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"Across The Universe"

Categories: Beatles songs

The Beatles taking a tea break ca. 1967 (photo shoot)
By the time "Across The Universe" was eventually released on Let It Be, it must have seemed like several million light-years to John Lennon since he'd actually written it.

It had, in fact, been a few months more than two calendar years, in a whole different lifetime: pre-India, pre-White and — of course — pre-Yoko. In the interim, The Beatles had tried to Get Back, then crossed Abbey Road, and finally come to a dead end.

So much for

Nothing's gonna change my world...

Lennon was still 'living' his Life of Cyn at Kenwood when she inadvertently inspired the opening lyric, "going on and about something or other" as he lay across the other side of the cosmos between them in bed one night like any other. Probably wishing to avoid yet another row about nothing, John went quietly downstairs and — more than probably — rolled himself a generously-loaded joint: and then came the words,

Flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup,

which he scribbled down before they could slither wildly away. From the initial pools of sorrow of his stagnant marriage, the waves of joy(nt) carried him to a more positive dimension; at least looking forward, seeing some kind of a future for himself:

They call me on and on, across the universe...

Lennon had long been living more in the Nowhere Land inside his head than any other place, and I reckon it was precisely that state of existence-to-the-end-with-kaleidoscope-eyes-closed which had him so convinced that nothing was gonna change. His deepest desire, or reluctant resignation? Who can say. Whatever the case, he certainly had no way of anticipating the full force of the Ono effect on his Nowhere Plans at that point in time: in just a few months, even the motto was to be turned on its head:

We all want to change the world...

As the sounds of laughter and shades of life thoughts began to fade, John tumbled blindly back to bed — and promptly forgot the whole thing. It wasn't until he stumbled across the paper that it started to come back to him, and he began to try and add a melody.

It was originally recorded in February '68, during the same sessions that yielded "Madonna", "Bulldog" and "The Inner Light". Different sources list radically different personnel credits, reinforcing the fact that the band made numerous attempts at it. John variously played acoustic guitar, electric wah-wah and organ (George Martin also providing some keyboards); with Paul on acoustic and/or piano, and George adding the sitar, tambura and possibly some electric guitar. On early run-throughs, Lennon sang solo. On others, all three of them contributed to the vocal (though I'm fairly sure Ringo must've been joining in off-mike as he was deciding whether to drum, maraca or swarmandal along).

Whatever the combination, the composer remained unhappy with the sound. The fact that he rejected the gorgeously fragile second take, the version on Anthology 2, is pretty indicative of the limitless, undying love he felt for the song: anyone else would surely have been delighted with it. "ATU" is one of the very few compositions which he ever publicly acknowledged as being anything more than garbage.

It was Paul's idea to enlist the vocal services of a couple of the 'Scruffs' — the girls who were always hanging round outside Abbey Road — just to try something different. I bet they still can't really believe it: what a story to tell your grandchildren!

Although 'take eight', one of the 'Scruff Mixes', was made into a mono acetate, John remained unconvinced: so any idea of putting it out on 45 were stalled.

At some point during the proceedings, Spike Milligan popped in for a visit. Spike and George Martin were old pals (George had even been his Best Man) and The Beatles were well-known fans of his surreal Goon Show humour, so I'll wager not much real work got done that day. Spike was actually sniffing round for songs for a charity compilation album he was putting together for the World Wildlife Fund, and was particularly taken with "Across The Universe".

The whole thing then seemed to go on hold. I'm guessing that, as well as all the other little distractions that ensued in '68 (India, The White, Yoko...), John was still not really sure what he wanted to do with the song. He had too much new stuff to get out of his system that it already seemed too old to be included on the double: not to mention the fact that its Maharishi-inspired OM mantra — 'All Glory to Guru Deva' — would've sat a little uncomfortably alongside the sarcy "Sadie". It was then considered as part of the Yellow Submarine EP project: also aborted.

Round the time the band started work on Get Back, early in the new year, Lennon finally agreed to donate it to the wildlife trust. GM stereofied and sped up the acetate, adding a birdsound intro, and a twist from the lyric gave the record its title: No One's Gonna Change Our World was eventually released in December, 1969. This is the version on the British and American Rarities LPs, and on Past Masters (with a different mix on the subsequent Mono edition).

In the meantime, the song continued to meander like an restless wind inside a letterbox through John's opened mind. Several inciting and inviting versions were captured at Twickenham, solo and accompanied. When — over a year later — it was decided that one of them would be included in the movie, it became evident that the song should also form part of the soundtrack album.

Shortly after the wildlife release, Glyn Johns descruffed the acetate, though left it at the faster tempo, for intended inclusion on Get Back. Though the release was ultimately shelved, it was soon (and still is) widely available in bootleg form.

Spector was ghosted in as producer in the early spring of '70, slowing down and otherwise playing with take eight to make his own take nine, then Philling onto that for the version on Let It Be. For what it's worth, I've never personally found the strings 'n' choir to be too intrusive in the PS vision of the universe, having first got to know it via The Blue compilation.

For Naked, 'T-8', at its original tempo (and thus vocal pitch), was re-descruffed. There's a lot of echo on the voice on this mix, and some splendidly weird harmonic effects going off in the background. Whether this was down to the natural AR studio ambience; the ringing acoustic and Indian string vibes setting up their own cosmic resonances; or has been digitally 'enhanced' is an interesting question.

If you're really interested in that kind of question.

It's a question of taste — or maybe of mood. I'm personally hard-pressed to single out a favourite version: for me, it's always the poetry of the broken-light images of the lyric which calls me on and on, across whichever instrumental backdrop.

"Given to me", said Lennon, "It came through like that". What also comes ringing through my open ears, far more clearly than the accompaniment, is his voice on the track; possessing and caressing me with its simultaneous distance and intimacy, never mind what key it was modulated to. A rare and special gift, indeed.

Spector's take it was, however, which became the first song to be beamed into deep space. Mind you, having been converted into a series of electronic pulses in order to do so, it could well classify as yet another remix. It was sent out from NASA's transmitter in Spain in February 2008, with the blessing of both Paul and Yoko, and continues to make its way across the galaxy — if not the universe — towards The North Star. While not precisely a million suns, Polaris is a multiple star; and with the song traveling at a speed of around 186,000 miles per second, it can hardly be said to be drifting or meandering, either.

To date, no extraterrestrial comment on the production has been received.

Jai Guru Deva
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