CIRCLES: A MUSICAL JOURNEY FROM LIVERPOOL TO RISHIKESH VIA SEVILLE
ARCTIC LION OPINION
Soul takes on a body with each birth we make our date
With life and death along the road the soul reincarnates
The show goes round and round in Circles
Circles, George Harrison. 1982
Liverpool, 1991 - Lee Mavers looks out onto the crowd at the jam packed Picket Warehouse and for once must be feeling pretty pleased with himself. The La’s are the hottest ticket around and he’s already accomplished one of his two life goals: to make a living playing music and play professional football for Everton F.C (the second of which unfortunately never happened). His band only have one record at their disposal tonight, but what an album it is – Mavers’ obsessive quest for the perfect studio sound yielded 13 songs of rare and absolute charm that melded gentle psychedelia with Merseybeat and would inspire an entire generation of British guitar music.
His bandmates, including future Cast frontman John Power, are lethargic and visibly less enthusiastic as they take to the stage with their instruments. Mavers’ perfectionism knew no bounds and was starting to create friction in his circle – during the album sessions he scrapped recording after recording, got rid of several producers, drummers and guitarists, and even demanded that original dust from the 1960s be sprinkled around the studio to inspire the sound he was looking for. As the drugs got heavier, the sessions more fragmented and Mavers mind-set more tormented, the heaven-sent album standout There She Goes masked a hellish reality that engulfed The La’s, spiralling to their eventual breakup in 1992.
Liverpool, 1967 - George Harrison, jaded by recent touring schedules and the complex arrangements on astonishing concept album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, is starting to feel similar levels of contempt for fellow Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney. They are at the peak of their creative powers; under McCartney’s guidance the group had taken on different personas as the alter-ego Sgt Pepper’s band which freed them up to experiment musically. However, despite the album’s widespread critical acclaim, Harrison wasn’t satisfied with pretending to be someone else when he barely understood who he was or how he belonged in the Universe. To make matters worse, McCartney then dragged the band through a painstaking and self-indulgent project, Magical Mystery Tour, whereby he led from the front and called all the shots– forcing the others to play his songs over and over again with little regard to their own styles and opinions. Not for the first time in his life, Harrison looked inwards and found himself dissatisfied on a deeper level than having an untuned guitar or no longer being followed everywhere by legions of screaming teenage fans.
Unfairly dubbed “The Quiet One” for his understated and pensive demeanour, Harrison ironically had a lot he wanted to say through his songs but he never got the chance. He was somehow still the younger brother, the timid fourteen year old in love with American rock and roll who got his chance to impress Lennon on top of a Liverpool bus by playing Bill Justis’ jangly instrumental Raunchy. Harrison had since emerged a songwriter in his own right; his recent contributions Taxman (capturing his sharp Scouse wit as he attacks Harold Wilsons’ progressive tax laws) and Byrds-inspired folk-rock songs, If I Needed Someone and Think For Yourself, are amongst the finest ever recorded by the band. His talents were still being overlooked though - he would have to wait until 1970 for the creative dam to finally burst in the form of his epic triple album All Things Must Pass – the most thought-provoking, spiritual and soulful work of any solo Beatle. For the best part of a decade, Harrison yearned for someone to pay attention and listen. What he wasn’t expecting was someone to take him under their wing and open his eyes to a whole new world of possibilities and teachings.
Liverpool, 1965 - George Harrison was first introduced to Ravi Shankar and Indian classical music two years prior to the release of Sgt Peppers, but it wasn’t until three years later in Rishikesh, India that his life began to take a different course. This was the start of a very special lifelong friendship, through which both Ravi and George grew as people and began to embrace each other’s styles and backgrounds as musicians. By the time they met, Ravi was already known as the Pandit (Master) of Indian classical music and was recognised as an expert sitar player – an instrument Harrison had already played himself on Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) on Rubber Soul. In Ravi, Harrison finally had the opportunity to be born again and re-evaluate both his own life and how he could weave his childhood rock and roll heroes of the West with these new exciting textures from the East. Just as circles are ubiquitous in Hindu texts as symbols of spiritual evolution and reincarnation, Harrison had an opportunity to be born again and become humble in learning how to meditate and reflect. He had already begun to gaze Eastwards, not only for musical inspiration but also as a gateway to deeper fulfilment to try and make sense of his place in the world and his meteoric rise to fame – tainted by everyone telling him that they loved him, alas on a very superficial level. Indian culture and mysticism offered Harrison an outlet; a comforting feeling that something omnipotent existed and that his life wouldn’t simply disappear down a funnel of exhaustion and material gain – be born, make music and then die.
As soon as Harrison decided to swap his trusty Rickenbacker 12-string for a sitar in 1965 on Norwegian Wood, there was no looking back. He would have felt a sense of relief even ridding himself of an instrument so closely associated with endless claustrophobic American touring (something he grew to become terrified of) and monotonous recording sessions for one that not only offered a new challenge but, crucially, a new way of life. The full range of Hindustanti instruments were already starting to permeate his Beatles compositions – he played the tambura on Lennon’s Tomorrow Never Knows, swarmandal on Strawberry Fields Forever and tabla on his own Love You To – a song which David Reick of Asian Music heralded as “revolutionary in Western culture” and “unprecedented in the history of popular music”. He would of course return to the slide guitar and wah-wah effects pedal – the signature sounds of his solo career – but for now the fascinating possibilities and textures on offer made making music joyous once again. It seemed as if the new sounds were also starting to permeate his very existence – his decision to swap LSD for transcendental meditation gave him new perspectives on his relationships and on the true value behind the vast wealth he had accumulated (it’s incredible to think he was still only 25 as he underwent this transition). That he was finally getting more than just one or two songs on every Beatles album paled in insignificance to the fact he had finally discovered a soundboard for his introspective ruminations.
His exploration of Indian philosophy was starting to gain him personal respect and admiration from his bandmates which, even though he still craved something deeper, was a welcome change from how he was usually treated. Instead of taking the opportunity to simply get more musical recognition, he attempted to give his friends a taste of his incredible new experiences and a chance to expand their minds.
Rishikesh, India 1968 - By the time The Beatles arrived at the foothills of the Himalayas for a meditation course, they had gone on a musical journey and arrived at the same place from which they began. From the early days of playing fetes in Liverpool with Rockabilly quiffs as The Quarrymen, to the mid 1960’s fascination with the sounds of recording studio and avant-garde, to now sitting around the campfire at an ashram with acoustic guitars. They had come full circle on their adventure and, like an old black and white film, had to rely on nothing but their own chemistry as a group of four musicians.
Not everyone was as enthralled as Harrison by their new surroundings – Lennon was suffering drug withdrawal induced insomnia, Ringo preferred baked beans to the local cuisine – but all of them nevertheless benefited from the headspace. Gone were the backwards guitar solos and intricate counter melodies of Revolver; the boys simply got back to basics – songs that told amusing stories (Rocky Racoon, Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da), poked fun at class distinction and consumerism (Piggies) and those that benefited from a stripped down, less-is-more approach (Blackbird, Dear Prudence). Of all of the cuts that were considered good enough for The White Album, once again Harrison’s compositions stand out for their incredible songcraft and meditative quality – While My Guitar Gently Weeps certainly, but the lesser-known Long, Long, Long is a beautiful reclamation of lost faith and is perhaps the finest song he’s written either as a Beatle or otherwise. One of the other songs put forward by Harrison, Isn’t It A Pity, was inexplicably rejected (no surprise there) and would appear instead as the beating heart on All Things Must Pass. None of the new tracks feature any Eastern instrumentation, but the vast majority are more reflective and spiritual in nature – a stark contrast to the exuberant and catchy but shallow boy-meets-girl ditties that most other groups of the time were still writing and playing.
It’s difficult to say exactly how the trip to India impacted the music of the time and the wider aspects of culture in the late 1960s. The sitar certainly started to make more of an appearance in the West – most famously on Paint It Black by The Rolling Stones, but it’s more interesting to ponder how people’s attitudes might have changed rather than just how they wrote music. Those partial to long hair, drugs and hedonistic long summer days might not have been quite ready for someone to ask them to swap a spliff and tie-dye shirt for a mantra. It would be a stretch to say that just because The Beatles took a meditation course that everyone immediately embraced Eastern philosophy, but slowly and surely people began to take notice and pay attention to their lives more closely. By the same token, did The Beatles really manage to fuse the East and the West or did they simply westernise traditional Eastern music? If all four members were alive today, I wonder how they would put into context their trip to Rishikesh and whether they consider themselves pioneers in reaching out and connecting with another culture.
Seville 2018 - In today’s world, mindfulness courses and meditation retreats are on offer everywhere and both are regarded as at least as effective in combating mental health issues as medication and traditional talk therapy. Those that aren’t religious in nature or don’t believe in a higher being still have an opportunity to connect with something spiritual and take stock of what they already have; it was this sense of gratitude and thankfulness that Harrison himself was missing at the height of Beatlemania. It wasn’t that he was ungrateful or snobbish, but it’s difficult to be appreciative when everything you could ever want is available to you so easily.
In my own experiences I can definitely see how the meditation retreat to Rishikesh was a source of renewed optimism and creativity for an artist, or indeed anyone else. I always benefit from a change of scenery and find my thought patterns become a lot clearer when I have space and time to find inspiration. Often not thinking at all is the best way forwards – when I am out running or taking a long walk, my best ideas seem to come to me without even having to try. Letting go is difficult in a highly competitive world where many are driven to succeed in their careers at all costs, but most would benefit from slowing the pace and finding solace amidst the chaos. In recently taking a sabbatical from a job in London to Seville, I have found my levels of happiness and mental clarity have vastly increased just from being away from it all. I have found time to pursue other projects (meditation included) and think about what it is I’m truly passionate about and value – instead of worrying about the pressures of the workplace. The ability to reincarnate yourself, to make a fresh start in some senses but continue in others, is a wonderful experience.
In the last days of The La’s, as Lee Mavers became consumed by a downward spiral of depression and alcoholism, one wonders how much he would have benefited from taking stock of what he had already achieved in such a short space of time. I wish they had gone on to make more music – their brilliant eponymous album and some John Peel sessions are all that are left behind – and come full circle on their musical journey, just like the Fab Four in Rishikesh all those years ago.
James Armstrong 20th February 2018