Across The Universe

November 17, 2010

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.