George Harrison’s interest in Indian music began in 1965; in December of that year he can be heard playing a sitar on ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’. His interest in the sitar had been provoked during the filming of HELP!, during which The Beatles shot a scene in an Indian restaurant. Shortly after the filming was completed, and while the Beatles were in Los Angeles for their American tour, George met the Byrds who urged him to listen to an album by Ravi Shankar called Portrait of a Genius. According to George, “I put it on and it hit a certain spot in me that I can’t explain, but it seemed very familiar to me.”
Later George met Shankar in London and in mid September 1966 he flew to Bombay where he stayed at the Taj Mahal Hotel and spent most of the next month taking sitar lessons from the Indian master musician. In March 1967 George and four Indian musicians from the London Asian Music Circle recorded ‘Within You, Without You’ that featured on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The offer of the Wonderwall soundtrack project to George came from Joe Massot, the film’s director, who had met the Beatles on the set of Help! He had originally wanted the Bee Gees to compose the music for his film about a lonely professor, played by Irish actor Jack McGowan, who catches sight of and then becomes obsessed by his beautiful neighbour, a Vogue model by the name of Penny Lane, played by Jane Birkin. After the Bee Gees declined in October 1967 George was asked to write the music.
Given complete artistic freedom to compose whatever he wanted George grabbed the chance to further educate western audiences about Indian music. He wrote music for various Indian instruments including the oboe-like shehnai, the sarod, similar to a lute, the santoor, a type of hammered dulcimer with up to 100 strings and naturally the sitar. He also wrote more traditional rock and pop based music to complete the soundtrack.
George collaborated with John Barham, a classically trained pianist and musical arranger, who transcribed what Harrison sang to him, like George, Barham also had a love of Indian classical music. According to George, "I had a regular wind-up stopwatch and I watched the film to 'spot-in' the music with the watch. I wrote the timings down in my book, then I'd go to [the recording studio], make up a piece, record it.
The studio was Abbey Road and the recording of Wonderwall Music began on 22 November 1967, with some additional sessions at De Lane Lea Studios. In January 1968 George went to Bombay and recorded the remainder of the Indian music at HMV Studios. The studios were primitive compared to London and on some tracks, including ’In the Park’, you can faintly hear traffic noise from the street below the studio. While in Bombay George also recorded the backing track to ‘The Inner Light’, which became the B-side of The Beatles' single, ‘Lady Madonna’. Returning to England for final over dubbing, everything was finished by 15 February, when George and John Lennon and their wives went to India for a transcendental meditation course with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Besides the Indian musicians and John Barham, the principal Western musicians on the soundtrack were the Remo Four, a Liverpool group that were also managed by Brian Epstein. The quartet was guitarist, Colin Manley, Tony Ashton on keyboards, Phillip Rogers on bass and drummer, Roy Dyke; Manley was a classmate of Paul McCartney at school. Ashton and Dyke would later join forces with guitarist Kim Gardner, who had been in The Creation and then The Birds with Ronnie Wood, to form Ashton, Gardner and Dyke. Later still Ashton joined with Ian Paice and Jon Lord after the break-up of Deep Purple in 1977 to form Paice Ashton Lord.
Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton play on ‘Ski-ing’, while Peter Tork of the Monkees, plays banjo. Eric Clapton, who plays the fuzzy blues guitar riff on the track was still in Cream and his involvement with the project was his first with George, though there would of course be many more. Harmonica player, Tommy Reilly, best known for playing theme tune to BBC television's Dixon of Dock Green made up the contingent of Western musicians.
George attended the premiere of Wonderwall, at the Cannes Film Festival on 17 May 1968. After the film’s producers failed to purchase the rights to the soundtrack George released Wonderwall Music through Apple, becoming the Beatles’ new label’s first album release in November 1968, as well as the first solo album by a member of the Beatles.
The reissue of the newly remastered album in The Apple Years 1968- 1975 box set includes a number of bonus tracks not on the original 1968 release.
You can order the Apple Years boxset from the Official George Harrison store here