More often than not, songwriters are their own worst critics. This was certainly the case for John Lennon. Throughout his career, Lennon frequently lamented the challenges of songwriting, describing the whole process as “torture” in the final interview he gave before his death. But, just as songwriters can be their own worst critics, they can also be their own worst advocates. Here, we take a look at a classic Beatles song that John Lennon initially hated but which eventually transformed into something utterly transcendent.
The track in question was written following an argument Lennon had with his then-wife, Cynthia. “I was lying next to me first wife in bed, and I was irritated,” Lennon recalled. “She must have been going on and on about something and she’d gone to sleep and I 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… it drove me out of bed. I didn’t want to write it, but I was slightly irritable and I went downstairs and I couldn’t get to sleep until I’d put it on paper.”
The song Lennon ended up with was ‘Across The Universe’, a track as much inspired by Lennon’s interest in Eastern philosophy and meditative practices as it was by sleeplessness. Certainly, the central refrain, “Jai Guru Deva Om” which falls on that beautiful A7sus4 chord, imbues the track with the power of an incantation or blessing.
The irony is that, despite the track’s sublime energy, it was a real pain in the arse to record. Tensions between Lennon and Paul McCartney were beginning to boil over during this period, and at the heart of the conflict was the belief that their songs weren’t being given the care and attention they deserved. Although they’d agreed to sing falsetto harmonies on ‘Across The Universe’, during the Abbey Road recording session in 1968, Lennon felt that Paul’s harmonies were out of tune and didn’t hesitate in letting him know.
Feeling that he could do nothing to satisfy his bandmate, McCartney bought in two ‘Apple Scruffs’, Lizzie Bravo and Gaylene Pease, to add background vocals. But Lennon was still unhappy with the way ‘Across The Universe’ was developing. “The original track was a real piece of shit,” Lennon once said. “I was singing out of tune, and instead of getting a decent choir, we got fans from outside. They came in and were singing all off-key. Nobody was interested in doing the tune originally”.
For Lennon, ‘Across The Universe’ made one thing abundantly clear: he should have recorded it on his own. Speaking about the track in a later interview, Lennon said: “The Beatles didn’t make a good record of it. I think subconsciously sometimes we – I say ‘we’ although I think Paul did it more than the rest of us – Paul would, sort of subconsciously, try and destroy a great song… meaning we’d play experimental games with my great pieces, like ‘Strawberry Fields,’ which I always thought was badly recorded”.
Much of Lennon’s frustration stemmed from the fact that he knew it was a good song but felt that it was being shoved down the gutter. In 1971, Lennon admitted that ‘Across The Universe’ had always been one of the favourite songs he’d written with The Beatles, “It’s one of the best lyrics I’ve written. In fact, it could be the best.” He added: “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.”
In a way, the song can be seen as foreshadowing the imminent demise of The Beatles. It’s clear from Lennon’s comments about ‘Across The Universe’ that he felt penned-in by McCartney and the like and was grasping for a creative outlet that he could call his own. Well, in just two years, following the release of the track on Let It Be, his wish would be granted.