Despite what some recent documentaries might have you believe, it was undeniable that The Beatles were beginning to fracture during 1969. Personal growth meant that the standard operating procedure that had existed in the band since the members were teenagers didn’t work anymore: George Harrison needed more autonomy, with John Lennon and Paul McCartney needing more space as separate songwriters. After over a decade of compromise, nobody wanted to concede or bargain anymore.
As they were growing apart as people and as bandmates, it became increasingly difficult for each of The Beatles to properly motivate the rest of the band to help bring their ideas to life. This was most obvious with Harrison, whose brilliant compositions like ‘All Things Must Pass’ and ‘Isn’t It a Pity’ were being passed over even when McCartney and Lennon had nothing to contribute themselves. But McCartney also expressed frustration that Lennon and Harrison seemed to just simply be going through the motions, not listening to his suggestions and growing resentful of his direction.
Lennon was experiencing his fair share of difficulties around this time: he was getting divorced from his first wife Cynthia, he and his new wife Yoko Ono were in the middle of a debilitating heroin addiction, Ono had suffered a miscarriage, and his band were faced with an increasingly dire business situation. Lennon had little to contribute to the Get Back sessions, so he dug through the archives to revive an old recording for possible inclusion.
‘Across the Universe’ had first appeared on the 1969 World Wildlife Fund compilation No One’s Gonna Change Our World, but the basic track had been cut almost two years prior. The mixing for the charity single was occurring while the band were sequestered in Twickenham Studios, and Lennon halfheartedly played the song for potential inclusion on their next album. The footage was captured for Michael-Lindsay Hogg’s original Let It Be documentary, so it was decided that ‘Across the Universe’ should be included on the final album.
But Lennon wasn’t satisfied with the track’s production. He didn’t like it when it was finished in early 1968, and he didn’t like the mix that appeared on Nothing’s Gonna Change Our World. But he still thought the song was one of his best, telling Rolling Stone in 1970: “It’s one of the best lyrics I’ve written. In fact, it could be the best. 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.”
Eventually, the Get Back tapes landed in the hands of producer Phil Spector, who went about remixing the tracks and occasionally overdubbing elements from his signature “Wall of Sound”. One of the tracks to get that treatment was ‘Across the Universe’, which was slowed down from its original speed, stripped of its backing vocals, and treated with new orchestral and choral overdubs.
Most commercially available versions of ‘Across the Universe’ are all actually the same take, even if the versions on Let It Be, Past Masters, and Let It Be… Naked all sound remarkably different. Anthology 2 has the ‘Take 2’ performance of the song, and the deluxe reissue of The Beatles has ‘Take 6’, but almost all versions of the song are the main ‘Take 8’, remixed and re-edited in different ways.
Lennon was never satisfied with any version of ‘Across the Universe’ that came out, and he still remained disappointed in the track until his final days. “We didn’t make a good record out of it,” Lennon recalled in his Playboy interview in 1980. “The guitars are out of tune and I’m singing out of tune … and nobody’s supporting me or helping me with it and the song was never done properly”.
Lennon even went so far as to claim that McCartney was unintentionally undermining the song. “Paul would sort of subconsciously try and destroy a great song,” Lennon claims in the same interview. “Usually we’d spend hours doing little detailed cleaning-ups of Paul’s songs; when it came to mine … somehow this atmosphere of looseness and casualness and experimentation would creep in. Subconscious sabotage”.