When was it recorded? Feb. 4, 1968 (or thereabouts)
When was it first released, and on which album? Dec. 12, 1969 on “No One’s Gonna Change Our World” (a compilation album for charity)
Who wrote it? Lennon
Have I heard this song before? One version of it anyway…
What my research dug up:
It’s the second day and I’m already in over my head. That has to be a record of some sort. Also the videos I used can’t decide if they’re being embedded in the page or not, so if all you see are links then just go with it.
Going in to this entry, I thought “Across the Universe” was one of my favorite Beatles songs ever. I thought this could get a bit biased so I did my digging first. Turns out I was swimming in the shallow end of the pond and didn’t notice the drop-off into the frickin’ Marianas Trench until I was swimming a yard away from it.
“Across the Universe” is credited to Lennon-McCartney but was written solely by John Lennon, who believed it to be the best, most poetic song he wrote with the band. Naturally, given his comments in his 1970 Rolling Stone interview about how the words can stand alone, Lennon wrote the lyrics for “Across the Universe” before the music.
“I was lying next to my first wife in bed, you know, and I was irritated. She must have been going on and on about something and she’d gone to sleep and 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 rather than an irritated song; rather than a ‘Why are you always mouthing off at me?’ or whatever, right? … But the words stand, luckily, by themselves. They were purely inspirational and were given to me as boom! I don’t own it, you know; it came through like that. I don’t know where it came from, what meter it’s in, and I’ve sat down and looked at it and said, ‘Can I write another one with this meter?’ It’s so interesting: ‘Words are flying [sic] out like [sings] endless rain into a paper cup, they slither while they pass, they slip away across the universe.’ Such an extraordinary meter and I can never repeat it! It’s not a matter of craftsmanship; it wrote itself. It drove me out of bed. I didn’t want to write it, I was just slightly irritable and I went downstairs and I couldn’t get to sleep until I put it on paper, and then I went to sleep. It’s like being possessed; like a psychic or a medium. The thing has to go down. It won’t let you sleep, so you have to get up, make it into something, and then you’re allowed to sleep. That’s always in the middle of the bloody night, when you’re half awake or tired and your critical facilities are switched off.”– John Lennon (from David Sheff’s “All We Are Saying,” 1980)
Growing up, I always wondered about the hook phrase, “Jai guru deva, om.” Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I now know it comes from a Sanskrit phrase. This phrase has a number of possible interpretations, but the two that came up consistently in my “Across the Universe” search were “Victory to God divine” and “Glory to the spiritual master.” Basically, John was into meditating and this was one of his concentration mantras. (I know I’m oversimplifying things, but let’s be real, you’re not here because you’re writing a research paper or anything. Go read a book if you want more info.)
According to Wikipedia, the song was “heavily influenced by Lennon’s and the Beatles’ interest in Transcendental Meditation in late 1967–early 1968, when the song was composed.” Though is appears on the Beatles’ final album, “Let It Be,” the song first appeared on “No One’s Gonna Change Our World,” a charity album for the World Wildlife Fund. Groovy.
So far, so good, right? I mean, I kind of info-dumped on you, but it wasn’t that confusing. Here’s where it gets sticky.
According to The Beatles Rarity website, “Officially there are five versions of ‘Across The Universe’ by The Beatles.” Unfortunately I don’t currently own a version on CD or digitally. In fact I’d been listening to a video on YouTube set to pictures of solar flares and space shit, so I had no idea what version of the song I was actually listening to. So began my quest – to figure out which “Across the Universe” was which and to figure out which version I had heard and fallen in love with.
“Take 2 – Available now on ‘The Beatles Anthology 2’, this version includes two guitars, a table harp and a tamboura overlaid with a flanging effect and a superb lead vocal by John. It was recorded on February 3, 1968 and marked ‘best.’”
I’ve seen other Beatles fans call the version on “Anthology 2” the definitive version of the song, so I decided to start here.
“Cool,” I thought, “but not the version I knew before now.” On we go.
TWO & THREE
“Original mono mix of the master – This is only found on ‘The Beatles Mono Masters’ double CD that is packaged with the ‘Beatles In Mono’ box set. Recorded mostly on February 4, 1968 with some overdubs added on February 8, 1968. There were plans for it to be a single but later Paul McCartney’s ‘Lady Madonna’ was chosen instead.”
“Wildlife version – The same take used on the master (take 8) but with bird sound effects added on October 2, 1969 for release on the U.K. charity LP ‘No One’s Gonna Change Our World.’ George Martin also sped up the pitch a half step from the original key of D. Currently available on ‘The Beatles Past Masters’ 2-CD set.”
Basically? The mixers sped it up and added bird noises to the beginning. This is the version that appeared on the charity CD compilation.
Another interesting take on the song, but still not the version I was looking for specifically. Moving on…
“Stereo remix of take 7 – This version was mixed for release on the CD ‘Let It Be…Naked’ and pares the song down to John’s vocal and acoustic guitar, some tom-tom from Ringo, and George’s tamboura gliding in at the halfway point. The song fades with a lot of echo.”
That was still not the version I knew, but when I compared all the versions I listened to today, it might be my new favorite. I like the simplicity of the instrumentation because it allows the lyrics to be the focus. Grandiose orchestra can be fun, but there’s something to be said for the no-frills approach.
“LP version – The mix officially released on the ‘Let It Be’ album is the one that Phil Spector mixed with orchestration (cellos, violas, more acoustic guitar, violins, trumpets, trombones and harp). Phil also added backing vocals from a choir and slowed down the song from the key of D to C-sharp.”
…It’s always in the last place you look, isn’t it? This is the version I had been listening to all along. It may not be my favorite version anymore, but it will always have a special place in my Beatles-loving heart.
Remember how the quote I used above said “officially?” Yeah. Since this is The Beatles we’re talking about, of course there are bootlegs of other versions. (Honorable mention to the demo featuring Paul dicking around on backing vocals, which undoubtedly pissed off John.) Someone in the Beatles Bible comment section mentioned “a ‘Super Rare Psychedelic Version’ full of backwards guitars,” which is probably what fans refer to as the Hums Wild bootleg version. I found that one here:
Listening to it kind of hurts my brain, but I like it. I’m not even touching the rest of that website though – I have my hands full enough right now without rarities.