Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Across the Universe

Here's another day when I've left myself no time to post properly, and like an idiot I've decided to listen to a song with one of the most complicated histories in the Beatles catalog. Still, though, it seemed appropriate to mark the occasion of Phil Spector's homicide conviction today by listening to a track from an album that a lot of people believe to be a criminal offense.

Let it Be is, it seems safe to say, the favorite Beatles album of absolutely nobody. It was born when John handed hours and hours of tape recorded during the ill-fated Get Back sessions to Phil Spector and told him to figure out what to do with it. Spector proceeded to give all the songs that Spector-esque Wall of Sound production that, while kind of neat for the Ronettes, doesn't work at all on Beatles records. And "Across the Universe" is right up there with "The Long and Winding Road" as one of the most notorious Spector failures. Here's the album version, Spectorized for your displeasure. You'll note the choirs of angels and heavy use of maudlin orchestra, trademarks of Spectorization.

The thing is, long before Phil Spector got his hands on this song, it had already proven problematic in the studio. John wrote this song back in the fall of 1967, at the height of the hippie-dippie Beatles period-- hence the TM-influenced lyrics and "jai guru deva" refrain, the latter being a line significant to Hinduism in a way I honestly don't remember right now. Originally, they figured this could be a single released with "Lady Madonna," and they recorded it at about the same time, in early 1968. But John was never satisfied with the recording. He could get a little persnickety about certain songs that he loved, making the band and George Martin and the staff of sound engineers try out a ton of different approaches until they got the sound he was after, though in these cases he was rarely ever satisfied. (This happened most famously with "Strawberry Fields Forever," which John was never 100% happy with either.) All sorts of crazy things were attempted to get "Across the Universe" right, including the fairly insane idea of asking a couple of the Apple scruffs (the ubiquitous girls who constantly hung around outside Abbey Road Studios) to come in and sing backup vocals. (But just IMAGINE being one of those girls!!! Squeal!) One of these versions (sans scruffs) made it onto Anthology 2.

The Anthology version might be listened to more than the Let It Be version at this point-- it's very pretty, with some prominent sitar, and at least it's less self-important than the album version. But John remained unsatisfied. At this point "Across the Universe" was shelved, ignored during the White Album sessions (because after the trip to India with the Maharishi John felt fairly disillusioned about the whole TM scene), and returned to in the Get Back sessions. In Let It Be (the film), there's a little footage of the band rehearsing it-- you can watch and listen below, starting at 7:02 or so.

Versions from the Get Back sessions with John and Paul both singing on the chorus, as here, are abundant on bootlegs, which makes tracing the already convoluted history of this song that much more complicated. As for the Let It Be album version, it's actually a heavily overdubbed track of the 1968 master, and was included on the album for reasons having to do with the continuity of album with film more than anything. To further make things annoying, there's the Let It Be Naked version, stripped of the more egregious Spector production additions. And there's also a version with nature sound effects that got thrown onto a 1969 charity album called No One's Gonna Change Our World, put together for the World Wildlife Fund by Spike Milligan. But at this point, I must admit, I'm already tired of listening to this, so I leave it to you to either YouTube these things yourself or dig out your own copy of Let It Be Naked.

Because, see, here's the thing-- I think people love this song more than they should. Put it up there with "The Fool on the Hill" for me, I guess, although I don't hate "Across the Universe" nearly as much as that one. I don't really hate it at all-- I only don't love it as much as the rest of the world seems to. Interestingly, I always feel as though it's people around my own age who make too much of this song, though that could be my own biased experience. Whenever I talked about the Beatles with people in, say, college, they'd get this glassy-eyed look and say things like, "Oh, you know what I love? 'Across the Universe.' I LOVE that song. It's just so... so amazing." Then they'd pass the bowl.

The song is not bad. The song is fine. It has moments of real beauty. And if you want my opinion (and why wouldn't you?), the recording that made it onto Anthology has a certain fragility that seems to make it a little special, and makes me prefer it over the versions from the Get Back sessions. If they'd released a recording in that style as a B-side or alternate A-side to "Lady Madonna," which seems to have been the original plan, it would have made for a strong single. (Though "The Inner Light" makes a totally good B-side too.)

But does "Across the Universe" work as some kind of deep call to spiritual awakening? No. Is it their best song by a long shot? No. Is it even in their top 50 songs? For me, probably not. Did it merit being referenced in the title of a certain film of a couple years ago whose very existence annoys me far too much for me to link to it? No. (Or maybe it did-- since I will never see the film ever I probably shouldn't speak to it.) And although Spector did nothing to help the case of "Across the Universe," I don't think we can hold him entirely responsible for the song's fate. You can tell by his production that he didn't really know what to do with it-- which put him in exactly the same position as John and the other Beatles.

"Across the Universe," released in the U.K. side A track 3 of Let It Be, May 8, 1970; in the U.S., May 18, 1970.


  1. Can't argue with your assessment of the song, Megan, and i find it interesting that you have friends who rate this song highly. I certainly don't, though whenever I hear it playing I don't push the channel button to escape. It does have a certain melancholy feeling that i can get lost in. If i let myself.

  2. I was with you guys for a long time, and I really blame whoever's bright idea it was (John's?) to bring in the two birds on the steps. I couldn't get past that at all, and Spector's work didn't help. But I was already coming along when the Let It Be ... Naked version was released, and that won me over. Don't let yourselves be hyped out. Try to put aside what other people think of it. Don't get crazy about whether it's "great." Or, you know, have your own thoughts; I guess if you haven't been won over by now, you won't be (although I was probably in my 30s). I think it's a really beautiful song (musically) with a really nice sentiment. I find it far more successful and well executed than, for example, Blackbird.

  3. My husband fought me on this last night too, basically saying the same. I think I do get a bit knee-jerky in response to other people's reverence for this song, which is a tad unfair. "Blackbird," while a good example of another song that people seem to attach far too much importance to, works more for me, to be honest. Its aspirations are more modest, and it meets them. I think John might actually have been trying to change the world with this one, though.

  4. I tend not to hold their aspirations against them. Writing lyrics is hard.