In all honesty, over the last two years I had carefully avoided writing in Raagtime about the genre known as “raga rock”, because I thought it to be territory that was only too inevitable for an Indian classical music column to tread. One recent morning, however, my iTunes shuffled up, in very quick succession, The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood, The Rolling Stones’ Paint it Black, and The Doors’ The End. It was, I thought, a sign, and I bowed to the inevitability.
The phrase “raga rock” was first used by a publicist for The Byrds, to describe their single Eight Miles High, but American music had already used the framework of Indian classical music by the time this shrewd publicist got to work (indeed, Robert Palmer points out in Rock & Roll: An Unruly History that Eight Miles High itself borrows a four-note transition from John Coltrane’s India).
Strains of India: The Doors performing in Frankfurt in 1968. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
The term came to be regarded later as a disparagement—a lazy musician’s technique to exoticize his music; Orientalism at work. But there’s no doubt that some musicians intelligently pulled elements from Indian classical music into their compositions. Even leaving aside the most famous raga rocker—George Harrison—we have the memorable sitar riff underlying Paint it Black, giving the song its frenetic air; we have John McLaughlin and his Mahavishnu Orchestra; and from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, we have guitarist Mike Bloomfield’s blazing improvisations on the scale of Bhairavi in the track East West.
Without question, my favourite example of raga rock is The End, the final track on The Doors’ self-titled album. The End is an ode of psychedelia, winding its forlorn way over nearly 12 minutes of Jim Morrison’s half-slurred, half-wailed Oedipal lyrics. Its tincture of raga comes from Robby Krieger, The Doors’ masterful guitarist. Like many musicians of his time, Krieger nurtured an avid interest in Indian classical music; in 1967, the year after The End was composed, he would even enrol for lessons at Ravi Shankar’s Kinnara School in Los Angeles.
For much of The End, Krieger’s guitar line stays resolutely behind Morrison’s vocals, so it is at its most hypnotic at the very outset of the song, when the lyrics have yet to begin. After a slight shudder of cymbals, and over a tambura-like drone, Krieger launches into the motif he plays with throughout the song: a meditative affair of both plaintive and shaken notes that remind me of the sound of a veena. It’s a simple line, and all the more haunting for its simplicity.
Further towards the song’s climax, Krieger begins to switch rapidly between his melody and his drone; concise licks of sound emerge from his guitar, reminiscent (as Peter Lavezzoli observed in his book Bhairavi) of the jhala style on the sitar. It isn’t just because of Krieger’s expert play, however, that I find The End’s raga rock so compelling. It’s because the guitar line fits so perfectly with the mood of the song, its agility and sobriety setting off Morrison’s air of restrained lunacy. The Indian classicism lends The End a certain grandeur, converting Morrison’s song into an aria of anguish. It’s a terrific effect, and without fail, it has me catching my breath every single time I listen to it.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at email@example.com