The Beatles, “Within You Without You” from Sgt. Pepper’s (1967): Deep Beatles

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It became the track that many listeners skipped on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Indeed, the Beatles’ “Within You Without You” challenged fans with its Indian instrumentation, at that point quite foreign to Western ears. Yet the track has transformed into one of the album’s more intriguing songs, its philosophical lyrics and intricate lead vocal showcasing George Harrison’s astonishingly rapid development as an accomplished singer and songwriter.

Composed on a harmonium after a dinner party hosted by Klaus Voormann, “Within You Without You” represents Harrison’s second full venture into Indian music, the first being “Love You To” from Revolver. In his autobiography I Me Mine, Harrison explained that the tune came first, then the line “we were talking…”

Recording took place on March 15, 1967, with no other Beatles present other than George Harrison. Under the direction of George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick, Harrison and Indian musicians playing such instruments as the sitar, dilruba, tambura, tabla and svarmandal recorded the basic backing track. According to Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, the musicians were uncredited but came from the Asian Music Circle in north London.

As Emerick told Lewisohn, the recording marked a turning point in capturing the tabla on tape. “The tabla had never been recorded the way we did it. Everyone was amazed when they first head a tabla recorded that closely, with the texture and the lovely low resonances,” Emerick explained.

A week later, two more dilrubas (a cross between a violin and sitar) were overdubbed. George Harrison and George Martin largely completed “Within You Without You” on April 3, when Martin conducted eight violinist and three cellists playing a score Martin wrote to Harrison’s specifications. That night, George Harrison recorded his lead vocals, an additional sitar part, and added acoustic guitar.

On April 4, one more important touch was added: the nervous laughter that ends the song. Perhaps anticipating fans’ lack of familiarity with Indian music, Harrison requested that the sound be inserted at the end of the track. According to Lewisohn, Martin, Emerick, and second engineer Richard Lush accomplished the task with the Abbey Road sound effects collection entitled Volume 6: Applause and Laughter. With that, the Beatles’ “Within You Without You” — as well as the Sgt. Pepper recording sessions — was finished.

In addition to the exotic (at least to Western ears) instrumentation, George Harrison’s vocal performance and thoughtful lyrics distinguish “Within You Without You” from other Sgt. Pepper tracks. When Harrison recorded his challenging vocals, Geoff Emerick recalled in his autobiography Here, There, and Everywhere, he requested that the lights be dimmed and the studio be filled with candles and incense. “George tackled the lead vocal, and he did a great job. Mind you, he does sound quite sleepy on it … hardly surprising since he’d been up all night working on the track! Fortunately, that lethargic quality seemed to perfectly complement the mood of the song,” Emerick said.

Indeed, the drowsiness on lines such as “And the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion,” highlights George Harrison’s dismay at those who avoid change and fail to open themselves to love. If we could open our minds and surrender to such love, “we could save the world,” Harrison claims. But as he wails “If they only knew,” he laments those who close their minds to this truth.

George Martin later described the challenges Harrison faced in imitating the dilruba, as the Beatle had to sing “the same tune as the dilruba in exactly the same way; the same kind of swoops that the dilruba does.” Listen for these “swoops” in lines such as “We were talking about the love that’s gone so cold and the people who gain the world and lose their soul.” As his voice dips and soars, Harrison suddenly confronts the listener with the question “Are you one of them?” He briefly pauses, inviting fans to consider this accusation.

Instead of losing oneself to greed and hate, George Harrison concludes, one must realize that we are all connected. “When you’ve seen beyond yourself,” he explains, “Then you may find peace of mind is waiting there.” This thought refers to an earlier section of the Beatles song, when he claims change is possible only when one desires it. To accomplish such change, we must understand our place in the world. We are not rooted at the center of life, but are actually “very small” and instead “life flows on within you and without you.”

Through “Within You Without You,” George Harrison establishes his skills as a songwriter. He challenges the audience through Indian instrumentation and tempos, and invites listeners to reflect on their selfish desires. Eventually, he hopes, “the time will come when you see we’re all one,” but he first encourages us to decide whether we’re among those “who gain the world and lose their soul.” His voice becomes another instrument, expressing despair and, ultimately, optimism. The track foreshadows themes he would explore throughout his solo career on albums such as All Things Must Pass, Living in the Material World, and 33 1/3.

In one of his final interviews, John Lennon stated that “Within You Without You” was one of his favorite George Harrison-penned tracks, and perfectly summarized its strengths: “He’s clear on that song. His mind and his music are clear. There is his innate talent. He brought that sound together.”

As an interesting postscript, “Within You Without You” received renewed attention in 2006 after being featured in the Cirque Du Soleil show Love. Producers George and Giles Martin mashed the track with the earlier Beatles song “Tomorrow Never Knows,” bringing a new dimension and increased power to the Sgt. Pepper song.

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole is a lifelong music enthusiast who maintains a stand-alone music blog called Listen to the Band. In addition, she is the internet columnist and a contributing editor for Beatlefan magazine. She also holds an Ed.D. in Instructional Technology. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Kit O'Toole
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  • Seth Swirsky

    loved this, kit! thank you for the thorough and insightful take on this gorgeous and important song!

  • CoCo Turtle

    “the drowsiness… highlights George Harrison’s dismay”

    Harrison struggled with the vocals, and asked George Martin how to best convey the dismay he felt towards the way some people act.

    “How about drowsiness? Nothing says DISMAY like DROWSINESS.”

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