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When John Lennon accused Paul McCartney of “sabotaging” his Beatles song


Of all the tired old cliches in the book that you can tag onto The Beatles, few ring as true as describing Paul McCartney and John Lennon as the quintessential old married couple. Spats and tiffs were many, varied and usually petty, but as Paul McCartney explained: “Whatever bad things John said about me, he would also slip his glasses down to the end of his nose and say, ‘I love you’.”

Since they first met, quite by chance, at St. Peter’s Church in Woolton Village on July 6th, 1957, a creative partnership was born that would change history (and that is somehow putting it lightly). While they both stated that the moment was very unassuming, it would soon blossom into something else. As McCartney mused in a Rolling Stone interview: “John and me, we were kids growing up together, in the same environment with the same influences.”

Adding: “He knows the records I know, I know the records he knows. You’re writing your first little innocent songs together. Then you’re writing something that gets recorded. Each year goes by, and you get the cooler clothes. Then you write the cooler song to go with the cooler clothes. We were on the same escalator – on the same step of the escalator, all the way. It’s irreplaceable – that time, friendship and bonding.”

That is something that would forever remain, and it upheld their creative collaboration. As Lennon vouched shortly before his tragic death: “He’s like a brother. I love him. Families — we certainly have our ups and downs and our quarrels. But at the end of the day, when it’s all said and done, I would do anything for him, and I think he would do anything for me.” However, just like families, fallouts were also part of the pact and that is where Lennon’s sabotage claims come in.

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Across the Universe’ is undoubtedly one of The Beatles best songs. It is a paragon of the melodic introspection that they were capable of, and it also displays how well each member of the band complemented one another. In the movie Boyhood, Ethan Hawke rattles off a rant that declares, “There is no favourite Beatle! That’s what I’m saying, it’s in the balance, and that’s what made them the greatest f—king rock band in the world.”

That perfect balance was, in itself, a balancing act, and it is a credit to all involved that the giant leap of their LSD phase didn’t derail them. As Ethan Hawke goes on to say, “Paul takes you to the party, George talks to you about God, John says ‘Nah it’s about love and pain’, then Ringo who just says ‘hey, can’t we just enjoy what we have when we have it?’”

Very rarely, if ever, did Lennon ever delineate his love and pain amid the chaos of world as luminously as he did with ‘Across the Universe’ but he argued that on this occasion McCartney’s loose party vibe was a sullying act. In fact, Lennon went as far as harshly claiming that Paul McCartney carried out an act of “subconscious sabotage” of the song during the same interview with David Sheff.

Lennon remarked while reflecting on the recording: “Paul would sort of subconsciously try and destroy a great song 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.”

Interestingly, the song itself was also borne out of irritation. “I was lying next to me first wife in bed, and I was irritated. [Cynthia Lennon] 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,” Lennon said. 

Things were a disaster at first for the song and McCartney’s “sabotaging” ways almost condemned it to the ash heap of history as Lennon recalls as his bandmate continually sang out-of-tune and grabbed two “Apple Scruffs” to replace his unsatisfactory harmonies. “The original track was a real piece of s–t. 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,” Lennon said. 

Fortunately, the piece was polished and whether Lennon thought so or otherwise is soars as one of their most introspective masterpieces as they find comfort in the cosmos. As Lennon would remark: “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.”