George Harrison wrote this song and sang lead. It was released as the B-side of "Lady Madonna
" and was Harrison's first song to appear on a single.
It's the last in a series of Beatles songs Harrison wrote that were influenced by Indian music and Eastern philosophy, following "Love You To
" from Revolver
(1966) and "Within You Without You
" from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
The lyrics are a translation of a section of the Tao Te Ching, a sacred Chinese text dating back 2000 years that was written by Lao Tsu, a contemporary of Confucius. The text is a rendering of Tsu's accumulated wisdom; it forms the basis for much of Chinese thought and philosophy, focused on the spiritual aspect of life.
There are 81 short chapters of Tao Te Ching. "Inner Light" is the title of Chapter 47, which translates to:
Without going outside, you may know the whole world
Without looking through the window, you may see the ways of heaven
The farther you go, the less you know
Thus the sage knows without traveling
He sees without looking
He works without doing
Harrison's lyric tweaked the translation a bit for clarity and sound. The biggest change he made was repeating these lines to reinforce the central theme:
The farther one travels
The less one really knows
This song has a similar theme to "Within You Without You," which is that we must look inside ourselves for enlightenment.
None of the Beatles played on this track; all the music was recorded by Indian session musicians at the EMI studios in Bombay, India, while Harrison was working on the soundtrack to the movie Wonderwall. Harrison come up with the tune based on how the lyric made him feel; he took the recording back to England, where his lead vocal was added along with John Lennon and Paul McCartney's backing vocals.
Instruments used on this track include harmonium, shehnai, tabla, sarod, and flute.
Harrison was introduced to the Tao Te Ching chapter that formed the lyric by Juan Mascaro, a Sanskrit teacher at Cambridge University. In October 1967, Harrison and John Lennon appeared on David Frost's TV show, where they discussed Transcendental Meditation. Mascaro was also on the panel and sent Harrison a copy of his book Lamps Of Fire, a compilation of ancient religious texts translated into English. Mascaro noted the "Inner Light" section, suggesting it could be a good lyric.
The original release was in mono; a stereo version was mixed in 1970 and used on the Past Masters compilation. The mono mix features an extra Indian instrument in the intro that did not make it to the stereo version.
Jeff Lynne from Electric Light Orchestra performed this at George Harrison's 2002 memorial show The Concert For George. Lynne was good friends with Harrison and played with him in The Traveling Wilburys.
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