The Sitar

In that weird gray zone where American popular taste comingled with “ethnic” music, anything – even sitars – could happen. It may have been the Beatles who introduced it to the popular consciousness, but it took the muscle of the American record industry to so effectively turn the sitar into a cliché.

The sitar signified India, which, to a teenaged demographic, signified, of course, drugs.  But the sitar was a democratic cliché, if nothing else – for a brief year or two, it could be spotted droning away in the background of albums of everyone from Sammy Davis, Jr. to easy-listening maestro Jackie Gleason.  Thus briefly assuring these same teenagers’ parents that they, too, were still relevant.

1. Beautiful, Walters’ Dream (Cyclops)
Notorious Los Angeles-based producer and impresario Kim Fowley came to London in 1967 and managed to insert himself behind the controls for the first recordings of future jazz-rock eggheads the Soft Machine, then darlings of the nascent London psychedelic music scene. Sneaking the tapes back to Los Angeles, Fowley released two of these songs – under the fabricated name Beautiful – on the one-off Cyclops label.

Upshot being that no matter the duplicity involved, no matter how rudimentary the playing, the American public was going to get its sitars.

2. The Love Sitars, Paint It Black (Soul Galore)
Straight from the end sequence of The Party to you, this version of “Paint It Black” proved that uniting two cultural vectors of ’60s Pop America – rock ‘n’ roll and sitars – was no harder than coming up with the right font for your label.

No conclusive information on the Love Sitars. Their name pretty much tells you everything you need to know, though: it seems to have been the work of studio musicians from Los Angeles. No other city in the ’60s could knock out a few ersatz notes with such complete conviction.

3. The Punjabs, Raga-Riff (Prince)
This scrappy twenty-five watts of sitar power is a personal favorite of this lost sub-genre.  Whose heart wouldn’t race when they see “Sitar with Orchestra” printed on a record label?

It’s pretty easy to speculate on the story of “Raga-Riff.” Written and recorded in a day or two, casually handed out to some turned-on Los Angeles deejays. Played once and, like  fur vests, locked away in storage and forgotten about.

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17 Responses to The Sitar

  1. Blanca says:

    The Love Sitars cover of “Paint It Black” is great. Only L.A. could strip the significance and authenticity of sitars and not only Americanize, but make it mainstream pop-licious. Maybe it’s not a result of the city, but the nature of studio musicians homogenizing any sound. This vaguely reminds me of how in the late 90’s rap sampled Punjabi traditional songs to the same effect in the case of Jay-Z.

  2. Darn tootin’ – my personal feeling is that the sitar is most commonly heard (in a “new” context, at least) in sample form. God bless pop music, and those who make it.

    Oh, I forgot to mention: I LOVE the sound of the sitar.

  3. Tim says:

    hey dan,

    as a kid who liked to read the cereal box while he was eating the cerea, I have simple request: is it possible to make the quicktime track another pop-up windown so that i can read your entry about the song while i listen to it? sorry to be such a persnicketer.

  4. God bless you & your cereal, Tim (and Okay Mountain, too); I’m guessing that you’re either at a Mac – or a PC with Quicktime installed (in which case Quicktime will open in the browser window)? If it’s the latter, you should save the mp3 to your hard-drive, and, from the hard-drive, in its “Properties” (when you right-click on the mp3 file), click on the “Change” button (next to “Opens with:”) and select Windows Media Player. Windows Media Player will open future mp3’s as a separate application, thus allowing for magick cereal box experience of youth.

    Or something like that, at least. I’m not really a computer guy, though, mind you – and I’m stuck with PC’s, too.

  5. Blanca says:

    I can save these mp3s from office naps on my computer Dan?? It’s like I was deaf, and you helped me hear, then I was blind and you might wave your hands and voila, I have sight. No wonder you are blessing the world around you!

  6. Max says:

    What a FANTASTIC blog! Thanks for some great songs.

  7. Larry Grogan says:

    Great post! I love the wall of sound on ‘Walters Dream’. The Punjabs 45 is very cool too.

  8. ZubZub says:

    Hey, great post and blog!
    I picked up the Punjabs single a few years ago and played it once before filing it and then moving. Was on my list to rip and you’ve saved me the trouble.
    Thanks and keep up the good work!

  9. Thomas says:

    Sitars…not just for Ravi Shankar anymore.

  10. Anonymous says:

    walter’s dream is amazing. how come soft machine isn’t as good as this? maybe it’s because they constitanly count to 4 and not 3 or 2 or 1. blast off! enjoy your trip to space.

  11. Good question, and I agree – the Soft Machine just weren’t very good. I think the fact they were jazz enthusiasts and naturally liked to make things, you know, more complicated had something to do with it. Oh well. The idea of mixing jazz and rock probably seemed like a good idea to them at the time.

  12. Tooley says:

    Soul Galore was a label operated from LA by bootlegger / record producer Simon Soussan in the 70s. Most of the releases were illegal represses of rare 60s soul 45s or his own synth cover versions of tunes popular in the UK at that time.

  13. Yeah, I later discovered similar info on the internet! (About Soul Galore/Simon Soussan.) Gotta say I was somewhat disappointed to learn that this was a bootleg or some sort of edited repress. Though I suppose that it only adds to the overall weirdness factor.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Wait a second…I have a fur vest and you’re saying I should put it away? No! I think the Sonny Bono look is coming back. I love the sitar rock posts. Keep ’em coming!

  15. Mitch K. says:

    I love what you’re doing on this site, including your colorful introductions for each song. Keep ’em coming!

  16. Napalm69 says:

    The Punjabs tune is great! Very amature sitar playing but the beat is infectious! I love the fact that it doesn’t sound like it’s being played by serious session musicians like so much of the sitar instros that we here. Cheers!

  17. Martin says:

    thanks for ths great blog! btw. the Paint it Black vers. is the same that was released as the Folkswingers (feat. Harihar Rao on Sitar) on the LP Raga Rock

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