Tag Archives: Phil Spector

Jan. 9: Subconscious sabotage

“Subconscious sabotage.”

To his death, that remained John Lennon’s reflection on the recording of “Across the Universe,” what he regarded as one of his finest sets of lyrics.

Here’s John quoted in All We Are Saying, David Sheff’s full transcription of his September 1980 Playboy interview:

But the Beatles didn’t make a good record of Across the Universe. 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 begin to think, Well, maybe I’m paranoid. But it’s not paranoid; it’s absolute truth.

The same thing happened to “Across the Universe” 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.

By January 1969, “Across the Universe” was completely in the can — even down to the sound effects, which the group heard for the first time on the January 7 (George Harrison wasn’t crazy about the birds). With a dearth of fresh material, John could have made “Across the Universe” a focal point during the Get Back sessions. This was John’s chance to properly record the year-old song to his ears.

But like previous occasions at Twickenham, he wouldn’t show much passion to rehearse and rejuvenate the song. Still, “Across the Universe” remained and returned to the table January 9 as the group continued to develop new and manage more established songs for an eventual live show as the sessions began its second week.

“Across the Unicorn,” as John introduced it that day, was performed at such a glacial pace in an initial take that it broke down seconds in with laughter from John. “It shouldn’t be that slow, should it?” As a reaction, the group — as they’d often do — zipped through the song double-time after another standard attempt.

While the song was fully formed, “Across the Universe” wasn’t stage-ready. George didn’t like the birds on wax, and he didn’t like the harmony with Paul as performed at Twickenham. The interplay between George and the others on this fact should sound familiar. Really, nothing was going to change his world.

John: What didn’t you like about his har-MO-ney?
George: Just in some places.
John: Ah, some places. Well that’s details, George.
Paul: Please specify then, please specify.
George: (after singing singing the first verse), It sounds a bit forced .. It wasn’t natural.
Paul: Especially in the “Nothing’s going to change my world.”
John: Just sing that in unison.
Paul: I was planning on working on those bits anyway.

Ah yes, the bland-faced saboteur was prepared to do his worst.

Continuing to work on the song, George and Paul attempted painfully high top harmonies on “jai guru deva,” prompting John to respond, “Is that a bit much?”

With additional takes, the harmonies developed into a characteristically lovely John-Paul-George blend — it’s hard for those three voices together to sound anything but — even if the rest of the song’s redevelopment remained stagnant, at best.

“The ‘nothing’s gonna change my world’ — we got to do something to it,” John said, giving Ringo some rare (for these sessions) drumming instruction — asking for “something heavier. Just play an on-beat there. Try doing the on-beat on the snare, to push it along.”

Not significantly improved and with just a single complete take over nearly 15 minutes of work on “Across the Universe,” John was clearly uninspired by his own song, asking, “Should we do something else then?”

Paul rejected the thought, suggesting they again speed things up. A subsequent attempt indeed had a little more pep — the rhythm section didn’t drag quite as much as it had, additional lead guitar licks peppered the chorus and Paul added more extensive harmonies throughout the song. Again, the song wasn’t completed to its finish, but George wasn’t displeased overall, admitting it was a “little better that time.”

John didn’t bother to offer his own review, instead breathlessly launching into a brief improvisation that has since gone by the name “Shakin’ in the Sixties.” The group followed with an upbeat cover of Cliff Richards’ 1958 hit “Move It” that in turn spilled into a sloppy but jubilant abbreviated version of “Good Rockin’ Tonight.”

An animated discussion of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” — the group were all clearly fans, trading lines from the show (”Very interesting …” “Say goodnight, Dick”) — led to something of a comic take of Carl Perkins’ “Tennessee,” with everyone enjoying playing.

(It’s nice to know: They may have been the greatest band on the face of the earth, but they still talked about TV at work, just like we do).

Ready to shift gears back to business, John asked, “Have we learned any new ones lately?” After a deliberately flippant butchering of the first verse of “Across the Universe,” John said, “I don’t want to do that one anymore.”

As George began to play “I Me Mine” — a new one from just the day before — John instead sang the words to “House of the Rising Sun.” They never do play “I Me Mine,” instead launching into a series of racially charged songs addressed at length in the last post.

“Across the Universe” and “I Me Mine,” ultimately back-to-back tracks on Side 1 of Let It Be, share another piece of history: By this moment on the afternoon of January 9, 1969, both songs were completely abandoned, weeks before the end of the January 1969 sessions.

“I Me Mine” was recorded from scratch in 1970 by the Threetles, while “Across the Universe” saw its original 1968 recording … embellished and warped by Phil Spector, John’s choice to produce the final soundtrack album. That’s two songs on the Let It Be LP taken not from its associated sessions, but appearing on the record purely because of the songs’ appearance in the Let It Be film.

But while George eventually took his opportunity to properly record “I Me Mine” in the final recording session before the Beatles broke up, what of John’s “Across the Universe”? While unplayed after January 9, 1969 , the song was listed among the the possible numbers for a live show on January 21, the group’s first day of sessions at Savile Row after George left on January 10 and the rest of the Beatles took a hiatus after January 14. But when George asked if they should consider and rehearse “Across the Universe” on January 23, John passed.

“No, no, ’cause it’s going out on an EP,”  John said.

Ode to a panda bear: “Across the Universe” debuted on the “No One’s Gonna Change Our World” charity LP in December 1969.

This opens up some questions. Circa some point in 1968, “Across the Universe” was tabbed for the World Wildlife Fund’s charity LP — that’s why the birds were recently overdubbed, for use on that record. But we also know — or think we know — there was a potential Yellow Submarine EP at one point considered, and that would have included the original version of “Across the Universe.” But if that was the case, it would have been profoundly strange that the other Beatles wouldn’t have been aware of it. An odd unicorn, indeed.

But the song’s eventual release wasn’t necessarily of consequence. If John wanted a new version of his song for posterity, this was the time to craft it on his terms. The Beatles resurrected “One After 909,” after all, and breathed life into a song that had a truly bland recording gathering dust in the vault.

While it wasn’t confirmed in any way, there were certainly some occasional discussions by this early point that these sessions could easily yield a new album, in addition to serving as rehearsals for a live show. Stuck for a month, John could have rehearsed and re-calibrated the absolute daylights out of “Across the Universe.” Lord knows Paul played the hell out of “Get Back” and his songs during the sessions. But here we are on January 9, 1969, and “Across the Universe” was completely discarded, both as an option for the live show but also as a song to be revisited and rerecorded. Who sabotaged whom? Or even what?

Maybe our sources aren’t really reliable after all. Here’s John in January 1971, from his iconic “Lennon Remembers” interview in Rolling Stone:

You know, we all say a lot of things when we don’t know what we’re talking about. I’m probably doing it now, I don’t know what I say. You see, everybody takes you up on the words you said, and I’m just a guy that people ask all about things, and I blab off and some of it makes sense and some of it is bullshit and some of it’s lies and some of it is – God knows what I’m saying.

Needless to say, this issue hangs over pretty much every corner of Beatles scholarship. At least John had the self-awareness to admit this, as problematic a fact  it is.

So was the original recording of “Across the Universe” a victim of “subconscious sabotage”? Regardless of the answer, John — who we can certainly believe was never satisfied with any of the recordings of the song, even the one he helped record with David Bowie in 1975 — had the blank palate of  the January 1969 sessions to craft it in any direction he pleased. But he was bored with the song, whether he would admit it or not, and took it no further after just a week into the sessions, despite a paucity of new material.

The song as recorded would be released, as planned, in December 1969 on the World Wildlife Fund’s “No One’s Gonna Change Our World” LP with John’s voice sped up, and again in May 1970 on Let It Be, further adorned and with his voice slowed down.

Subsequent official releases of “Across the Universe” came in 1996 (Anthology 2), 2003 (Let It Be … Naked) and 2018 (White Album deluxe release). Each of those stripped down versions came after John’s death and with Paul’s presumptive partial oversight.

And every recorded version of the Beatles’ “Across The Universe”  was sourced from the original recordings from early February 1968.

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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 (below), 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: We all shine on

Phil Spector, John Lennon

A key date in the history of the Get Back sessions came a full year later, five months since the end of the Abbey Road sessions and a few weeks removed from the final time the Beatles — three of them, at least (no John) — recorded as a unit.

It was on this day in 1970 Phil Spector entered the Beatles’ orbit.

Spector, for better or worse, soon became the producer for the Let It Be album. And it was for his work on that incredible day — Jan. 27, 1970, the day “Instant Karma!” was born.

As Lennon famously put it:

I wrote it for breakfast, recorded it for lunch and we’re putting it out for dinner.

And it was released 10 days later. The song may have been written the day before, but that’s splitting hairs.

The key takeaways:

  • Finally we have a commercial solo record by a Beatle. And it’s really a classic.
  • The work of Spector —  who had said he always wanted to produce the Beatles and was in London to talk to George Harrison about his own solo work (according to the terrific “You Never Give Me Your Money” by Peter Doggett; I’d seen other explanations for how they hooked up) — so impressed John and George that he was tasked with putting together what would be called the Let it Be album two months later. And in doing so, the original intent of the Get Back sessions — capturing the band’s live essence — was in large part shattered with the (over)production.

Regardless of the impact on the Beatles as a whole, Spector became massively important in the solo work of John (Plastic Ono Band, Imagine, Some Time in NYC, Rock & Roll, other singles) and George (All Things Must Pass, Concert for Bangladesh, Living in the Material World).

And it started here:

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