Raga Rock
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Raga Rock

Music of India
A Lady Playing the Tanpura, ca. 1735.jpg
A Lady Playing the Tanpura, c. 1735 (Rajasthan)


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National anthemJana Gana Mana
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Raga rock is rock or pop music with a pronounced Indian influence, either in its construction, its timbre, or its use of Indian musical instruments, such as the sitar and tabla. In addition, rock music from the 1960s and 1970s that incorporates South Asian musical influences and instruments, along with Western ideas of the Indian subcontinent, is often regarded as raga rock.

Since Indian influences in popular music are primarily limited to the 1960s, most raga rock recordings originate from that decade, although there are examples of Indian-derived sounds in post-1960s rock and pop music.


Ragas are specific melodic modes used in the classical music of the Indian subcontinent. Thus, any rock song with obvious Indian influences may be deemed "raga rock" although the term is frequently used to refer to much more explicitly Indian musical outings. A major influence on raga rock was the Indian classical raga music of Bengali sitarist Ravi Shankar, who himself had become a pop music icon by 1966, following the rise of the raga rock trend.[1]


Writing for Crawdaddy! in December 1966, Sandy Pearlman traced the origins of raga rock to folk music, specifically the drone-producing guitar tunings which American folk musician Sandy Bull had been incorporating into his music since 1963.[2] More recently, authors John Schaefer and Rob Chapman have both noted that English folk guitarist Davey Graham's raga-tinged arrangement of the Irish ballad "She Moved Through the Fair", from 1963's From a London Hootenanny EP, predated the raga rock experimentation of 1960s rock groups by two years.[3][4]


Early examples

Music researcher William Echard notes that "Heart Full of Soul" by the Yardbirds, which was released in June 1965, "is frequently cited as a key text in starting the trend" towards incorporating Indian-inspired elements in rock music.[5] An Indian sitarist and a tabla player accompanied the Yardbirds on a demo recording of the song, but only the tabla part was deemed usable.[6] Instead, Jeff Beck emulated the sitar figure, tone, and accompanying drone on the electric guitar for the master recording.[7] The song reached number 2 on the UK chart.[8] Author Andy Miller says that the subgenre's widespread popularity was preceded by the July 1965 release of "See My Friends", a top-ten single in the UK for the Kinks.[9] Written by Ray Davies and inspired by a visit to India,[10] the song used guitar to imitate the drone produced by an Indian tambura.[9][11] Music historian Andrew Grant Jackson writes that Davies' "vocal whine and drone lend his voice an Indian quality".[12] Before either of these examples, the Beatles' April 1965 single "Ticket to Ride", which was number 1 in many countries around the world, featured a melody that author Ian MacDonald terms "raga-like"[13] over a subtle Indian drone produced by electric guitars.[14][15]

Writing in 1997, musicologist Jonathan Bellman commented that the Yardbirds and Kinks recordings were often overlooked in discussions of raga rock's origins, as history instead highlighted the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)".[10] Issued in December 1965 on the band's Rubber Soul album, the folk-styled "Norwegian Wood" was the first Western pop song to incorporate the sitar, which was played by lead guitarist George Harrison,[16] and the first to feature Indian instrumentation played by a rock musician.[17] The song's popularity inspired a wave of interest in the sitar and Indian sounds, a phenomenon that Shankar later called "the great sitar explosion".[18][19] According to authors Nicholas Schaffner and Bernard Gendron, raga rock was inaugurated by the release of "Norwegian Wood".[20][21][nb 1]

The Byrds' raga-rock press conference

The Byrds hosting their "raga rock" press conference for the release of "Eight Miles High" in March 1966

The Byrds' March 1966 single "Eight Miles High" and its B-side, "Why", were also influential in originating the subgenre.[23] Whereas earlier recordings by the Kinks, the Yardbirds and the Beatles had used Indian sounds to complement standard song forms, the Byrds incorporated the improvisational technique typical of Shankar's work and of John Coltrane's jazz interpretations of ragas.[24] In his 1968 Pop Chronicles interview, however, Byrds member Roger McGuinn denied that "Eight Miles High" was raga rock;[25] co-writer David Crosby also dismissed the term.[26] While many listeners assumed that the lead instrument on these and other songs on the Byrds' Fifth Dimension album was a sitar,[27] McGuinn played a Rickenbacker 12-string electric guitar throughout, and had customised his guitar amplifier to achieve the sitar-like sound.[28]

It's rock 'n' roll, it's neither jazz nor Indian music. But we listen to their music and we like it and it influences our minds and our playing ... Rock is going to keep growing. It has in it now African, South American, jazz, folk, church, Bach, Indian, Greek, country, bluegrass.[29]

- David Crosby discussing the Byrds' raga rock sound in 1966, although he later rejected the term

The term "raga rock" was coined by the Byrds' publicist in press releases for "Eight Miles High" and was first used in print by Sally Kempton of The Village Voice in her report of the band's press conference for the single's release.[30][31] Kempton wrote dismissively of the event,[21] during which McGuinn and Crosby spoke earnestly of the group's adoption of Indian influences, with the two musicians demonstrating raga techniques on sitar and acoustic guitar, respectively, while their two bandmates appeared bored and instead read magazines.[31] Kempton said that the message was lost on those attending the press conference, namely female reporters from teen magazines and conservative-looking representatives from the music industry.[21]

Hit Parader reported on the Byrds demonstrating how "sitar-like sounds" could be played on guitar by tuning the standard E strings down to D; this allowed the guitarist to play in partial open tuning, whereby "the bottom three strings provide the drone sound and the upper strings are bent to play the melody."[23] The term "raga rock" was soon adopted by British music publications such as the New Musical Express and Music Echo.[32] According to Gendron, however, the fusion of Indian and Western sounds continued to be treated with disdain by writers from the American cultural press, who viewed the new subgenre as part of the consolidation of folk rock.[33]

Peak popularity and impact

In May 1966, the Rolling Stones issued the raga rock single "Paint It Black",[34] which featured a sitar part played by guitarist Brian Jones and became an international number 1 hit.[35] The Beatles' forays in the subgenre continued with "Love You To",[36] which Harrison wrote especially for sitar and tabla interplay, and "Tomorrow Never Knows". Both songs featured a heavy tambura drone, as well as Western instrumentation in the psychedelic style, and were released on the album Revolver in August 1966.[37] That same month, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band further elevated the concept of Indian-influenced rock music with the title track of their album East-West. Led by guitarist Mike Bloomfield, the 13-minute instrumental fully explored the modal improvisation introduced by McGuinn on "Eight Miles High".[38] Bloomfield likened the Indian drone to "the sound a bee makes: a steady hum" and said that while the pattern was essentially simple, the "challenge" was in "improvis[ing] a free melody around the one basic drone".[23] Having been accepted as a student by Shankar in June 1966, Harrison travelled to India for intensive sitar study in September.[39] Harrison's championing of Indian culture further popularised the trend among Western musicians and, in Schaffner's description, earned him the sobriquet "the maharaja of raga-rock".[40]

During the height of the subgenre's popularity that year, Indian musicians also contributed to its development.[41] Released on the World Pacific record label in June,[42] the Folkswingers' Raga Rock album featured Harihar Rao, a Los Angeles-based sitarist[43] and ethnomusicologist, accompanied by jazz musicians and members of the Wrecking Crew.[44][nb 2] A September 1966 issue of Life magazine reported on the growth of the raga rock trend in association with the proliferation of psychedelic-themed shops in San Francisco and New York.[1] Acts such as Donovan, the Moody Blues, Them, the Doors, the Pretty Things and Traffic also recorded in the raga rock style,[12] as did the Hollies.[48]

In his article for Crawdaddy!, Pearlman identified two categories of contemporary raga rock songs: those that merely adopted Indian sounds as an exotic feature, such as "Norwegian Wood", "Paint It Black" and Donovan's Sunshine Superman track "Three King Fishers"; and recordings that incorporated aspects of Indian music in their compositional form, such as "Eight Miles High" and Donovan's "The Trip".[2] Davies' second raga rock song with the Kinks, "Fancy", from 1966's Face to Face album, again used chord changes minimally, but sufficient to keep the composition identifiable as Western pop.[49] By contrast, Harrison adhered to the authentically Indian, single-chord form in "Love You To" and "Within You Without You", released on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in June 1967, and both songs were arranged in a Hindustani classical structure,[50] with distinct alap, gat and drut gat sections.[51][nb 3] He also incorporated a wide range of Indian instrumentation by 1967, with sitar, tambura, tabla, dilruba and swarmandal,[52] and later on, sarod, shehnai, bansuri and pakhavaj.[53]

One of Crosby's final songs with the Byrds, "Mind Gardens", from the 1967 album Younger Than Yesterday, incorporated drone and raga rock ambience,[54] including vocals that evoked the khyal tradition of Hindustani classical music.[55] The Doors closed their self-titled 1967 album with "The End",[38] an 11-minute piece in the raga rock style.[56] In author Peter Lavezzoli's description, guitarist Robbie Krieger successfully conveyed "the brooding quality of the darker ragas" in his contribution to "The End", by first creating a drone on plucked open-tuned strings while also playing a motif in the manner of a sitar or veena, and then, towards the climax of the song, adopting the Indian jhala style, with rapid strumming alternating with the melody line.[38]

Further examples of the subgenre in 1968 were the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man", with its use of tambura and shehnai over distorted acoustic rhythm guitars,[57] and Harrison's final Indian-style composition for the Beatles, "The Inner Light",[36] which he recorded in January with Indian classical musicians in Bombay.[58][59][nb 4] These Bombay sessions also yielded Harrison's first solo album, a raga rock soundtrack to the 1968 film Wonderwall, titled Wonderwall Music.[61][62] Music journalist Chris Ingham has noted Wonderwall Musics influence on the later raga rock sound of 1990s indie band Kula Shaker.[63] According to Bellman, the musical exploration evident in raga rock over 1965-67 was largely replaced by a formulaic approach in 1968.[64] He cited the Moody Blues' July 1968 release In Search of the Lost Chord as a work that combined the now-familiar sounds of sitar and tabla with an album-wide concept that reinforced the perceived connection between LSD and Transcendental Meditation (TM), following the Beatles' and Donovan's public endorsement of TM guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.[65]

1970s and beyond

From 1969 and though the early 1970s, the British progressive rock band Quintessence mixed elements of Indian classical music with rock and jazz.[66]Ananda Shankar (a nephew of Ravi Shankar) released his self-titled album in 1970, a raga rock work[67] that blended sitar with Moog synthesizer.[68] Later in the decade, guitarist John McLaughlin and his band Shakti introduced a jazz-influenced version of raga rock over the course of three albums.[69]

In the 1990s, the British indie rock group Cornershop began to assimilate Asian instruments such as the sitar and dholki into their music, culminating with their 1997 album When I Was Born for the 7th Time.[70] The album, which fused Indian music with rock, funk, hip hop and country music, featured the UK number 1 single "Brimful of Asha" (itself a tribute to Indian singer Asha Bhosle) and a cover of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" sung entirely in Punjabi.[70][71] In 1996, the British rock group Kula Shaker had top 10 raga rock hits with "Tattva" and "Govinda", both of which included Sanskrit lyrics. The band continued to introduce raga rock material into their repertoire, including "Song of Love/Narayana", which lead singer Crispian Mills had also sung on the Prodigy's 1997 album The Fat of the Land.[72]The Brian Jonestown Massacre released the albums Their Satanic Majesties' Second Request in 1996 and Give It Back! in 1997, both of which contained Indian and psychedelic rock influences.

Recently, a revival of sorts has been heralded by Western bands such as the Black Angels and the Brian Jonestown Massacre and Indian bands such as the Raghu Dixit Project, Agam and Swarathma, with an increasing blend of Western instruments with the traditional Indian ones - the flute and the sitar.

Lyrical themes and Orientalism

Some scholars approach raga rock and other uses of non-Western musical materials in Western popular music from sociological perspectives, especially as a manifestation of Orientalism. Common lyrical themes include drug use, sexual exploration, and spirituality.

"Eight Miles High" was the subject of radio bans in the United States due to its interpretation as an LSD song in which "high" referred to drug-induced euphoria.[26][73] "Love You To" reflected countercultural ideology[74] and, according to music critic Kenneth Womack, advocated hedonistic and carnal pursuits,[75] while John Lennon's lyrics in "Tomorrow Never Knows" were taken from the book The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead by Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner.[76] Partly under Shankar's guidance, Harrison channelled the teachings of the Hindu Vedas into his lyrics for "Within You Without You",[77] providing a message that also served as the ethos behind the 1967 Summer of Love.[78] Bellman writes that "the Kinks' use of eastern musical influences to allude to personal and sexual matters is directly in keeping with historical uses of exoticism as signifier for forbidden sexuality."[79] Bellman and other scholars suggest that, through raga rock, the Orient once again becomes a Western fantasy land, mediated to mass culture audiences of the mid- and late twentieth century through rock and roll.

See also


  1. ^ Writing in 1988, musicologist Gerry Farrell said the recognition afforded the Beatles for changes in the musical landscape during the 1960s was because their popularity and influence was such that they represented "a kind of spirit-level of pop music". He also wrote: "Attempts at fusions with Indian music, especially with jazz, go back to the late fifties but it took the Beatles and a media which had a seemingly insatiable hunger for all that band's activities to catapult Indian music to the forefront of public awareness and, briefly, makes the sit?r a common feature of popular culture in the West."[22]
  2. ^ Raga Rock included cover versions of "Norwegian Wood", "Paint It Black",[41] "Eight Miles High"[45] and the Yardbirds' "Shapes of Things", among other contemporary rock songs.[44] Rao was a longstanding associate of Shankar[46] and briefly taught Brian Jones the sitar.[47]
  3. ^ Pearlman nevertheless categorised "Love You To" among the songs in which an Indian influence was more decorative than an intrinsic part of the composition.[2]
  4. ^ Harrison's songwriting and guitar playing continued to be shaped by Indian music, however. A raga influence was evident in his 1967 song "It's All Too Much", released two years later on the Beatles' Yellow Submarine soundtrack album.[60]


  1. ^ a b Life staff (9 September 1966). "Psychedelic Art". Life. p. 68. Retrieved 2017.
  2. ^ a b c Pearlman, Sandy (December 1966). "Patterns and Sounds: The Uses of Raga in Rock". Crawdaddy. Available at pastemagazine.com (9 June 2015). Retrieved 11 July 2017.
  3. ^ Schaefer, John (1987). New Sounds: A listener's Guide to New Music. New York City: HarperCollins. p. 115. ISBN 0-06097-081-2.
  4. ^ Chapman, Rob (2015). Psychedelia and Other Colours. London: Faber and Faber. ISBN 0-57128-200-8.
  5. ^ Echard 2017, p. 32.
  6. ^ Santoro 1991, p. 13.
  7. ^ Echard 2017, pp. 31, 32, 35.
  8. ^ Strong, Martin C (2004). The Great Rock Discography (7th ed.). Edinburgh: Canongate Books. p. 1707. ISBN 1841955515.
  9. ^ a b Miller 2003, p. 3.
  10. ^ a b Bellman 1998, pp. 294-95.
  11. ^ Brend 2005, pp. 144-45.
  12. ^ a b Jackson 2015, p. 256.
  13. ^ MacDonald 2005, pp. 144fn, 165fn.
  14. ^ Halpin, Michael (3 December 2015). "Rubber Soul - 50th Anniversary of The Beatles Classic Album". Louder Than War. Retrieved 2019.
  15. ^ Gassman, David (17 March 2017) [12 November 2009]. "25 Classic Beatles Songs: 10. Ticket to Ride". PopMatters. Retrieved 2019.
  16. ^ Bellman 1998, p. 297.
  17. ^ Lavezzoli 2006, p. 173.
  18. ^ Lavezzoli 2006, p. 171.
  19. ^ Brend 2005, pp. 146, 147, 154.
  20. ^ Schaffner 1978, p. 66.
  21. ^ a b c Gendron 2002, p. 345.
  22. ^ Farrell, Gerry (May 1988). "Reflecting Surfaces: The Use of Elements of Indian Music in Popular Music and Jazz". Popular Music. 7 (2): 189.
  23. ^ a b c Priore 2007, p. 82.
  24. ^ Lavezzoli 2006, pp. 155-56, 157.
  25. ^ "Pop Chronicles: Show 35 - The Rubberization of Soul: The Great Pop Music Renaissance". University of North Texas. Retrieved .
  26. ^ a b Lavezzoli 2006, p. 156.
  27. ^ Prendergast 2003, p. 229.
  28. ^ Lavezzoli 2006, pp. 155-56, 159.
  29. ^ Hjort 2008, pp. 88-89.
  30. ^ Bellman 1998, p. 351.
  31. ^ a b Hjort 2008, p. 88.
  32. ^ Hjort 2008, p. 89.
  33. ^ Gendron 2002, pp. 189, 345.
  34. ^ Schaffner 1982, p. 69.
  35. ^ Lavezzoli 2006, pp. 174-75.
  36. ^ a b Schaffner 1978, p. 68.
  37. ^ Lavezzoli 2006, pp. 175-76.
  38. ^ a b c Lavezzoli 2006, p. 158.
  39. ^ Lavezzoli 2006, pp. 176-78.
  40. ^ Schaffner 1978, pp. 63, 65-66.
  41. ^ a b Brend 2005, p. 152.
  42. ^ Tiegel, Eliot (2 July 1966). "The Jazz Beat". Billboard. p. 20. Retrieved 2017.
  43. ^ Brend 2005, p. 151.
  44. ^ a b Unterberger, Richie. "The Folkswingers Raga Rock". AllMusic. Retrieved 2017.
  45. ^ Hjort 2008, p. 94.
  46. ^ Lavezzoli 2006, pp. 294-95.
  47. ^ Brend 2005, pp. 151-52.
  48. ^ Everett 1999, p. 40.
  49. ^ Bellman 1998, pp. 295-96, 303.
  50. ^ Bellman 1998, pp. 294, 295.
  51. ^ Lavezzoli 2006, pp. 175, 178.
  52. ^ Bellman 1998, p. 294.
  53. ^ Lavezzoli 2006, p. 183.
  54. ^ Rogan 1998, pp. 196-202.
  55. ^ Lavezzoli 2006, p. 159.
  56. ^ Borgzinner, Jon (18 August 1967). "How a Shy Pandit Became a Pop Hero". Life. p. 36. Retrieved 2019.
  57. ^ Schaffner 1982, p. 77.
  58. ^ Everett 1999, p. 153.
  59. ^ Lavezzoli 2006, pp. 182-83.
  60. ^ Editors of Rolling Stone (2002). George Harrison by the Editors of Rolling Stone. New York City: Simon & Schuster. p. 187. ISBN 0-743-23581-9.CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
  61. ^ Lewisohn, Mark (1992). The Complete Beatles Chronicle. New York City: Pyramid Books. p. 279. ISBN 1-855-10021-5.
  62. ^ Schaffner 1982, p. 301.
  63. ^ Ingham, Chris (2003). The Rough Guide to the Beatles. London: Rough Guides/Penguin Random House. p. 162. ISBN 1-84353-140-2.
  64. ^ Bellman 1998, p. 301.
  65. ^ Bellman 1998, pp. 299-302.
  66. ^ Eder, Bruce. "Quintessence Biography". AllMusic. Retrieved .
  67. ^ Priore 2007, p. 151.
  68. ^ Pruett, Jon. "Ananda Shankar Ananda Shankar". AllMusic. Retrieved 2019.
  69. ^ Huey, Steve. "John McLaughlin Biography". AllMusic. Retrieved .
  70. ^ a b Hyder, Rehan. (2004). Brimful of Asia: Negotiating Ethnicity on the UK Music Scene. Ashgate Publishing Limited. p. 7. ISBN 0-7546-4064-7.
  71. ^ Gopinath, Gayatri. (2005). Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures. Duke University Press. p. 40. ISBN 0-8223-3513-1.
  72. ^ Hyder, Rehan. (2004). Brimful of Asia: Negotiating Ethnicity on the UK Music Scene. Ashgate Publishing Limited. p. 62. ISBN 0-7546-4064-7.
  73. ^ Rogan 1998, pp. 158-62.
  74. ^ Harris, John (2003). "Cruel Britannia". Mojo Special Limited Edition: 1000 Days of Revolution (The Beatles' Final Years - Jan 1, 1968, to Sept 27, 1970). London: Emap. p. 41.
  75. ^ Womack 2007, p. 140.
  76. ^ Lavezzoli 2006, p. 175.
  77. ^ Lavezzoli 2006, pp. 177-79.
  78. ^ Womack 2007, pp. 176-77.
  79. ^ Bellman 1998, p. 304.


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