Tag Archives: Across the Universe

Jan. 7: Tumble blindly

As far as pitches go, it’s pretty lukewarm.

“I think it’s a waste just banishing it,” John says. “I’d sooner stick it in here.”

It is “Across the Universe” and here is the live show the Beatles were rehearsing for at Twickenham in January 1969. Decades later an established favorite in the Beatles canon, “Across the Universe” was merely an unsatisfactory recording in author John Lennon’s opinion, one that remained in the can for 11 months as of this date. But the song had definite resonance with John.

From his interview with Rolling Stone in 1970:

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 song’s origin dated to 1967, when he was still married to Cynthia. From his interview with Playboy in 1980:

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? …

Recorded in the same February 1968 sessions that yielded “Lady Madonna,” “The Inner Light” and “Hey Bulldog,” “Across the Universe” was initially John’s pick for a single release while the Beatles were in India the subsequent month. But unhappy with the recording, John withdrew the song for single consideration. “[N]obody was interested in doing it originally, everyone was sickened,” John said in 1980. “The tune was good, but subliminally, people don’t want to work with it sometimes.” John called the bad recording an example of “subconscious sabotage” by Paul.

Meanwhile, Paul’s “Lady Madonna” won the honor  for the single, and John “banished” the song by offering “Across the Universe” to Goons alum Spike Milligan for a charity album he was compiling to benefit the World Wildlife Fund. That part of the story comes later.

An early take of the song eventually surfaced on Anthology 2 in 1996 while another take from that same session was ultimately used as the basis for the Let It Be version before being reworked again for Let it Be … Naked.

That part of the story comes later, too.

Between February 1968 and January 1969, the Beatles had issued a 30-song LP (the White Album), two singles (“Lady Madonna” and “Hey Jude“) and their Christmas album, and 10 days after this January 7, 1969, session the Yellow Submarine soundtrack would come out. But none of those releases featured “Across the Universe,” a fully recorded and mixed track.  The Beatles weren’t attempting to lay down tracks for an album at Twickenham, and this early they conceded any eventual yield from these sessions that ended up on vinyl would be a bonus.

It’s under these circumstances John thinks the time is right for a reintroduction of “Across the Universe,” on the heels of a hefty dose of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” It’s also a window into the relatively exhausted state of John’s songwriting at this point after his explosive contributions to the White Album. Paul is writing on the spot at the sound stage and George is bringing in songs he developed the night before. John is left offering a year-old song that was already recorded as a contribution to the show, a “Cynthia” song —  presumably his last — brought forward in time to Generation Yoko. And on top of that …

It’s “another slow one,” too.  “I know that we’ll knock off a couple of fast ones,” John bemoans. “If I just wasn’t so tired when I got in …”

George expresses that it’s OK to have another slow song, and we hear a snippet of the tune to be later known as “Gimme Some Truth” for the second time these sessions. “That’s another one,” John says. “It’s a pity they’re all so similar because it would have been nice, that ‘Hypocrites’ one.

“What’s the first line?” John asks as the group begins work on “Across the Universe.”

He gave the song a pair of run-throughs just the day before, and did in fact get the opening right but not much else.  On January 7, the words were not at all flowing, like a paper cup or much of anything else, as he limps through a lackluster initial take. Once a set of lyrics finally arrived from the office, John baffled even himself with his poetry.

“Tumble blindly?” he asks with incredulity.

With lyrics in hand, work begins anew on the arrangement.

John: When we were doing it last time, we did it all right in the end.  The thing I don’t lke about the version we did, is we didn’t dig it the time we did it. All that tamboura was great.

George: I liked those girls singing as well, which you didn’t like. The whole record is great, really. It’s just another idea, another way of doing it.

John: I haven’t heard it in along time.

After John responds to Paul’s question on the status of the World Wildlife Fund LP for the second time in as many days (“they haven’t gotten it together yet”), the tape cuts before dumping us mid-rehearsal as the group continues work on the song. Pacing is an early issue, and John asks Ringo if he can remember his part from the recording. To George, the slower pace, compared to the recording, fits the song’s mood. “It couldn’t be any other way,” John replies. “I couldn’t get the words out. There’s no breath.”

The drone — played on the tamboura for the 1968 recording — was something John liked very much, and how to include that here was debated with an organ making an appearance. John briefly accompanied himself on the instrument before abandoning it, saying that playing along was “too hard.”

In the near 40 minutes on and off focused on “Across the Universe” rehearsals on the tapes, there were brief moments where the band sounded tight and the group’s harmonies clicked, but takes usually crumbled. John gave George, who was employing heavy wah-wah, carte blanche with the song’s introduction. “Whatever you’d like, you’re on your own there.”

The rare song brought to the Get Back sessions complete and — like “One After 909” (which would be be played between “Across the Universe” takes) — recorded previously as well, “Across The Universe” was a venue for the group to play out a bit of their frustrations and feeling of being trapped in their own group dynamic and in these sessions. It’s not just in the clip below, but throughout the day’s takes, the song is performed lethargically, but it’s plausible to think Paul and John believe it when they sing “nothing’s gonna change my world” so strongly together. Just a few hours earlier they backed off the brink of breakup, perhaps they were resigning themselves that the world they were in really wasn’t going to change. One take, in response to his own chorus conceding nothing was gonna change his world, John says as an aside, “I wish it fucking would.”

Nothing was gonna change that song, either — John made no attempt to solicit or attempt any significant tweaks to the song, keeping the original lyrics, structure and melodies intact. Paul applied a few spontaneous harmonies, although it was unclear if it was something that would have remained if the song advanced further in the sessions.

There are several excursions from “Across the Universe” including a second abbreviated attempt at what John seemed to consider an unfinished companion song in “Gimme Some Truth.” While John suggested writing more, the group merely played the minute or so of the song it knew and moved on.



“That’s just as exciting as the other one,” John says sarcastically as the band finishes playing a bit of the song. This would mark the end of “Gimme Some Truth” as a Beatles song as John left it in an aborted state. It would not be rehearsed again these sessions on the tapes, or presumably in any other Beatles session in 1969. George would ultimately play guitar for John when the song surfaced on Imagine in 1971 in a version as dynamic as the Beatles version was listless.

About 45 minutes after the final attempt at “Across the Universe” and several attempts of “Don’t Let Me Down” came one of the more surreal moments of the Beatles’ time at Twickenham captured on the Nagra reels. With the work day nearly complete, the group finally got to hear a copy of the original recording of “Across the Universe,” as requested by John as the song’s rehearsals began. For about 3 1/2 minutes, we listen to the band listen to themselves on record, the entirety of the World Wildlife Fund version of the song that would be released more than 11 months later, in December 1969.

universe1b

Of note, is that the sound effects were already in place on what was a freshly cut acetate. According to the liner notes accompanying the 2009 The Beatles in Mono box set, the sounds were added in January 1969, which means it was completed within the previous 144 hours. So its feasible this was the first time the group was hearing that addition, and George was vocal about his displeasure. “I don’t like that flapping,” the Beatle says of the bird. “It takes too long before it does it” (presumably meaning the song starts).  It’s difficult to hear much other discussion — although there clearly is some, along with mild attempts by the group to play along.

A sequence in the Let it Be film lasting less than a minute and 45 seconds, spliced in immediately following the “I’ll play, you know, whatever you want me to play” line captures a taste of the January 7 “Across the Universe” session. The song would be rehearsed, briefly, once more two days later before being shelved completely, falling out of consideration for the live show.

The song’s association with Let It Be — the album and the film — is really a complete anachronism, but certainly not without reason.  The group spent about an hour (on the tapes) working on “Across the Universe” during the Get Back sessions, half of that on January 7 with the balance January 6 and 9. None of those takes have been formally released on record, with the only official glimpse the brief segment in the film. The song made its way onto at least one of Glyn Johns’ compilations for the aborted Get Back LP and ultimately found its way onto Phil Spector’s final Let It Be, in a production beloved by John. The anachronism carried even further onto Let It Be … Naked, which intended to reissue the original record and thus sessions in an unvarnished fashion, yet it still included a mix of the 1968 version of “Across the Universe.”

Because it was in the film and as of early 1970 was a finished Beatles product but not yet surfaced on a Beatles release, there was a perfect excuse for “Across the Universe” to make the soundtrack. To repeat John from January 7, 1969: “I think it’s a waste just banishing it. I’d sooner stick it in here.”

The group spent considerably more time on songs like “All Things Must Pass” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” during the Get Back sessions. But with the former not in the film and earmarked as a George solo song, and the latter already released on Abbey Road by the time the film was released, “Across the Universe” by comparison didn’t not make sense as an option for the Let It Be LP. This, even though it was a song that featured a master track from 1968 and strings and production from 1970. In 1969, a bird made music on “Across the Universe,” but not a Beatle.

The record as produced by Spector featured 12 songs, 11 from the January 1969 sessions. The 12th — “Across the Universe” — fell under the Let It Be banner to save it from eternal banishment.

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TMBP Extra: Time to leave the capsule

Today, Jan. 8, marks David Bowie’s birthday. We’ve noted Bowie’s birthday here before, purely as an afterthought in conjunction with the fact it’s also Elvis Presley’s birthday. But we focused on Elvis last time, and today’s it’s Bowie’s turn.

Life on Mars and Venus

Life on Mars and Venus

Bowie wrote and recorded with, covered and befriended John, performed with Paul, covered George and at least hung out with Ringo (were we all so blessed).

From last year’s Bowie: The Biography (which I only skimmed, but my wife thought was pretty trashy):

According to Tony Visconti, David’s friendship with John developed to such a degree that the three of them often spent a night on the town together. “We stayed up with John Lennon until 10:30 a.m. We did mountains of cocaine, it looked like the Matterhorn, obscenely big, and four open bottles of cognac,” Tony recalled. … John and David bonded over drugs, music, and a shared quirky British sense of humor.

In addition to having crossed paths to varying degrees with each of the members of the band, Bowie was deeply influenced and inspired by The Beatles, and when you try hard enough, you can hear it throughout his extensive catalog. Additionally, Ken Scott was a shared link in the studio, engineering Magical Mystery Tour and the White Album while engineering and/or producing Bowie from 1969-1973. (Visconti worked with John and Paul, too, after he first worked with Bowie).

Los Angeles, 1975: Bowie, Ono, Lennon

New York, 1975: Bowie, Ono, Lennon

But one thing Bowie did not do was have anything to do with The Beatles as a unit. His star only rose as The Beatles’ was burning out.  The Beatles closed the 1960s after defining its sound just as Bowie prepared to do the same for the ’70s. As Bowie eventually put it, when referring to his friendship with Lennon: “Although there were only a few years between us, in rock and roll that’s a generation, you know? Oh boy, is it ever.”

After a lifetime of enjoying rock music, it somehow took until my 40th year to fully immerse myself into Bowie’s music. This is not to say I wasn’t a fan, or didn’t enjoy various releases over the years. But in 2014 I really became a superfan, getting completely absorbed into his music. Part of that immersion was to visit the truly incredible David Bowie Is exhibition that recently closed at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Comprehensive and engrossing, I was blissfully overwhelmed.

The Times, Jan. 6, 1969 (click for larger image)

The Times, Jan. 6, 1969 (click for larger image)

Among the artifacts near the beginning of the exhibit was a newspaper: the Times of London showing the Earthrise, the iconic image from Apollo 8 that shows, well, the earth rising as viewed from the moon. The photo was taken Dec. 24, 1968, but was published in a special insert in the Times on Jan. 6, 1969. According to the exhibit, after seeing the paper, Bowie had “Space Oddity” written within a week.

Especially when you place yourself into that era, it’s a moving image, the blue earth rising above the moon, but that’s not what jumped out at me. And if you happened to be at the MCA that morning in mid-November and heard someone muttering, “I’ll play, you know, whatever you want me to play,” and wondered who it was, that would be me.

Because on Jan. 6, 1969, David Bowie was inspired to begin writing “Space Oddity” at the precise moment The Beatles were bickering over how to rehearse “Two of Us” just miles away at Twickenham.

The Nagra tapes didn’t roll 24/7 in the lives of John, Paul, George and Ringo from Jan. 2-31, so we certainly can’t say the Apollo mission — or any other particular news event — did or didn’t inspire or influence the band. The group touched on politics, immigration in particular, in outtakes like the “No Pakistanis” version of “Get Back” and “Commonwealth” at various points during the Get Back sessions (writeups to come!), and it’s not as if The Beatles didn’t have a history of being social commentators.

But I found it illustrative with regards to where these different acts were at this very specific moment in time — Jan. 6, 1969 — that David Bowie was able to find a muse that would launch him into stardom for the first time just as The Beatles found themselves trapped –Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing The Beatles could do. Between the time Bowie started writing “Space Oddity” on Jan. 6 and finished it on the 13th, George would suggest the band “have a divorce” after an open discussion recounting how bad things have been for a year (Jan. 7), and then he’d end up quitting (Jan. 10). The Twickenham sessions ended Jan. 14.

George on David Bowie, 1974

I certainly won’t argue The Beatles were out of ideas in January 1969; This entire blog is predicated on the idea the group remained vibrant and vital during the Get Back sessions. But it’s obvious any success they had was despite themselves. The songs they wrote or worked on this month were works of art, to varying degrees, but it was often tantamount to climbing up the hill backwards, as Bowie would put it, to get anything done. We’d have lost Abbey Road and Let It Be (although you’d assume many of the songs would later resurface on solo records) but an argument can be made John and George, at least, would have been happier people had The Beatles ceased to exist sometime in 1968. Is the difference tangible between a band being pulled apart and an artist ready to burst? Oh boy, is it ever.

Used in conjunction with the BBC’s Apollo 11 moon landing coverage in July 1969, “Space Oddity” made a name of Bowie just as The Beatles were in the thick of recording Abbey Road. (About 12 hours after man first walked on the moon, The Beatles began recording “Come Together”). By the time Bowie’s eponymous LP featuring “Space Oddity” was released that November, The Beatles were effectively finished. Five years (what a surprise) later, after meeting John at a party, the Starman ultimately entered the orbit of The Beatles.

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Jan. 6: Et cetera

What a day!

Six hours of tapes that inspired 12 posts — and this one makes it a baker’s dozen. Some songs are introduced, others tortuously rehearsed and the proposed live show is discussed at length for the first time.

So before ripping off the desk calendar page and welcoming Jan. 7, 1969, I wanted to tie up some loose ends and look at a few songs and moments that were important enough to mention but not so much to warrant standalone posts.

One After 909” wasn’t the only unlikely John Lennon song resurrected in the first few days of the sessions. “Across the Universe” was recorded 11 months prior — a pre-White Album contemporary with “Lady Madonna,” “The Inner Light” and “Hey Bulldog” — and sat finished but not yet released as of January 1969.

There’s more than enough to say about the song at this point to justify its own post — and it will. Once the song has a more prominent role, in the next day’s session, I’ll do more than offer this brief mention.

While George had introduced other songs,”All Things Must Pass” remained the primary Harrisong to this point the band was rehearsing. Jan. 6 saw just a smattering of takes running about 20 minutes on the tapes, barely memorable. Frankly, the song sounds like a dirge at times thanks in part to John’s unimaginative organ droning.

It’s such a great song, and I keep telling myself — “This is The Beatles doing ‘All Things Must Pass,’ for heaven’s sake” — but I don’t find myself caring, which pretty much puts me on par with the rest of the group. That sentiment was encapsulated in a brief exchange at the end of what would be the day’s final run-through of the song.

Paul: Wanna to do it again, George?

George: Not really.

Simple as that, they moved onto the final properly rehearsed song of the day: “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window.”

This was the song’s introduction to the sessions, and with the day nearing an end, it was a brief one, lasting just 15 minutes on the tapes. The song’s pretty well crafted at this early stage, as far as structure and lyrics. It took only a few takes and just a couple of minutes for the band to pick up the chords and string together a few reasonably decent takes.

It’s nice to hear the voices of George and John deliver harmonies, since we’re used to Paul double-tracked on the recorded Abbey Road version.

Eventual Abbey Road medley mate “Carry That Weight” was a Paul suggestion as a vehicle for Ringo, and he wasn’t alone thinking about giving a song to the drummer. It’s just that Paul was the only one who wrote a song that endured.

John offered up about half a minute of the upbeat “Annie,” which sounds just barely sketched out enough not to be an improvisation. There’s not much meat to the bones, but it’s pleasant enough and very easy to hear Ringo singing it.

Not to be left out, George immediately followed with a new song he likewise said was for Ringo. More fleshed out than “Annie” — or “Carry That Weight,” for that matter — “Maureen” was credited to Bob Dylan, according to George.

Maureen and George in India, Februrary 1968

Maureen and George in India, Februrary 1968

It’s folky and laid back, and there’s no reason necessarily to think it’s not a product of the November ’68 Harrison-Dylan sessions in upstate New York, if you accept the premise Dylan was writing songs named for Ringo Starr’s wife in George’s style and less his own. As it would happen, George and Maureen did have a lengthy affair, but Pattie Boyd’s autobiography only pins it to the early 1970s. But who knows what was going on before that — I don’t, and I’m drifting badly off-topic in discussing band members’ infidelity.

What the song does do, like so many other random bits of music that passed through Twickenham, is add another curio to sessions replete with such oddities we’d never hear from again.

The group tackled a few covers, but of course they did. It’s a hallmark of these sessions, and a wildly overrated and overstated hallmark to boot.

One of the memorable covers of the day was an oldie they had mastered in the past and was so strongly associated with their live act. Surprisingly, it’s the only time they performed a take of “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” at the sessions, and it apparently happened to be an instrumental (any singing was off-mic, at least). Clunkier and a little slower than the original, if it was ever to be remotely considered for this live show — and there’s no indication it was to be — they’d probably just rely on memory.

The song served as a jumping point for a few other oldies in succession: “Money,” “Fools Like Me,” “Sure to Fall” and “Right String, Wrong Yo-Yo.” (All included in the above clip.)

Perhaps the covers throughout the duration of the sessions could be described as red herrings along with the one-off originals like “Annie” and “Maureen” — interesting merely because they’re rare Beatles recordings, but not nearly as enlightening as seeing the songs we know develop or listening to the fascinating conversation about the live show and the future of the band.

With that, I’ll close the book on Jan. 6, 1969. See you “tomorrow”!

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TMBP Extra: Birthday for a King (and Duke)

elvis paperIn honor of what have been Elvis Presley’s birthday, I’m going to step out of order here for a post and offer up a few clips of the Beatles covering the King of Rock & Roll during the Get Back sessions.

This isn’t exhaustive, but hits a lot of the highlights.



From the Anthology, the Beatles discuss meeting Presley in 1965.

Turnabout is fair play, etc. Here’s Elvis covering “Get Back” in a medley with “Little Sister”:

Jan. 8 also marks David Bowie’s birthday. While the Beatles never played anything by Bowie, John Lennon of course worked with him in writing and performing on “Fame.” The same album, 1975’s Young Americans, also yielded Bowie’s cover of “Across the Universe,” which featured Lennon on guitar and backup vocals.


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