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notes on ...

Notes on "Across The Universe"

 





Notes on ... Series #169 (ATU)
  by Alan W. Pollack
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       Key: D Major
     Meter: 4/4 (with scattered disruptions)
      Form: Intro | Verse  |  Verse' | Mantra | Refrain |
                  | Verse  |  Verse  | Mantra | Refrain |
                  | Verse' |  Verse  | Mantra | Refrain |
                  | Outro (fade-out)
        CD: "Let It Be", Track 3 (Parlophone 0777-7 46447-2)
  Recorded: 4th February 1968, Abbey Road 3;
            8th February 1968, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 12th December 1969 (LP "No One's Gonna Change Our World";
            World Wildlife Fund Charity LP)
            8th May 1970 (LP "Let It Be")
US-release: 12th December 1969 (LP "No One's Gonna Change Our World";
            World Wildlife Fund Charity LP)
            18th May 1970 (LP "Let It Be")
 
1

General Points of Interest

 

Style and Form

  Next note "Across The Universe" features a striking mix of folk and Indian elements similar to that of "Dear Prudence". Yes, it was surprisingly written before the infamous trip to India, but so was George's "Within You Without You".
  Next note The form is clearly articulated but unorthodox in construction. At the high level it is close to the flat form of the folk ballad, in which a grouping of sections is repeated several times as a group, per se. The unusual touch here is the interpolation of what I've called the "Mantra" before each refrain.
  Next note Additionally, each sectional grouping starts off with a pair of verses, but you discover that two distinct but very similar verse variations are used, and each grouping orders them differently. The first pair is V/V', the second pair V/V, and the third pair V'/V. The end result is charming particularly because of the casual, offhand manner in which this undeniable amount complexity of detail is played out.
  Next note The most definitive version of "Across The Universe" for my tastes is an unofficially released acetate which can be found in its most complete form on "Unsurpassed Masters", volume 4. Some may prefer the "take 2" that appeared on the "Anthology" for its superior sound quality, single track lead vocals, zero backing vocals, and delicate small touches of percussion. The one unfortunate aspect to this version is its omission of the half measure Verse endings.
  Next note The World Wildlife Foundation (Wildlife) version found on "Past Masters", volume 2 is sped up to sound in the key of E-flat and is introduced by irrelevant bird sounds. The "Let It Be" album cut is slowed down to sound in the key of D-flat and is exceedingly encrusted with some heavy layers of additional "paint" from Spector's handling. I'm sorry to acknowledge how the latter retains the stamp of some officialness no matter how much anyone of us gripes about it. Perhaps the best way to look at it is to observe how much of the song's wonder does still shine through the overproduction.
 

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The tune makes use of the complete diatonic scale. The Verse section is given a patter song syllabic setting in the shape of an inverted arch. Dig how the final syllable of the section is the only one in which more than one note is given to a syllable, and as if to underscore the point, John gives it one of his trademark little trills. The second verse is entirely syllabic with a downward melodic contour. The Mantra is in the melodic form of a rising triadic fanfare and provides the only release in the song from syllabic setting. The refrain features parallel each of which contains a large downward jump of a sixth.
  Next note The harmony is also diatonic with the exception of John's much favored minor iv chord (in a Major key). Six out of the seven native chords are used, but they appear in familiar progressions, and they stay real close to the home key throughout.
  Next note The song contains a touch of the blues based on the use of the emblematic V -» IV -» I progression. Did you ever notice just how differently the latter progression affects compared to when the order of the first two chords is reversed?
  Next note The appearance of a tamboura and distorted/backwards guitar sounds blur your sense of the harmonic root movement, making it sound in places as though two chords are being superimposed.
 

Arrangement

  Next note The Acetate features double tracked John on lead vocal and playing acoustic guitar. The quality of the recording is not especially good, and sounds alot like some of the Esher demos for the "White Album". Two unbelievably lucky and randomly chosen female fans assist John vocally in the refrains and there are overdubs of a tamboura and what sounds like backwards guitar playing.
  Next note The Wildlife version is based on the Acetate sped up with several new elements overdubbed. Paul and George provide backing vocal in parallel thirds on the off phrases of the refrains. A heavily wa-wa'ed electric guitar comes and goes. And there's a rising bassline figure added in the outro starting with the third iteration of the Mantra.
  Next note The "Let It Be" album track is also based on the Acetate slowed down with new elements overdubbed and some previous ones mixed out. The intro and first pair of verses are presented relatively untampered with. Lush orchestration including choir enters with the Mantra and stays for the duration. The refrains omit the backing vocals of the two fans as well as those of Paul and George.
2

Section-by-Section Walkthrough

 

Intro

  Next note The intro is six measures long. It presents a subtly abridged preview of the Verse section. Elimination of the two measures worth of the e-minor chord has the dual benefit of leaving something yet unexposed for later while also setting the model of non four-square phrasing right from the beginning:
 
      |D       |-       |f#      |-       |A       |-       |
   D:  I                 iii               V

   [Figure 169.1]
 

Verse

  Next note The verse is eight measures long, with an extra half measure tacked on in some cases:
 
      |D     |b     |f#    |-     |
   D:  I      vi     iii

      |e     |-     |A     |-     |
       ii            V

   [Figure 169.2]
  Next note The two extra beats show up only in second half of the first two verse pairs. In other words, the other times this section is played, the first half of pair #2 and the second half of pair #3, it is exactly eight measures. You got to wonder how much of this is wily avoidance of foolish consistency versus really just not caring, versus a perverse pose of appearing to not care.
  Next note The harmonic shape opens out from I to V.
 

Verse'

  Next note The Verse' variant starts off like first verse form but diverges from it for the second phrase. Here the length is a non-symmetric seven measures, which conveys the feeling of free verse even without dealing in half measures:
 
   |D     |b     |f#    |-     |e     |g     |-     |
    I      vi     iii           ii     iv

   [Figure 169.3]
  Next note The move from ii to minor iv causes a cross relation between the B-natural in the first chord and the B-flat in the second one.
  Next note The harmonic shape is again "open", but mysteriously so, given minor iv instead of V as the target.
 

Mantra

  Next note The Mantra is six measures long, built out of AB, 4 + 2, unequal phrasing:
 
   |D     |-     |-     |-     |A     |-     |
    I                           V

   [Figure 169.4]
  Next note Harmonic shape is yet again open to V. In hindsight, the decision to open out Verse' to minor iv would seem to be well made in terms of providing respite from what might be getting to be the repetitious sound of V.
 

Refrain

  Next note The refrain is sixteen measures long making it the longest section in the song. It has an AA'/AA' pattern of even phrases:
 
    ------------------------- 2X --------------------------
   |A     |-     |-     |-     |G     |-     |D     |-     |
    V                           IV            I

   [Figure 169.5]
  Next note The harmonic shape here closes back upon the I chord from V; it's the only non-open section in the song.
 

Outro

  Next note The outro features an abridged form of the Mantra reiterated several times. The particular abbreviation eliminates the two-measure shift to V, leaving the section harmonically as over a drone.
  Next note The Acetate contains six full iterations of this Mantra manque with a complete albeit rough edge ending. Wildlife fades out over the course of the six iterations. "Let It Be" fades out completely by the middle of the sixth iteration.
3

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note It's become fashionable to be surprised that "Across The Universe" was actually captured in essence as early as February 1968, between "Pepper" and the "Mystery Tour", in spite of its much later official release. "You mean to say that it was beat out for the B side of the "Lady Madonna" single by "The Inner Light?", exclaimed one of my relatively more Beatle-literate neighbors incredulously in a recent chat.
  Next note The seemingly haphazard, convoluted recording and release history of the song provides its own mystery tour, in spite of, and in some cases because of unintentional vagaries or mistakes in Lewisohn's detailed accounting of the sessions. This is surprising particularly given the song's top draw musical merits and (ugh ...) universal popularity. By the way, Lewisohn's liner notes for "Anthology", volume 2 provide yet another vagary: he dates "Across The Universe" take 2 from Saturday, 2/3, instead of what appears as Sunday, 2/4 in both his books.
  Next note The song is not as out of place as it otherwise might seem if for no other reason that they hacked through a new "live" arrangement of the song no small number of times during the course of January 1969. None of the outtakes I've heard from that period are seriously worked out or well executed, so we shouldn't be surprised that when the chips were down, they opted for building on the original 2/68 source tapes.
  Next note And what about those "Get Back" era outtakes? Yellow Dog's "Rooftop Concert" CD and "Songs From The Past", volume 3, each have relatively similar and complete runthroughs. Notable in both are the increased role for Paul in terms of both bassline and backing vocal, the ensemble stumbling over the half measures, and the outro being based on the verse rather than the Mantra. The latter one of these outtakes also contains a pleasant amount of horsing around between John and Paul.
  Next note My real favorite is the brief fragment that surfaces on "Songs From The Past", volume 2. John interrupts George's lone vamping by starting up the "Across The Universe" intro. The group then attempts a clean start, but the tempo is catatonically unsteady and the lead guitar part painfully out of tune. By the time John reaches the "paper cup" lyrics of the second line, Paul, with the hint of a chuckle in his voice suggests: "You'd best take control, John!" To which John responds with a deft and immediate segue into "Rock and Roll Music," a nice version of the latter, at that.
  Next note It's an uncanny candid moment. At the very least you've gotta be impressed by their capability to failover in an instant and as a tight ensemble to a different song like that in a different key. But there's unplanned ironic poetry in this moment as well.
  Next note On the fly John makes a seemingly minor inconsequential change to Chuck Berry's familiar opening lyric: "Then let me hear some of that R&R music." However, given certain disdainful comments John made about some of the more experimental "Pepper"-era music of the Beatles coupled with his manifest interest in oldies during parts of his solo career, it seems like no accidental choice of songs or twist of words that in the eventual moment when "gravity fails and negativity won't pull you through," that the antidote, the critical means of taking "control" should be in hearing that Rock and Roll music.
  Regards,
  Alan (070499#169)
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Copyright © 1999 by Alan W. Pollack. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.