Across The Universe

Across the Universe.

Bowie’s cover of John Lennon’s “Across the Universe” was a blatant, and successful, attempt to lure Lennon into the studio. Bowie and Lennon had first met in late 1974 at a small party in Bowie’s New York hotel suite. The two didn’t converse for hours until, cocaine- and Cognac-fueled, they began sketching caricatures of each other on notepads. Tony Visconti (who met his future wife, Lennon’s then-girlfriend May Pang, that night) recalled that the party ended with everyone in the room getting into “a dismally dark conversation about ‘what does it all mean,’ ‘it’ being life, which left us all staring dejectedly at the floor.”

About a week into New Year ’75, Bowie called up Lennon and said he was in Electric Lady Studios doing a cover of “Across the Universe” (the whole thing seems like a set-up, as there was no need for another track on Young Americans; Visconti, oblivious to these developments, was in London doing string arrangements for a record he thought was completed). So Lennon went down, played acoustic guitar on “Universe,” then stuck around to jam on another attempted take of “Foot Stompin'” and wound up co-writing a #1 hit, “Fame.”

Bowie still kept “Across the Universe” on Young Americans after it had served its purpose. It was likely a matter of Bowie being star-struck: how could he deny the temptation to include his very own Beatle collaboration? He told the NME later that year that he was proud of his performance on the track despite the fact that “not many people like it.”

The only problem was, John wasn’t entirely sure how to capture on tape the sounds he was hearing in his head.

Mark Lewisohn, The Beatles Recording Sessions, on “Across the Universe.”

“Across the Universe,” like a vivid dream, had never quite translated to reality. Originally slated as the Beatles’ spring 1968 single, “Across the Universe,” after two days of studio work, emerged as a ramshackle performance with chirping backing vocals by two teenage Beatles fans recruited off the street. Lennon second-guessed himself at every turn, erasing vocals, wiping instruments (he scrapped a backwards bass guitar track, as well as George Martin’s contributions on organ and his own mellotron work). As the Beatles were about to get on a plane to India, “Across the Universe” was shelved (“Lady Madonna” was the single choice). Upon his return, Lennon seemed indifferent to “Across the Universe”—he didn’t attempt to rerecord it during the White Album sessions, or even on Abbey Road, where he used scraps he’d had around for years. The inclusion of a run-through of “Across the Universe” in the Let It Be film led to the track’s official release on the subsequent soundtrack record.

“Across the Universe” had first appeared on a World Wildlife Fund record in late 1969, where the ’68 recording (in D) was moved up to E flat and layered with wildlife noises. A few months later, Phil Spector took the same ’68 recording, brought it down to D flat, and globbed on a choir and strings. This version, also included on the “Blue Album” Beatles hits compilation in 1973, became, by default, the canonical version of the song, and the model for Bowie’s cover.

“Across the Universe” is the product of Lennon in a weakened state of lysergic bliss, its lyric a child’s perspective. My friend has a three-year-old daughter who’s started waking up in the morning yelling “No! No! No!” When he asked her what was wrong, she said that she didn’t want to be asleep anymore. “Across the Universe” is in this spirit, Lennon’s POV being of someone whose self-absorption is so deep that he achieves satori in contemplating himself, delighting in how his mind interprets the world: it’s a rejection of the material world by someone entranced by the world’s colors and sounds.

It was maybe too personal a song for Lennon, who later said he’d never been happy with any recording of it (he didn’t think much of Bowie’s version either, as it turned out). Bowie’s interpretation seems to be a bungled attempt to mine the song’s thin vein of defiance. Calling the Beatles original “watery” (no foul there), he decided instead to “hammer the hell out of it.” So he discarded Lennon’s “jai guru deva” mantra as being too flower-power and yelled out the lyric, trodding over the intricate syllabic rhythms of Lennon’s three verses. Bowie’s appalling vocal is a series of consecutive abuses, with Bowie hollering lines, putting his weight on seemingly random phrases. The appearance of a second vocal track creates new dimensions of misery, and Bowie finishes the track off with an extended tantrum.

This is the first appearance on a Bowie record of Dennis Davis, a brilliant drummer who would back Bowie for the rest of the ’70s: Davis does what he can to resuscitate things here, offering fill after fill while the song wobbles to its finish. One of Bowie’s low points of the decade, just excruciatingly bad.

Recorded in New York, ca. 10-15 January 1975. On Young Americans.

Top: Songwriter, singer at the Grammys, March 1975.

15 Responses to Across The Universe

  1. ian says:

    I think it’s partially because Young Americans was the first Bowie album I heard, but I never thought this cover was as bad as everyone’s made it out to be. Sure, once I discovered “Who Can I Be Now?” and especially “It’s Gonna Be Me,” it rifled me that it was for this those great songs got cut, but even so, it’s not dreck.

    I must admit, though, that I have a particular (and unpopular) distaste for the original. The lyrics are so cornball it seems to me like they’re begging for a full-on “soul” take. Inflections and wild sweeps, call and response, “no no no no’s” abound, it seems somehow appropriate to me. It’s much like his take on “Fill Your Heart,” (appropriately another big favorite of mine, I guess) Bowie takes the original vibe of the song and does a victory lap around the solar system.

    Not essential, perhaps, but not unenjoyable.

  2. col1234 says:

    The original “ATU” really’s paled for me over the years too, but I’ve just loathed this track since I was a kid, for whatever reasons: perhaps I should’ve recused myself from writing about it, as I likely can’t judge it properly. I was hoping some defenders (even modest ones) would show up in the comments, so thanks.

  3. Joe the Lion says:

    My finger couldn’t reach the skip button quick enough when I first got the album in 1991. I loathed it. The Beatles version was weirdly a favourite of mine at the time, and the Bowie version just seemed to brutalise the fragility of it. I hated the sobbing vocal on ‘into a paper cup’ in particular.

    Over the years I’ve stopped reaching for the skip button, and ATU has grown on me. I’m used to it, I suppose. Like Ian, I don’t think it’s essential but I enjoy it while it lasts. Bit like Dr. Pepper.

  4. ian says:

    I love Dr. Pepper! Sort of. I mean, it’s fine. Just like ATU, so you’re right. I think it’s funny, though, because I always loathed the lyric of “into a paper cup” anyways. It’s a sophomoric bit of drivel, so why not make it as unintentionally hilarious as possible.

    Of course, we allll know Bowie didn’t have that in mind when he covered it. You can tell he was proud of covering a Beatles song with a Beatle just by looking at the sleeve. The other songs are credited to “Bowie” or “Bowie/Lennon/Alomar.” “Across The Universe” is labeled as “John Lennon and Paul McCartney.” It’s a bit silly, really. But hey, I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same.

    Have you all heard that story (I don’t know if it’s true) of when Bowie was hanging out with Paul McCartney and wouldn’t stop playing Young Americans? He kept putting the record on again and again until Paul (I think) said “Maybe let’s listen to something else?” Tears ensued. Drugs, yo. Gotta eat more than green peppers and milk to be normal, y’know?

  5. Joe the Lion says:

    I think he could have done a great Happiness is a Warm Gun. It always seemed odd to me that he sang ‘Nothing’s gonna change my world’ so passionately, when he was very much into changing his world. Unless! it was because he was feeling disconnected so liked the reassurance of the statement.

    Always hoped that a David Bowie recipe book would appear called Cocaine, Milk and Green Peppers: Cooking with David Bowie. But sadly, it never did.

  6. col1234 says:

    That Lennon/McCartney story is true, I believe. I think it was on the third (!) play of Young Americans that Macca snapped, in his very polite way.

    Another hard moment for DB around this time was the dis by Aretha Franklin at the ’75 Grammys. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26kLGl1wktA) (Andy Williams doing the intro is perfect.)

    • Patrick says:

      Your original link is gone but found it here:

      but having watched it still don’t see where the dis/snub is?

      • col1234 says:

        it’s mild, but Aretha says “this is so good I could kiss David Bowie!” which is sort of a good-natured insult—it’s a slight gay dig and implies that Bowie’s repulsive in some manner (given that this is DB at the absolute height of his emaciated coke paranoia, the latter is kinda understandable)

  7. snoball says:

    As covers go, it’s not too bad because it does something different to the original, pretty much an essential attribute for cover versions. But this is always the track I skip when listening to the album (and I like the original Beatles version even less). If anything, it’s a testament to the effects cocaine has on a musician’s arrogance (“Nothing (apart from me) is gonna change my world!“) and sense of objectivity. YA’s original track list/omissions being further evidence.

  8. Maj says:

    Woah. I never hated this Bowie’s cover & I still don’t hate it. I actually REALLY like it. And I am a huge fan of the Beatles, listened to them long before I’d even heard of Bowie… I think I like Bowie’s version better than the original but my favourite version of this song would probably be Rufus Wainwright’s.

  9. Adrian Ernesto Cepeda says:

    Bowie’s cover of this Lennon classic has grown on me. I am desperately searching for the 5.1 mix of Across The Universe that has a new ending. Anyone please share? I would LOVE to hear

  10. Ern says:

    I love Bowie’s version. Everyone i know loves it also. The Beatles version while i do like it is more of a Lullaby in my opinion. I guess it might be the same as the folks that like Nirvana’s version of The Man who sold the world. i Hate that version.

  11. Rufus Oculus says:

    I would have preferred it if he had put It’s gonna be me in its place but it is fine if a little sycophantic. My favourite version is by Fiona Apple.

  12. Jim says:

    ‘Excruciatingly bad’ just about sums it up for me. Terrible, car crash stuff.

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