In the studio
The Beatles recorded ‘Across The Universe’ over three days in early 1968, although an orchestral overdub was added many months later.
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 EMI Studios.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Let It Be album was produced by Phil Spector, a decision that 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. Their parts 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.
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.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff