to using the guru's name, so “Maharishi” was changed to “Sexy Sadie.” (Pictured: David Frost interviews George Harrison and John Lennon for "London Weekend Television," 1968.)
Andrew Maclear/RETIRED/Redferns“Revolution”Number thirteen on Rolling Stone’s list of “100 Greatest Beatles Songs," “Revolution” was the group’s first explicitly anti-war song. Lennon later told the magazine: “I had been thinking about it up in the hills in India. I still had this ‘God will save us’ feeling about it, that it's going to be all right … but that's why I did it, I wanted to talk, I wanted to say my piece about revolution.” (Pictured: John Lennon performs live with Eric Clapton, Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Keith Richards on The Rolling Stones' "Rock 'n' Roll Circus" show, December 11, 1968.)
Want more Beatles? Go deeper into their journey east.