It was John Lennon's first composition to be recorded by The Beatles since I Am The Walrus five months earlier. The words were written before the music, and came to Lennon in the early hours one morning at his home in Kenwood.
'I was lying next to my first wife in bed, you know, and I was irritated. She must have been going on and on about something and she'd gone to sleep and I'd 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; rather than a 'Why are you always mouthing off at me?' or whatever, right? ...
But the words stand, luckily, by themselves. They were purely inspirational and were given to me as boom! I don't own it, you know; it came through like that. I don't know where it came from, what meter it's in, and I've sat down and looked at it and said, 'Can I write another one with this meter?' It's so interesting: 'Words are flying [sic] out like [sings] endless rain into a paper cup, they slither while they pass, they slip away across the universe.' Such an extraordinary meter and I can never repeat it! It's not a matter of craftsmanship; it wrote itself. It drove me out of bed. I didn't want to write it, I was just slightly irritable and I went downstairs and I couldn't get to sleep until I put it on paper, and then I went to sleep.
It's like being possessed; like a psychic or a medium. The thing has to go down. It won't let you sleep, so you have to get up, make it into something, and then you're allowed to sleep. That's always in the middle of the bloody night, when you're half awake or tired and your critical facilities are switched off.'
John Lennon, 1980
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
Part of the song's chorus - 'Jai guru deva, om' - is a Sanskrit phrase which roughly translates as 'Victory to God divine'. It was likely inspired by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whom The Beatles had met in August 1967. The Maharishi's spiritual master was called Guru Dev. 'Jai' is a Hindi word meaning 'long live' or 'victory', and 'om' is a sacred syllable in the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist religions.
'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.'
Rolling Stone, 1970
Lennon initially wanted Across The Universe to be released as a single while The Beatles were in India with the Maharishi, but the group opted for Lady Madonna instead. In March 1969 Across The Universe was mooted for a never-released Yellow Submarine EP, but eventually appeared on No One's Gonna Change Our World, an 11-song charity album also featuring The Bee Gees, Cilla Black, The Hollies and others.
'It was a lousy track of a great song and I was so disappointed by it. It never went out as The Beatles; I gave it to the Wildlife Fund of Great Britain, and then when Phil Spector was brought in to produce Let It Be, he dug it out of the Beatles files and overdubbed it. The guitars are out of tune and I'm singing out of tune 'cause I'm psychologically destroyed and nobody's supporting me or helping me with it and the song was never done properly.'
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
The Beatles recorded Across The Universe over three days in early 1968, although an orchestral overdub was added many months later.
They began on 3 February 1968, recording two takes of the song and a further four on the following day. There was much experimentation with the arrangement as they went along.
Take two, featured on Anthology 2, was temporarily considered the best. Along with the basic rhythm track of acoustic guitar, percussion and tambura, it featured an overdubbed sitar introduction by George Harrison and lead vocals from John Lennon.
The group continued working on the song until settling on take seven, onto which Lennon again taped his lead vocals. He and Paul McCartney then decided that it needed female harmony vocals to sing 'Nothing's gonna change my world' in the chorus, and so McCartney held an impromptu audition among the girls gathered outside Abbey Road.
The girls were Lizzie Bravo, 16, and Gayleen Pease, 17. They were the only Beatles fans ever invited to contribute to a recording session.
There was a whole crowd of girls outside and Paul went out to find a couple of suitable ones. They were so excited. They couldn't believe they'd actually been invited by Paul not just inside the building but into the studio itself, to sing with The Beatles.
Martin Benge, engineer
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn
After the girls had completed their parts The Beatles taped backwards bass and drums, though these were later wiped. The group also taped three sound effects: 15 seconds of humming, and guitar and a harp-like sound, both to be played backwards. None of these were used.
On 8 February, George Martin added an organ part, and Lennon played piano, though these were both wiped. They were replaced by a wah-wah guitar part played by Lennon, maracas by Harrison and piano by McCartney. Harmony vocals from the three were also recorded.
Although a wonderful group performance, Lennon opted for Across The Universe to remain unused for the time being, allowing Lady Madonna and The Inner Light to make up The Beatles' next single.
Spike Milligan was attending the 8 February session at the invitation of George Martin, and asked The Beatles if Across The Universe could be included on the WWF charity album he was working on. For that reason, wildlife sound effects were added to the song during a mixing session on 2 October 1969.
The effects came from the Abbey Road collection. The sound of birds twittering and flying and children playing were added to the beginning and end to the song. The song was also sped up a semitone during the mix, from D to E flat.
The WWF version can be heard on the Past Masters album. An approximation of the original mix, unadorned by effects, can be heard on 2003's Let It Be... Naked.
John Lennon played the song during the Get Back/Let It Be sessions in January 1969, footage of which appeared in the Let It Be film. It was therefore selected for inclusion on the resulting album.
I tried to do it again when we were making Let It Be, but anybody who saw the film saw what reaction I got with it when I tried to do it. Finally Phil Spector took the tape, and did a damn good job with it and made a fairly reasonable sound out of it, and then we released it again.
The Let It Be album was produced by Phil Spector, a decision Paul McCartney would later speak out against. Spector embellished many of the songs with his trademark echo and excessive instrumentation. In the case of Across The Universe, this involved slowing the song down to D flat and adding an orchestra and choir.
The first eight remixes were done on 23 March 1970, but were only used as guides for the extra musicians. These were recorded on 1 April, the final Beatles session to feature a member of the group: Ringo Starr, who played drums on Across The Universe, The Long And Winding Road and I Me Mine.
The 50 piece orchestra, which included 14 singers, were booked to perform two parts, but Spector had other ideas.
Spector's treatment of Across The Universe was later cited by Lennon as one of the highlights of the album. He claimed that the maverick producer "worked wonders" on the song, and that Paul McCartney had originally attempted to sabotage the recording.
The Beatles didn't make a good record of it. I think subconsciously sometimes we - I say 'we,' though I think Paul did it more than the rest of us; Paul would... sort of subconsciously try and destroy a great song.
He subconsciously tried to destroy songs, meaning that we'd play experimental games with my great pieces, like Strawberry Fields - which I always felt was badly recorded. That song got away with it and it worked. But usually we'd spend hours doing little detailed cleaning-ups of Paul's songs; when it came to mine, especially if it was a great song like Strawberry Fields or Across The Universe, somehow this atmosphere of looseness and casualness and experimentation would creep in. Subconscious sabotage. He'll deny it, 'cause he's got a bland face and he'll say the sabotage doesn't exist. But this is the kind of thing I'm talking about, where I was always seeing what was going on... I began to think, Well maybe I'm paranoid. But it's notparanoid; it's absolute truth.
John Lennon, 1980
All We Are Saying, David Sheff