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.