Across the Universe
Composer(s) : Lennon and McCartney
Year : 1968
Chords/Tabs: Across the Universe
Notes on "Across The Universe" (ATU)
KEY D Major
METER 4/4 (with scattered disruptions)
FORM Intro ->
Verse -> Verse' -> Mantra -> Refrain ->
Verse -> Verse -> Mantra -> Refrain ->
Verse' -> Verse -> Mantra -> Refrain ->
GENERAL POINTS OF INTEREST
Style and Form
- "Across The Universe" (ATU) 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."
- 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.
- 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.
- The most definitive version of ATU 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.
- The World Wildlife Foundation (Wildlife) version found on _Past Masters_,
volume 2 is sped up to sound in the key of Eb and is introduced by
irrelvant bird sounds. The _Let It Be album_ cut is slowed down to sound
in the key of Db 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 over production.
Melody and Harmony
- 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 6th.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 3rd iteration of the Mantra.
- The LIB 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.
- 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
- 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 |- |
- 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.
- The harmonic shape opens out from I to V.
- The Verse' variant starts off like first verse form but diverges from it
for the second phrase. Here the length is a non-symmetric 7 measures, which
conveys the feeling of free verse even without dealing in half measures:
|D |b |f# |- |e |g |- |
I vi iii ii iv
- The move from ii to minor iv causes a cross relation between the B natural
in the first chord and the Bb in the second one.
- The harmonic shape is again "open," but mysteriously so, given minor
iv instead of V as the target.
- The Mantra is six measures long, built out of AB, 4 + 2, unequal
|D |- |- |- |A |- |
- 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.
- The refrain is 16 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
- The harmonic shape here closes back upon the I chord from V; it's the
only non-open section in the song.
- 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.
- The Acetate contains 6 full iterations of this Mantra manque with a
complete albeit rough edge ending. Wildlife fades out over the course
of the 6 iterations. LIB fades out completely by the middle of the
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS
- It's become fashionable to be surprised that ATU was actually captured
in essence as early as February '68, 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.
- 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.
BTW, Lewisohn's liner notes for A2 provide yet another vagary: he
dates ATU take 2 from Saturday, 2/3, instead of what appears as Sunday,
2/4 in both his books.
- 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 '69. 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.
- And what about those Get Back era outtakes? Yellow Dog's Rooftop Concert
CD and SFTP 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.
- My real favorite is the brief fragment that surfaces on SFTP volume 2.
John interrupts George's lone vamping by starting up the ATU 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.
- 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.
- 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.
"It's all right for you, you couldn't get a pen in your foot, you
Copyright (c) 1999 by Alan W. Pollack
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Ook op 1967-1970:
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