The Long Journey of the Beatles' 'Across the Universe'

Frank Mastropolo
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It is remarkable that John Lennon’s composition “Across the Universe” was once considered not good enough for inclusion on a Beatles studio album.“Nobody was interested in doing the tune originally,” Lennon recalled in Lennon: The Definitive Biography.

“The tune was really good, and I think that, subliminally, people don’t want to work with you sometimes. It got screwed up. That happens… I’ve been the cause of a situation like that too, so it isn’t all one-sided.”

Lennon’s wife Cynthia was the inspiration for the song. “I was lying next to my first wife in bed and I was thinking,” Lennon explained in The Beatles Anthology. “It started off as a negative song and she must have been going on and on about something. 

“She’d gone to sleep and I kept hearing, ‘Words are flowing out like endless streams…’ I was a bit irritated and I went downstairs and it turned into a sort of cosmic song rather than, ‘Why are you always mouthing off at me?’

“The words are purely inspirational and were given to me — except for maybe one or two where I had to resolve a line or something like that. I don’t own it; it came through like that.”

The Beatles’ study with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the late 1960s led to the Sanskrit phrase used in the chorus: “Jai guru deva, om.” The Maharishi’s spiritual master was Guru Dev and the phrase roughly translates as “Long live Guru Dev.” Lennon told Rolling Stone that he recognized how good the song was despite his bandmates’ indifference.

“It’s one of the best lyrics I’ve written. In fact, it could be the best. It’s good poetry, or whatever you call it, without chewin’ it. See, the ones I like are the ones that stand as words, without melody. They don’t have to have any melody, like a poem, you can read them.”

The Beatles recorded the track in February 1968 on a Sunday night at Abbey Road studios. Lennon and Paul McCartney realized they needed high falsetto harmonies. Finding session vocalists at that late hour was impossible so McCartney asked the group of Apple Scuffs — the young fans outside Abbey Road — if any “could hold a high note.”

Teen fans Lizzie Bravo and Gayleen Pease answered yes and were brought into the studio to sing “Nothing’s gonna change my world” many times over the course of two hours.

Lennon lobbied for “Across the Universe” to be released as a single in 1968 but “Lady Madonna” was chosen instead. The song eventually appeared on No One’s Gonna Change Our World, an 11-song album to benefit the World Wildlife Fund.

"Across the Universe" by the Beatles (World Wildlife Fund version)

“It was a lousy track of a great song and I was so disappointed by it,” Lennon recalled in All We Are Saying. “It never went out as The Beatles; I gave it to the Wildlife Fund of Great Britain, and then when Phil Spector was brought in to produce Let It Be, he dug it out of the Beatles files 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 and the song was never done properly.”

“Across the Universe” by the Beatles (produced by Phil Spector)

In a move later criticized by Paul McCartney, Spector incorporated his signature echo effects, “wall of sound” orchestration and a choir to the track. Lennon’s vocals were slowed down and gone were Lizzie and Gayleen’s backing vocals. In Anthology, Lennon said he liked the Spector version.

“I tried to do it again when we were making Let It Be, but anybody who saw the film saw what reaction I got with it when I tried to do it. Finally Phil Spector took the tape, and did a damn good job with it and made a fairly reasonable sound out of it, and then we released it again.”

“Across the Universe” by the Beatles (Let It Be… Naked version)

In 2003, the track was again remixed for the Let It Be… Naked album, with the correct speed restored and most of Spector’s orchestration removed. However, the Spector version from the film remains the best known version of this great track.

Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever and New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make New York Rock, selected by Best Classic Bands as two of the Best Music Books of 2021 and 2022

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Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever and New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make New York Rock, selected by Best Classic Bands as two of the Best Music Books of 2021 and 2022. He is also the author of the What's Your Rock IQ? Trivia Quiz Book series; Ghost Signs: Clues to Downtown New York's Past, winner of the 2021 Independent Publishers Book Award; and Ghost Signs 2: Clues to Uptown New York's Past. Mastropolo is a photographer, and former ABC News 20/20 writer and producer, winner of the Alfred I. DuPont–Columbia University silver baton. His photography is featured in the Bill Graham Rock & Roll Revolution exhibition.

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