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Monday, August 29, 2016

The songs from A to Z - Across the Universe

Cover of the 1969 charity album featuring the first release of Across the Universe
In search of a new topic for my renamed blog (I finally realized that The Beatles in Mark's Life was a little too precious), I have decided to go to a tactic used by many other writers and look at the group's recording output in alphabetical order.  This will take me out of my usual chronological pattern and necessitate jumping back and forth throughout the band's career.  In each instance, I will take a look at every recording I have of each particular song to give either a sense of the composition's development or simply the differences and similarities of the various versions available.  And, while some entries will be rather lengthy, others will be quite brief (there's only so much one can say about Wild Honey Pie).

For starters, we have a song that has already had its own entry; a composition that has spawned numerous versions, most from the same basic recording - Across the Universe.

The sessions for this number took place on February 4th and 8th, 1968.  Lennon had brought this composition in as a potential single to be released while the Beatles were in India studying Transcendental Meditation.  He was never entirely satisfied with the group's recording of his song, however, and opted to relegate it to the Abbey Road archives for the time being, thus allowing McCartney's Lady Madonna to serve as the in absentia single.

The final track on Anthology 2 is take two of this song, giving us a tantalizing sense of a more ethereal sound than that of the finished recording.  John's guide vocal reveals that he had yet to figure out his breathing pattern in the long, tricky phrases he had written.

Take seven, the master, was markedly different (and, in my judgement, not an improvement over the earlier take), featuring tamboura, tone-pedal guitar, backing vocals by John, Paul and George and some additional high harmonies provided by Gayleen Pease and Lizzie Bravo, two Apple Scruffs, the nickname given to the ever-present fans outside of Abbey Road Studios.

It just so happened that comedian Spike Milligan was present as a guest of George Martin at the February 8th session.  Milligan was a founding member of The Goons, whose recordings had been produced by Martin, and the Beatles were huge fans of the groundbreaking comic troupe.  Milligan was assembling a charity album on behalf of the World Wildlife Fund and asked if he could use the unreleased song on it, a request which Lennon readily okayed.

That album would not appear for almost two years.  (In the interim, the Beatles almost released the song as a bonus track on a Yellow Submarine EP, but that package never saw the light of day.)  In October of 1969, Martin prepared the recording for the charity album, adding wildlife sound effects to the intro and outro, as well as speeding up the entire track.  Though Lennon was not present at that time, it can only be assumed that he approved these changes.

On December 12th, 1969, the album No One's Gonna Change Our World - its title coming from a variation on Lennon's lyric - was issued in the UK.  It was not released in the US, though the new song by the Beatles did get some airplay.  Frankly, it sounded like an odd throwback to the summer of '67 (remember how quickly music progressed in the 60's) and fans could be forgiven if they thought the female harmonies had been provided by Yoko Ono.

Less than a month after this release, Glyn Johns was at Olympic Sound Studios preparing his second attempt at a Get Back album.  Since Lennon was seen briefly strumming Across the Universe in the upcoming documentary, manager Allen Klein mandated that the song had to be included on the tie-in album.  Johns therefore returned to the same master used by Martin and stripped it of the wildlife sound effects, the tone pedal guitar part and the Beatles' own backing vocals, while keeping the high female voices, though these are pushed somewhat to the background.  Best of all, he returned the recording to its original speed.

The Get Back album was never officially released and only a few months later, the same material was handed over to Phil Spector to produce what would now be known as an album titled Let It Be.  Spector deleted all of the backing vocal parts, reinstated some of the tone pedal guitar and added a massive orchestra and choir.  And he decided to slow down the original recording.  This is the version that is by far the most well-known.  Having just listened to all of them in order of their release, I can say that this one sounds absolutely lethargic in comparison to the others, yet Lennon always declared that he was happy with Spector's work.

Finally, there is the redundant Let It Be...Naked version from 2003.  Producers Paul Hicks, Guy Massey and Allan Rouse start off on the right foot by using the original tempo.  They also eliminate the tone pedal guitar and all backing voices, but they slowly add echo and a strange background noise that may be one of two backwards overdubs made on February 4th, 1968 but not used on the master. 

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