Across The Universe

In the studio

The Beatles recorded Across The Universe over three days in early 1968, although an orchestral overdub was added many months later.

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They began on 3 February 1968, recording two takes of the song and a further four on the following day. There was much experimentation with the arrangement as they went along.

Take two, featured on Anthology 2, was temporarily considered the best. Along with the basic rhythm track of acoustic guitar, percussion and tambura, it featured an overdubbed sitar introduction by George Harrison and lead vocals from John Lennon.

The group continued working on the song until settling on take seven, onto which Lennon again taped his lead vocals. He and Paul McCartney then decided that it needed female harmony vocals to sing ‘Nothing’s gonna change my world’ in the chorus, and so McCartney held an impromptu audition among the girls gathered outside Abbey Road.

The girls were Lizzie Bravo, 16, and Gayleen Pease, 17. They were the only Beatles fans ever invited to contribute to a recording session.

There was a whole crowd of girls outside and Paul went out to find a couple of suitable ones. They were so excited. They couldn’t believe they’d actually been invited by Paul not just inside the building but into the studio itself, to sing with The Beatles.
Martin Benge, engineer
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn

After the girls had completed their parts The Beatles taped backwards bass and drums, though these were later wiped. The group also taped three sound effects: 15 seconds of humming, and guitar and a harp-like sound, both to be played backwards. None of these were used.

On 8 February, George Martin added an organ part, and Lennon played piano, though these were both wiped. They were replaced by a wah-wah guitar part played by Lennon, maracas by Harrison and piano by McCartney. Harmony vocals from the three were also recorded.

Although a wonderful group performance, Lennon opted for Across The Universe to remain unused for the time being, allowing Lady Madonna and The Inner Light to make up The Beatles’ next single.

Spike Milligan was attending the 8 February session at the invitation of George Martin, and asked The Beatles if Across The Universe could be included on the WWF charity album he was working on. For that reason, wildlife sound effects were added to the song during a mixing session on 2 October 1969.

The effects came from the Abbey Road collection. The sound of birds twittering and flying and children playing were added to the beginning and end to the song. The song was also sped up a semitone during the mix, from D to E flat.

The WWF version can be heard on the Past Masters album. An approximation of the original mix, unadorned by effects, can be heard on 2003′s Let It Be… Naked.

John Lennon played the song during the Get Back/Let It Be sessions in January 1969, footage of which appeared in the Let It Be film. It was therefore selected for inclusion on the resulting album.

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.
John Lennon
Anthology

The Let It Be album was produced by Phil Spector, a decision Paul McCartney would later speak out against. Spector embellished many of the songs with his trademark echo and excessive instrumentation. In the case of Across The Universe, this involved slowing the song down to D flat and adding an orchestra and choir.

The first eight remixes were done on 23 March 1970, but were only used as guides for the extra musicians. These were recorded on 1 April, the final Beatles session to feature a member of the group: Ringo Starr, who played drums on Across The Universe, The Long And Winding Road and I Me Mine.

The 50 piece orchestra, which included 14 singers, were booked to perform two parts, but Spector had other ideas.

Out of the blue he distributed these extra parts, without intimating that there would be any extra payment. I warned Phil that he’d never get away with it, and of course the orchestra got up and walked out. I worked with these musicians often and knew them well, so I went into the control room, put a wedge under the door and tried to keep out of it. I got home very very late, well after midnight, and took the phone off the hook because I knew Spector would try and call. The moment I put it back Spector was on the line, asking me to return to the studio and continue, which I did. The musicians got their extra payment. This session was on the first of April 1970 – but it was one April Fool’s joke which did not come off.
Peter Bown, engineer
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn

Spector’s treatment of Across The Universe was later cited by Lennon as one of the highlights of the album. He claimed that the maverick producer “worked wonders” on the song, and that Paul McCartney had originally attempted to sabotage the recording.

The Beatles didn’t make a good record of it. I think subconsciously sometimes we – I say ‘we,’ though I think Paul did it more than the rest of us; Paul would… sort of subconsciously try and destroy a great song.

He subconsciously tried to destroy songs, meaning that we’d play experimental games with my great pieces, like Strawberry Fields – which I always felt was badly recorded. That song got away with it and it worked. But usually we’d spend hours doing little detailed cleaning-ups of Paul’s songs; when it came to mine, especially if it was a great song like Strawberry Fields or Across The Universe, somehow this atmosphere of looseness and casualness and experimentation would creep in. Subconscious sabotage. He’ll deny it, ’cause he’s got a bland face and he’ll say the sabotage doesn’t exist. But this is the kind of thing I’m talking about, where I was always seeing what was going on… I began to think, Well maybe I’m paranoid. But it’s not paranoid; it’s absolute truth.

John Lennon, 1980
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

37 responses on “Across The Universe

  1. B,n

    You really need separate list of instruments for each versions, all four official versions are different.

    I am also confused about the organ, on the next page you say it is wiped, why do you list it?

  2. Edward Smegal

    I heard a very strange verson in 1970 on AM radio. The begining and the end had this sound effect that sounded like some weapon from star wars echoing Across The Universe.This version was in the I Am The Walrus flavor. Most important was that before it was given to the world wildlife fund the lyrics were NOTHING GOING TO CHANGE MY MIND.It was an electric version with a LOT of sitars and backwards guitars.The DJ said THIS RECORD IS STOLEN

  3. Joseph Brush

    Hello Edward! You should contact the radio station involved (if you can remember which one) and inquire about this particular version which, according to you, appears to be unique.

  4. William

    If you’re right, Edward, it means that John successfully transformed something domestic into something cosmic, maybe just by the chance of having agreed to do a version for the WWF. How wonderful!

  5. Andrew

    Are you sure John wanted to release this song as a single while they were in India? I always thought John was pushing for Hey Bulldog (recorded during the same group of sessions) to be released over Lady Madonna.

  6. scott

    The song is splendid, but what an incredible mess the Spector version! He turned this etheral, subtle, delicate, so musical harmony into a heavy (screamed) anthum. Only the Past Masters (World Wildlife Fund) version is worse – no wonder John hated it…

    Thank goodness, the Anthology has a decent interpretion, you can relly listen to this song. The Let It Be Naked one is truly enjoyable, light and blue, with a silk-and-honey John voice. A treat. Thank you, sir Paul!

      1. Ivan Eastwood

        To be fair, John would often frequently disagree with himself, then agree again, then come up with another option. He once told Roger Waters that ‘It was a really good little song, there’s lot of…half versions and this version and that version…none of them are right, really’ Waters recorded the song in tribute after Lennon’s murder.

  7. Vonbontee

    I found online a “Super Rare Psychedelic Version” full of backwards guitars; wonder if that’s the same one Edward heard?

    In all, that makes five different versions, and I love ‘em all, even Spector’s. For John to be dissatisfied with the results, no matter which version, was characteristic.

    1. GniknuS

      I think I have the same version, it starts with John saying “you’re right Richie” or something like that and then he laughs and you hear Richie on the drums for a second. It sound’s like Yoko’s harmonizing with him, even though it’s probably just those two girls who sing in the WWF version.

  8. Matt

    The version on Mono Masters is supposedly the version mixed for the Yellow Submarine EP, so why does it have bird sounds that they added after it was chosen for the WWF album?

  9. Mads Nørregård

    The versions on the WWF album, Past Masters,Let it be and Let it be – naked
    are based on the same take from feb.68.
    The lead vocal,the tambura, the acoustic and electric guitar are the same on all versions.The tempo is speeded up one semitone in the WWF and Past Master mix but speeded down again in the Spector (over)produced version from Let it be, Spector omitted George, Pauls and the girls backing vocals and added all the other stuff.The “naked” version kept only Johns vocal and acoustic guitar and George’s tambura. Only the Antology version is a completely different take, probably recorded before the other one.
    Across the Universe was planned to be the A side of the first 1968 Beatles single backed with Lady Madonna. But none of the Beatles were satisfied with the recording. Therefore they tried to rerecord it in Jan. 69. Hey Bulldog was never an option for the single.

  10. Ian

    Does anyone else have an opinion on the “Hums Wild” mix that has been bootlegged over the years? Personally, it’s my favourite version of the song, aside from Take 2 which was released on “Anthology 2.”

  11. CaroleTucson

    I always thought this was John’s best song with the Beatles, even better than Strawberry Fields or A Day In the Life.

    I prefer simple arrangements, and some songs are just made for one voice and a guitar … this is one of them, in my opinion.

  12. jerald

    more of a john lennon song not much of a beatles performance. i prefer paul to be singing duet with john on the chorus…”nothings gonna change my world…” and george on another guitar

  13. Gustavo Solórzano Alfaro

    Four released version based on the same takes. Maybe I´m going deaf or something, but I can´t hear any drums or organ or piano. They tried all this instruments, but all I can hear is double-tracked lead vocals, two acoustic guitars, tone-pedal steel guitar, tamboura, swaramandal, ¿congas? (¿maybe drums with some effects?) and maracas.

    Lewisohn said “harp-like effect”. Maybe that´s the sound, and not a swaramandal at all.

    1. Joe Post author

      It’s a complicated recording, made all the more difficult by the different versions officially released. However, after reading the musicologist Walter Everett’s brilliant The Beatles As Musicians, it seems this is correct:

      Anthology 2: Lennon and McCartney on acoustic guitars, Harrison on tambura, Starr on svaramandal.
      Past Masters: Acoustic guitars, tambura and svaramandal as before. Starr also played a tom tom (heard just before the vocals begin), and organ by Lennon enters with the first chorus. Harrison played the maracas, and George Martin added another organ, both beginning in the fourth bar of the chorus. Harrison played wah-wah guitar, and McCartney added the low ascending piano run in the coda.
      Let It Be: Spector kept Lennon’s vocals and guitar, and Harrison’s maracas and wah guitar and tambura. He added orchestration, and during the recording session Ringo added more drums. The drums are the hardest to hear in each of the versions, particularly on Let It Be’s due to the wall of sound.

  14. Gustavo Solórzano Alfaro

    That book you quoted seems very interesting.

    Lewisohn tells the story pretty diferent: every version comes from the same take, and all guitars were played by John. Ringo on swaramandal? That’s really something new.

    I need another session with four versions to compare with your notes.

    Thanks for the info.

    1. Joe Post author

      I think they are all from the same take, though some of the masters included different elements from the multi-track tapes.

      The instrument I’ve found hardest to make out is the organ. I’m still not convinced it’s there at all.

      1. Rigby's quartet

        The organ is definitely there on Naked, especially audible after about a minute into the track.

        This is an incredibly beautiful song, and I love the pure expressive simplicity of the Naked version. Lennon says the lyrics are his best and that they can stand alone without the music, but my God what a heart wrenching poignant melody! In that regard it ranks with Golden Slumbers, Hey Jude, and Let It Be. And John says he’s out of tune. Big deal, for one note!

  15. Travis

    I guess I’m weird, I think Spector definitely ruined a lot of Let It Be w his unsuitable production, but this is the one MAJOR exception. I completely agree w John, he completely saved this songs from the previous versions. Taking out those awful backing vocals on the chorus by amateur females is crucial, also removing that weird robotic-sounding harmony on “nothing’s gonna change my world”. For once his orchestral arrangements work and dont sound bloated but the true masterstroke was lowering the song a semitone. It adds such warmth to the guitars but ESP John’s voice. This is one of my top 5 Beatles songs but I don’t even like the other versions except Anthology. But that is sorely lacking those beautiful and crucial wah guitars

    1. Mathew

      See I disagree with that last point. I thought lowering the track’s pitch post-recording to C# had the result of making Lennon’s voice sound very disinterested. I think it would’ve been different if they had recorded it in that key to begin with. I liked everything else though, I think the strings and the choir really add to the song. I always wished there was a version of Spector’s mix, but in D or E#.

      For myself, I’ve always felt a great song can exist really in any form.

  16. GeorgeTSimpson

    Does Paul contribute to the let it be and the naked version (and doese he really play acoustic guitar on past masters and anthology). And is there no bass in across the universe? I prefer past masters and anthology version than let it be (orchestra is not as good as the verious indian instruments but better as nothing (naked)). The naked recording is too bored i think

  17. GeorgeTSimpson

    I think I hear a second guitar in let it be and let it be… naked coming in after the intro was played, but maybe it’s just an automatically double_tracked guitar or there is no second guitar on these two versions. But I’m quite sure that Paul’s piano run is still audible in the Let It Be version, it is quite prominent in th outro

  18. carlos gutman

    “Across the universe” (undoubtly one of my favourites no matter which version) came up in a time when the Beatles were thinking to get back to their rock¨n´roll origins (that´s the reason why the song chosen for the first 1968 single was “Lady Madonna”), it just didn´t fit even for John (but I wonder why “The inner light” which was really a psichodelic song was included in the B side). “Hey bulldog” was essentially conceived for the film “Yellow submarine”

  19. Bill

    Back in the days of variable-speed turntables (still got mine & still use it), I would speed up or slow down this song, depending on whether I was playing the Let It Be version or the US Rarities version. I always liked the song a lot, but neither arrangement sat well with me. Years later, the outtake comes out on Anthology 2 & I was blown away. For me, that’s the definitive version.

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