Some years ago as I browsed the racks in a record store, I overheard a couple of teenagers talking about an album.  “Who’s this?” one of the lads asked his friend who looked up at the Long Play record he was holding.

“Oh, the Beatles,” said the second boy dismissively. “That was Paul McCartney’s band before Wings.”

For someone of my generation such a comment – one that relegated THE BEATLES to the status of just another "early band", of less import than a mediocre 1970s pop group – is reason enough to support blasphemy laws.

I exited the store but not before hurling a barbed look at the youngsters. What had the world come to?

I fear that The Beatles are, year by year, becoming pushed to the margins of Pop Consciousness as Baby Boomers and old rockers go to graveyards every one. Why just a few weeks ago Keith Richards labelled what is generally regarded as the best rock album of all time, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, “rubbish”.

Deep breath. Count to 10. Repeat.

Despite assaults like Richards’ and the teenage Wings nuts, the songs of the Beatles remain some of the most admired and copied of any musical group of the last 50 years.  And this week we focus on one of John Lennon’s truly great moments, Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown), covered by artists as diverse as Waylon Jennings and Tangerine Dream, and some of the South Asians who feature below.

But to set the scene let’s reacquaint ourselves with the original first.

Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
The Beatles

A 1965 ballad from the album Rubber Soul that marks the beginning of a period of arch creativity for the lads from Liverpool, this song is an ode to illicit love, rejection, revenge and dare one admit it, arson. With its rather unusual lyrical context, why is Norwegian Wood among the most admired of the group’s songs? Well, for starters, there’s the unforgettable opening line: (I once had a girl/or should I say/she once had me).

For another thing, the melody is gorgeous, built on Lennon’s lightly strummed acoustic guitar.  The cherry on the cake, though, is the jangling sitar riff plucked by a still uncertain (with the instrument) George Harrison.  Sitar sounds were just breaking into popular music but the Beatles were yet to meet Maharishi or sojourn to India in 1965.  Harrison, looking for a new sound, purchased a cheap sitar from an Indian corner shop on Oxford Road in London and brought it into the studio.  He tinkered with the strings but really knew nothing about how it should be played or what sort of sound it could produce. Lennon hummed the opening line and asked if Harrison could play it "on that thing".  George gave it a go. When take 4 of the song was recorded, it made the final cut.  And so, ladies and gentleman, with this song you hear the birth of "raga rock".

Dil Se Kya Sahi
RD Burman/Manna Dey

It should come as no surprise at all that Hindi cinema’s most adventurous and acquisitive musical director, Rahul Dev Burman, would find a way to lift the essential melodic motif of Norwegian Wood and make it fit seamlessly into one of his own compositions, this time for the 1974 film Imaan. Burman’s inborn genius coupled with the natural need of a son to move out of the shadows of the work and influence of his father, drove RD to consume and cannibalise music from any source.  In this case, his own composition is so simpatico with Lennon’s melody that at first listen you might not even hear The Beatles tune.  So unified is the piece that when Manna Dey slides into the chorus (0.36, 1.55 & 3.11) it seems a mere extension of Burman’s own lilting melody. But it’s not.

Norwegian Wood (Punjabi Version)

Tijender Singh, the Netaji of English pop band Cornershop, regularly collects the door prize for one of the best covers of Norwegian Wood.  Sung in Punjabi with a no frills (read: not straying from the original’s path) arrangement, Cornershop creates something new by paying homage. The sitar figures prominently (though now played, as the times demand, by a lovely woman) as do drums which are far more prominent than in the original.  As we watch a somewhat tentative Singh sing we can’t help but wonder if he is taking the mickey out of the entire "raga rock" thing, or grabbing the baton for the winning lap.  It matters not, for apparently both Sir Paul and John Lennon’s wife have given this wonderful version two thumbs up. As does Sunday Sounds.

Norwegian Wood
Indo Jazz Fusion Group

Damien Prud'homme on flute opens this live track, substituting Lennon’s guitar with crystalline trills before Pandit Deobrat Mishra of Varanasi (sitar) takes up where George Harrison so bravely ventured 50 years ago.  Mishra and tabla-ist, Prashant Mishra, take the simple tune to dizzying heights by way of a mini-raga the power of which is severely undermined by the clash and crash of completely redundant accompaniment on an over-miked drum set. In the end this bird lands (having flown through some rough weather) to the strains of The Beatles original. We can, once again, smile.   Though not entirely successful, Indo-Jazz Fusion group’s rendition, attests to the enduring attraction this wonderful Beatles song has and will continue to have on South Asian musicians.