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*7.35-ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (Beatles)

Beatles
The Beatles with their ladies and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

LISTEN to 1968 recording        LISTEN to 1970 recording

Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup.
They slither wildly as they slip away across the universe.
Pools of sorrow, waves of joy, are drifting through my opened mind
possessing and caressing me.

        Jai Guru Deva. Om…
        Nothing's gonna change my world (4x)

Images of broken light, which dance before me like a million eyes,
they call me on and on across the universe.
Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letter box.
They tumble blindly as they make their way across the universe.

        [Chorus]

Sounds of laughter, shades of life, are ringing through my opened ears
inciting and inviting me.
Limitless undying love, which shines around me like a million suns,
it calls me on and on across the universe.

        [Chorus]

        Jai Guru Deva. (3x)


The original recording of Across the Universe came from the same sessions that produced Lady Madonna and The Inner Light in February 1968. The Beatles were trying to put together a single at the time, and Harrison’s The Inner Light was awarded the B side. Probably the shelving of Across the Universe was because the Beatles were not pleased with the acoustic guitar, tambura and sitar production. (If I’m not mistaken, this is the last time the Beatles would use a sitar on one of their records.) Like the Yardbirds’ Heart Full of Soul, the sitar may have been thought too weak, especially as it is used solely for atmosphere, and doesn’t develop or improvise on the melodic line. But I recall that Lennon had praised The Inner Light for its melody upon its release; he might have been comparing it with Across the Universe, which has a very limited range of melody. This may also have been a factor in withholding the song. To my hearing, the long lines of verse are like clumped beads of water collecting till full and then running on further—they accommodate and illustrate the verses’ lyrics, but are peculiarly unmelodic at the same time. Indeed, they are not far removed from the two tone “ambulance siren” melody to be found in Lennon’s I Am the Walrus. However, according to David Sheff’s book All We are Saying (1980), Lennon wrote the words before he composed the music, and is said to have felt they were among the best lyrics he’d ever written. Though structurally quite different from The Inner Light, the two songs share an appreciation of Transcendental Meditation.

The use of the Sanskrit phrase in the chorus was encouraged by the Maharashi Mahesh Yogi among members of his organization as a way to recognize and honor his mentor Swami Brahamanda. According the Gary Tillery in The Cynical Idealist (2009), Swami Brahamanda was called “Guru Dev” by his disciples, deva being Sanskrit for “divine”. Jai is “hail” in Sanskrit, and Om is used in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions as a sacred word, the gateway to spirituality through meditation. Therefore, the first line of the chorus calls for meditation in the presence of one’s spiritual guru. (In Christianity, this would be similar to the “Hail Mary” in the practice of the rosary.) It’s the second line which is more problematic: “Nothing’s gonna change my world.” Though the sentiment is in the spirit of Buddhism, which surrenders matters of the will and selfish ego to the guidance of the divine, and is indeed of a piece with The Inner Light’s koan “Do all without doing”, it seems stated in such a way that to Westerners it sounds fatalistic. If in 1967, Lennon had sought to change the world through the practice of love (All You Need is Love); he seems now at the point of resignation, as if he’s learned there’s nothing he can do to alleviate the suffering of humanity. Across the Universe marks the end of a certain line of (psychedelic) thinking in John Lennon, a realization of the limits of what art in itself can do. The lyric sounds even odder when one considers the political activism John Lennon would embrace shortly thereafter and for years to come, making much of his music subservient to a cause.

Across the Universe was reworked a few times. In December 1969, it was released for the World Wildlife Fund charity on an album titled No One’s Going to Change Our World (notice the change of emphasis!). That version includes the voices of girls and birds. It was remixed again in January 1970 by Glyn Johns. But the version most of the public is familiar with was mixed by Phil Spector in April 1970 with orchestral and choir overdubs. Spector’s “Wall of Sound” production has nothing in common with the song’s original psychedelic aesthetics. The psychedelic Across the Universe, recorded in February 1968, was first made available to the public in 1996, appearing on the Beatles album Anthology 2.

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