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Notes on "Across The Universe"
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This article is from Alan W. Pollack's groundbreaking series "Notes on the Beatles". Links in the orginal article is written in this colour: index to the series, while links I have added appears as standard links. Go here for more information on my site about the song
Notes on "Across The Universe"
KEY D Major METER 4/4 (with scattered disruptions) FORM Intro -> Verse -> Verse' -> Mantra -> Refrain -> Verse -> Verse -> Mantra -> Refrain -> Verse' -> Verse -> Mantra -> Refrain -> Outro (fadeout)
General Points of Interest
Style and Form
"Across The Universe" ("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."
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 "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.
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 is reversed?
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 "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.
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 [I-iii-V]:
|D |- |f# |- |A |- | D: I iii V
The verse is eight measures long, with an extra half measure tacked on in some cases [I-vi-iii-ii-V]:
|D |b |f# |- | D: I vi iii |e |- |A |- | ii V
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
[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 phrasing:
|D |- |- |- |A |- | I V
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. "Let It Be" fades out completely by the middle of the 6th iteration.
Some Final Thoughts
It's become fashionable to be surprised that "Across The Universe" 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 "Across The Universe" 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 "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.
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.
Regards, Alan (firstname.lastname@example.org) --- "It's all right for you, you couldn't get a pen in your foot, you swine." 070499#169 ---
Copyright (c) 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.
These articles were originally posted in the News Group rec.music.beatles. The content from this newsgroup is archived at http://www.recmusicbeatles.com/, and Alan W. Pollacks "Notes On" series can be found at http://www.recmusicbeatles.com/public/files/awp/awp.html. I used to link to the versions published in Soundscapes before I decided to include them on my own site.
If you want to learn more about the musical side of song writing, chord progressions, harmony and theory through The Beatles songs (and/or The Beatles in particular), I recommend the following book:
Artist: Dominic Pedler
Arranged by The Beatles
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