Released: 12 December 1969
John Lennon: vocals, backing vocals, acoustic rhythm guitar, organ
Paul McCartney: backing vocals, acoustic guitar, piano
George Harrison: backing vocals, electric guitar, tambura, maracas
Ringo Starr: drums, percussion, svaramandal
George Martin: Hammond organ
Lizzie Bravo: backing vocals
Gayleen Pease: backing vocals
Uncredited: 18 violins, four violas, four cellos, harp, three trumpets, three trombones, two guitarists, 14 choristers
Although best known as a track on 1970’s Let It Be album, ‘Across The Universe’ was recorded in early 1968 and first released on a World Wildlife Fund album the following year.
It was John Lennon’s first composition to be recorded by The Beatles since ‘I Am The Walrus’ five months earlier. The words were written before the music, and came to Lennon in the early hours one morning at his home in Kenwood.
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.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
Part of the song’s chorus – ‘Jai guru deva, om’ – is a Sanskrit phrase which roughly translates as ‘Victory to God divine’. It was likely inspired by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whom The Beatles had first met in August 1967. Maharishi’s spiritual master was called Guru Dev. ‘Jai’ is a Hindi word meaning ‘long live’ or ‘victory’, and ‘om’ is a sacred syllable in the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist religions.
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.
Rolling Stone, 1970
Lennon initially wanted ‘Across The Universe’ to be released as a single while The Beatles were in India with Maharishi, but the group opted for ‘Lady Madonna’ instead. In March 1969 ‘Across The Universe’ was mooted for a never-released Yellow Submarine EP, but eventually appeared on No One’s Gonna Change Our World, an 11-song charity album also featuring The Bee Gees, Cilla Black, The Hollies and others.
It was a lousy track of a great song and I was so disappointed by it. 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.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff