George Harrison wrote this song and was the only Beatle to perform on it. The song is about how the answers are inside us, so we have to look within to find them. We can go to the mountaintop searching to find our truths, but that won't do any good if we're not searching within.
It's also a reminder of our mortality and our place in the Universe, summarized in the last line: "Life flows on within you and without you."
An outlier on the Sgt. Pepper
album, this song features Indian instruments played by Harrison and members of the Asian Music Circle, a collective in England that helped Harrison learn about Indian music. Harrison took an interest in Indian music when he was exposed to it on set in a restaurant scene from the 1965 Beatles move Help!
. He bought a sitar that he played on the 1965 Rubber Soul
track "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
," and then came under the tutelage of Ravi Shankar. Harrison used a sitar to write the 1966 Beatles song "Love You To
," which was influenced by Indian music but also incorporated guitars and Western forms. "Within You Without You" was his first song to fully embrace Indian music and also to explore Eastern religion, which became a lifelong quest. Harrison believed in reincarnation, which helped him accept death in 2001 when he lost his life to cancer.
Harrison wrote this as a 30-minute piece that he trimmed down for the album. Speaking with Timothy White in 1992, he explained how he put the song together: "That was quite a complicated one at the time because it was done in three sections, and then I edited the three sections together. It had a solo instrumental in a 5/4 kind of tempo, which was very unusual. I suppose Dave Brubeck was the only person who ever played out of 4/4 or 3/4. See, this is the thing: In Western music, basically the tempo goes 4/4 or 3/4, and that's it. In Indian music they have 108 rhythm cycles, and they can even play in things like 7½. [Laughs.] It's quite complex, but I did learn this little piece, one of my exercises that I used to practice, that was in a 5/4 timing. So I did the solo in 'Within You Without You' into a 5/4, just to show how clever I was."
Harrison based this song on a piece by Ravi Shankar, who helped teach him the sitar. Harrison wrote his own lyrics and shortened it considerably.
The laughter at the end was Harrison's idea to lighten the mood and follow the theme of the album. Some people thought it indicated that the song was included on Sgt. Pepper as a joke.
This was the only song Harrison wrote that made it onto the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
album. He also contributed "Only A Northern Song" (recorded in February of 1967 as verified by the Anthology 2
album), but it was left off the album at the last minute. It was initially intended to go on the first side of Sgt. Pepper
between "She's Leaving Home
" and "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite."
Adrian - Wilmington, DE
Harrison would sometimes quote this song when talking about friends who died, as he believed they were still with us, just not physically. On the TV show Aspel & Company in 1988, he said this about John Lennon:
"I think it's unfortunate the way he went out, but it doesn't really matter. He's okay, and life flows on within you and without you."
In 1989, he said this when speaking to MTV news about Roy Orbison, his bandmate in the Traveling Wilburys who had recently passed on:
"We love Roy, and we still do, and he's out there really, his spirit. Life flows on within you and without you, and he's around in his astral body."
In 2007, Oasis covered this for the BBC to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Other artists to cover the song include Sonic Youth and Patti Smith.
In the 2011 documentary The Material World, Sir George Martin says: "'Within You Without You' was not a commercial song by any means. But it was very interesting. [George Harrison] had a way of communicating music by the Indian system of kind of a separate language... the rhythms decided by the tabla player."