So to commemorate this day in Beatles history, today I'm listening to "The Inner Light," which was actually recorded in Bombay during the sessions for George's Wonderwall soundtrack. Along with "Love You To" and "Within You, Without You," this song dates from George's Indian music phase; all three are played on Indian instruments, by Indian musicians, and they're sort of oddities in the Beatles canon. But all have merit, and even if we're a little relieved that George found his way back to rock and roll eventually, songs like "The Inner Light" are interesting attempts to mesh Indian timbres and harmonies into the format of a 3-minute western pop song. So, as always with the Beatles, worth a listen.
Of the three Indian songs, I like "The Inner Light" the most, which is why I've always been somewhat bummed that it languished as the B-side to "Lady Madonna" while the much more (for my money) ponderous, soporific "Within You, Without You" got play every time a roomful of hippies put on Sgt. Pepper for the zillionth time. But no matter. Its later release on Past Masters makes it more accessible now than it was for years. Not to mention the existence of YouTube.
The lyrics of the song come from the Tao te Ching, so they're not George's own, though they enhance the mystical way we're probably supposed to feel listening to this. But mysticism aside, the reason I like "The Inner Light" a lot is because I think it's the most successful of the Indian songs at working in true pop elements-- so we can enjoy it purely as a pop song. There's a driving beat reminiscent of an actual backbeat, and a good riff in that melodic instrument used in the intro and elsewhere (I'm sorry, I took an introductory class on Indian music in college, but I nevertheless don't know at all what these instruments actually are). That instrument, which I guess is a bowed string instrument of some kind based on its sustained notes, sounds so much like a human voice that back when I was a teenager listening to this song on my battered 45 on a terrible little mono turntable, I actually thought it might be a wail. So even though I've been disappointed since to learn that it's not, it's still pretty neat. The other element you notice right away is that insistent drone under everything-- which is part of what keeps the song resolutely Indian. I don't get the sense that there's a ton of harmonic variation (which you'd expect in a western pop song, particularly a Beatles song) in "The Inner Light," as there seems to be almost no dissonance over the drone.
Anyway, the beat established in the intro and the breaks goes away in the verses in favor of sustained chords and a countermelody on some sort of flute. George's vocal is very nice here, very gentle and sweet, and the vocal melody itself is beautiful. Flitting between the two modes, the songs works really well, I think, especially at the very end. The only contribution from the other Beatles is a tiny bit of backup singing from John and Paul on the very last words of the coda-- "do all without doing"-- which is one of those little touches that somehow does much more work than it should. It's actually incredibly awesome.
So if you haven't listened to "The Inner Light" before-- totally possible these days if you don't have Past Masters-- enjoy. Its status as one of the most obscure Beatles recordings is a sad thing-- play this instead of "Within You, Without You" next time you feel like Mystical George.
"The Inner Light," released in the U.K. as B-side of "Lady Madonna," March 15, 1968; in the U.S. March 18, 1968.I am indebted for all discography information to the tremendous Beatles-Discography.com.