‘Like Endless Rain Into A Paper Cup . . .’

Originally posted October 21, 2008

A while back, when I was discussing what I considered the ten best songs written by John Lennon, I included “Across the Universe” and said:

“Recorded in 1968 during the sessions for The Beatles, ‘Across the Universe’ was set to be released as a single in March 1968, but McCartney’s ‘Lady Madonna’ was released instead. A version of the song appeared on a charity album for the World Wildlife Fund in 1969 (available, in the U.S. at least, on the Rarities album released in 1980; I don’t know off the top of my head about CD releases of that version). A different version ended up on Let It Be. The song provides me with one of the more tolerable earworms, as the phrase ‘Nothing’s gonna change my world’ sometimes cycles around and around in my head.”

As I was looking for a cover version of a song to post today, I noticed that I have several covers of “Across the Universe” and three versions by the Beatles. From the Beatles, there’s the version that was included on the World Wildlife Fund album (which took its title, sort of, from the Lennon song: No One’s Gonna Change Our World). There’s the version that was on Let It Be, released in 1970 after Phil Spector was charged with making some sense out of the product of the messy 1969 sessions originally aimed at creating an album called Get Back. And there’s the version released in 2003 on Let It Be . . . Naked, which was a Paul McCartney-led project aimed, essentially, at correcting Spector’s errors.

(I don’t think much of the results of the Let It Be . . . Naked project. The recordings seem flat and lifeless, with three exceptions: Lennon’s songs “Don’t Let Me Down,” which wasn’t on the original Let It Be album, and “Across the Universe,” which sounds a great deal better with the women’s choir and Spectorian echo removed; and McCartney’s “Let It Be,” which is similar, if not identical, to the George Martin-produced single from 1970, a version I’ve always preferred to the Spectorian version on the album. For what it’s worth, I’ve also always preferred the “Get Back” single to the Let It Be version, so the version on Let It Be . . . Naked doesn’t really matter.)

Anyway, heading toward a discussion of covers of “Across the Universe,” which Beatles version should be considered the original?

The version that showed up on the World Wildlife Fund album was recorded on February 4, 1968, at Abbey Road, according to William J. Dowlding in Beatlesongs. A couple of sources Dowlding uses for his chronicle of Beatles recordings note that during the recording sessions, Lennon and McCartney decided they wanted falsetto voices on the chorus, so they went outside and brought in two of the fans who had been waiting outside the studio, young women named Lizzie Bravo and Gaylene Pease. When the recording wasn’t released as a single and was given to the World Wildlife Fund, sound effects of birds were added during October 1969 to the beginning and the ending of the record, which was eventually released on Past Masters, Vol. 2:

“Across the Universe” by the Beatles [1969]

What happened next is open to debate. Dowlding says that some sources indicate that the original recording of “Across the Universe” – pre-birds – was the one that Phil Spector reworked for the Let It Be album. Dowlding notes, though, that at least one source – Neville Stannard’s 1984 volume, The Long and Winding Road: A History of the Beatles on Record – says that the version of “Across the Universe” that showed up on Let It Be (and eventually on Let It Be . . . Naked) was an entirely different recording. Here’s how it sounded when Spector was through with it:

“Across the Universe” by the Beatles, from Let It Be [1970]

Here’s what was released when Let It Be . . . Naked came out in 2003:

 “Across the Universe” by the Beatles, from Let It Be . . . Naked [1969, released 2003]

I’ve listened to the three versions a couple times each in the last few hours . . . and I’m not sure if the WWF version (as it became) is a different recording than the two that ended up on the two Let It Be albums. There’s a pitch difference, yes, but Dowlding quotes Lennon as saying “Phil slowed the tape down.”

I’m not sure it matters whether there were two basic versions recorded or just one. I think the last version released – from Let It Be . . . Naked – is the best of the three, without the overbearing choir and without the falsetto added by the two girls dragged in from outside on Abbey Road.

There haven’t been a lot of cover versions of “Across the Universe.” All-Music Guide lists seventy-three CDs with recordings of the song, and about twenty of those are by the Beatles. Some interesting names do pop up in the list:

Aloid & the Interplanetary Invasion, Cilla Black, Mary Black, Johnny Boston, Jackson Browne & Robbie Krieger (on an odd two-CD set called 70’s Box: The Sound of a Decade), Comanche Moon, Barbara Dickson. Becky Durango, Debra Farris, Jawbone, Bill Lloyd, the London String Orchestra, the Lullaby Orchestra, Madooo, Moby, Mystical Chant, the Neanderthals, Lisa Ono, Samuel Reed, Scanner, Stuffy Shmitt, the String Cheese Incident, 10cc, Venus in Bluejeans and Rufus Wainwright.

I’m not sure I’ve heard many of those versions; some of those names aren’t even familiar to me (though quite a few are). But two of the versions in my collection are, I think, fairly interesting. In 1976, David Bowie covered “Across the Universe” on his Young Americans album. I never really thought that the song fit into the album’s blue-eyed soul groove, but it’s an interesting cover:

“Across the Universe” by David Bowie [1976]

And in 1998, the intriguing but odd movie Pleasantville – about two modern-day kids pulled into the black-and-white 1950s of a television show – used Fiona Apple’s elegant cover of “Across the Universe” as the music behind the closing credits:

“Across the Universe” by Fiona Apple [1998]

Given that the song is one of my favorites by Lennon, I’ll likely dig deeper into the list. But I have to say I like Apple’s version very much.

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One Response to “‘Like Endless Rain Into A Paper Cup . . .’”

  1. Becky Durango Says:

    this was interesting! I covered the song because it sings to my soul. The amazing Jeff Pevar plays guitar on my version –

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