Across the Universe and more
16. Across the Universe
“Across the Universe” is among the most widely covered Beatles tracks, with versions recorded by David Bowie, Fiona Apple, Rufus Wainwright, and Cyndi Lauper, among others. It is easy to see why the song is so appealing to other artists, given its musical simplicity and poetic depth. It is a song ripe for different interpretations and musical arrangements. John Lennon felt that this was among the purest and most poetic songs he ever wrote, but believed it worked best as a poem rather than a piece of music per se.
Lennon said the lyrics for the song came to him after a fight with his then wife Cynthia. Sometime shortly after the fight, the phrase “words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup” came to him upon reflecting on whatever it was Cynthia had been saying to him. Lennon couldn’t get those words out of his mind for the entire night. And from there the song was born and became something of a commentary on the creative process and the artist’s impulse to make meaning.
The song was also heavily influenced by Lennon’s interest in transcendental meditation; hence he added the chorus lines of “Jai guru deva om” to the song, which can be translated from Sanskrit to “hail to the divine guru”. The syllable “om” is used by monks during meditation and represents the cosmic noise of the universe. The true or ultimate meaning of the song, then, is left open for interpretation. The song seems to be about the mysteries behind artistic creation and the strange mix of cosmic and domestic forces that can influence such.
The refrain of “nothing’s gonna change my world” complicates this idea, suggesting perhaps that even artistic creation will not change the social or domestic circumstances of the artist or, perhaps, that there is ultimately a fundamental and irreconcilable divide between the cosmic and domestic forces that influence the artist. The song, then, might offer us some insight into the frustration and anger building in Lennon’s consciousness, frustrations and anger that would come to full fruition in his later contributions to “The White Album”.
For all of its relative musical simplicity, “Across the Universe” had quite a complex and convoluted production history. The first recording of the song, set against a variety of background bird sounds, was included on a benefit album for the World Wildlife Fund. Feeling uncertain as to how the song should be recorded or handled, the Beatles wrestled with it for some time. The first complete Beatles version was mixed by Phil Spector for inclusion on 1970’s Abbey Road. Then, a stripped down “psychedelic” version of the song was recorded in 1968 and appeared on 1996’s Anthology Two. Another minimalist version of the song can be found on 2003’s Let It Be… Naked.
17. She Loves You
It was the initial British Invasion blast that got American parents up in arms (and teens standing on their feet, screaming). Critics and TV commentators mocked the supposed songwriting team of Messrs. Lennon and McCartney for their less than artful, almost primitive application of the plaintive “yeah, yeah, yeah” as a lyric. Comedians got a lot of mileage out of those amiable exclamations of joy. It was also a simple love song that hinted at a lot more than some syrupy Moon/June sentiment.
From its rollicking call-response bass/drum byplay to the chiming guitar lines that mimic the melody, the Beatles introduced the world to the wonders of pure power pop—and from that moment on, there was no looking back. While “I Want to Hold Your Hand” became their first Number One, this sensational celebration of youthful passion would be the initial volley in an aural assault where everyone, including the listener, was the winner.
18. Here Comes the Sun
The “Get Back” sessions had been a false dawn of sorts. The tensions within the Beatles weren’t going away and as the “White Album” had shown, each member of the band had begun to explore his own path anyway. Abbey Road was an attempt to go out strong as the Band had no delusions about where they were heading. This created a lot of bad feeling and some of that permeates the music of the album, which is at turns chaotic, experimental, cathartic, and, in the case of George Harrison’s second most popular song, oddly hopeful.
Increasingly frustrated with the business side of the band, and feeling it was detracting from the music, George escaped to his friend Eric Clapton’s house and wrote this shimmering beauty. The line is lovely and perfectly conveys the thaw so vital to the song’s theme. Hopeful listeners at the time might have felt he was referring to the cold wars raging amongst band mates and that the sun was coming again to rescue those relationships—but that didn’t happen. Those skies remained forever overcast.
There’s a wistfulness and preciousness to the song that has been derided in certain corners, but with its universal and direct metaphor (and some truly wonderful playing), “Here Comes the Sun” is the gem of Abbey Road. George was always seen as a dour song writer and while some of his other songs may plod when they should soar, his emotional complexity always allowed for different shades and moods. This song is an aural sunrise, and is every bit as comforting, as soothing and as inspirational as the visual thing.
19. Let It Be
Though they had an obvious counterculture following and did their share of drugs and rabble-rousing, there’s another thread that runs through some of the most famous Beatles songs, one of surprising pragmatism, maybe even (for lack of a better word) conservatism. Not political conservatism, mind, but an understanding that rock and roll will not necessarily lead a life-changing revolution. In fact, “Revolution”, mentioned above, warns against the dangers of extremism, while the lovely “Let It Be” goes even further with the sentiment of its up-tempo cousin: “you know it’s gonna be all right” becomes, a few years later, “there will be an answer: let it be”.
But it’s not an anthem of indifference; rather, the song provides crucial comfort and the best kind of uplift: unforced and plainspoken. The simple sentiment keeps McCartney’s occasional treacle in check and delivers the kind of emotional wallop he could summon at his best. There are a lot of versions of this song floating around, from anthology takes to a single edit with an earlier, slightly more muted guitar solo to the unadorned mix from Let It Be… Naked. The album version, with Harrison’s guitar as a ringing, rousing counterpoint to McCartney’s vocals, carries the most immediate power, but the song’s weary inspiration transcends the different deliveries.
20. Penny Lane
We’re impacted greatly by our childhood environment—the barrio, ghetto or tree-lined cul-de-sac—we form our identities around these beginnings which we embrace or rise above. This summer I saw that Liverpuddlian suburban turnabout, Penny Lane, which inspired Sir Paul McCartney’s famous ballad. This song is unforgettable, and even if you’ve never visited this industrial town you will visualize the jovial barber’s face and gloat in the fireman’s pride.
Believable, universal characters greet us within the first few measures—staples of our community who keep us spiritually afloat day after day after day—“and the banker never wears a mac in the pouring ran”—even some idiosyncratic behaviours wander through the symmetry of the structure. “Then the fireman rushes in, from the pouring rain, very strange”—McCartney brings humour and human irony to this steady, compassionate community. As the tale progresses, the melody’s sparkly bright major stance subtly creeps into minor passages, evocative and yet always with a stately bounce. The piano background chugs along steadily (as working-class folks do?).
Throughout, McCartney’s voice is warm with a tinge of sadness—a French horn plays a slightly mournful, unforgettable, solo. “Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes” and in my soul.