“Within You Without You” / The Beatles
So you turn over the album and set down the needle on Side 2 – and you get hit straight away with the most far-out sound of all. It’s hard for us now to fully recapture how fresh this song sounded in 1967, before rock ragas were done to death. (George Harrison himself would overwork the vein as much as anybody.) We’d heard the sound already on Revolver, in “Love You To”-- the sitar, the tabla, the alien harmonic intervals. But this mesmerizing track was even lusher and denser, its earnest lyrics even more indebted to Hindu mysticism – “the space between us all,” “the wall of illusion,” “to see you’re really only very small,” “when you’ve seen beyond yourself” . . . it was mind-blowing, man.
This was where George Harrison’s heart was in 1967. He sure wasn’t interested in being a Beatle anymore. Now that they had sworn off live touring, Harrison seemed content just to execute a few guitar licks and exit the studio. Over the past year, he’d been on a spiritual quest, one that began when he first heard Indian music on the set of Help! He’d gone to India to study sitar with Ravi Shankar; he’d plunged into yoga, meditation, and Eastern philosophy. Sgt. Pepper just got in the way. Still, it was expected that there’d be at least one Harrison composition on every album. If he had to do one, at least he’d do it his way.
In the tapestry of varied musical styles that was Sgt Pepper’s, nothing was further from standard rock ‘n’ roll than this number, with its exotic keening and thrumming instruments. None of the other Beatles even played on this track, but an uncredited crew of Indian musicians, fleshed out with a George Martin-arranged string section. This music sounded new and strange – and yet somehow ageless, hinting at ancient mysteries and an entirely different concept of time. (At over five minutes playing time, it’s the album’s second-longest track, after “A Day In the Life” – I have to admit, sometimes it feels longer to me.)
Amidst the theatricalities of the album, “Within You Without You” stands apart as completely sincere. There’s no characters, no incidents, no scene-setting beyond the vague “we were talking.” It doesn’t rhyme; Western song structure goes out the window; lines meander along with as many syllables as they need. It doesn’t have a bit of irony or sarcasm or double-entendre, those old Beatles staples. What is it doing here?
Yet, almost by accident, Harrison’s personal search for Truth fits perfectly into the album’s collection of lost souls yearning for answers. Besides, something numb and narcotized about its hypnotic rhythms and spacey tonal qualities made us certain that this song, too, had to do with drugs. Somehow it melts into the album and BELONGS.
This has never been my favorite Sgt. Pepper track; as rock ragas go, I prefer “Blue Jay Way” from Magical Mystery Tour. But it’s an essential track, the apogee of the album's musical orbit, which will begin to swing homewards from here on out. More than once, I’ve heard this late at night and gotten lost in its mesmeric pulsations, thinking to myself, “Yes, yes -- with our love we could save the world! Life does flow on within you and without you!” For a moment I seem to grasp the secret of all things. It’s a fleeting insight, but . . . well, such is life.