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Why the Beatles Struggled So Much With ‘Across the Universe’

The Beatles A Day in the Life
John Pratt, Hulton Archive

At the start of February 1968, the Beatles found themselves back in Abbey Road studios after a month-and-a-half break, as work began on their first music of the new year. On Feb. 4, the day after work began on Paul McCartney‘s “Lady Madonna,” sessions took off on a new John Lennon song called “Across the Universe.”

Lennon was uncertain as to how to capture on tape the way he heard the song in his head, according to Mark Lewisohn’s The Beatles Recording Sessions 1962-1970. As recording proceeded, a variety of instruments and techniques were tried, including producer George Martin on organ, Lennon on mellotron and backwards bass and drum tracks before the final vision took shape.

“‘Across the Universe’ was such a superb performance from John,” said engineer Geoff Emerick. “He put so much feeling into the song, and his vocal was just incredible.” At the time, Lennon himself was pleased with the song, if not the recording, telling Rolling Stone in 1970, “It’s one of the best lyrics I’ve written. In fact, it could be the best. It’s good poetry.”

He later told author David Sheff in the book All We Are Saying, “I’d kept hearing these words over and over, flowing like an endless stream. I went downstairs and it turned into sort of a cosmic song.” The general translation of the refrain ‘Jai guru deva,’ is ‘I give thanks to the heavenly teacher.’

Sessions were wrapped up a few short days later on Feb. 8. The original recording features an interesting assortment of instruments including svaramandal, tambura, violas, and cellos, in addition to guitars, bass and drums. “Across the Universe” was going to have been the band’s next single, to be released while they were off on their visit to India.

Ultimately, McCartney’s “Lady Madonna” won out as the A-side, with the George Harrison classic “The Inner Light” on the flip. This left “Across the Universe” in need of a home, which it finally found in late-1969 as part of the World Wildlife Fund charity album, No One’s Gonna Change Our World. That was not, however, the last we’d hear of the song.

“It was a lousy track of a great song and I was so disappointed by it,” Lennon told Sheff.  “The song was never done properly. When Phil Spector was brought in to produce Let It Be, he dug it out and overdubbed it. The guitars are out of tune and I’m singing out of tune cause I’m psychologically destroyed and nobody’s supporting me or helping me with it.”

Both the original and the Spector Let It Be version have their merits, and though it’s hard to say which one wins, there is something about that first one that is missing from the Spectorized version.

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