Updated: Oct 7, 2020
When you’re young there is in indeterminable and indistinguishable barrier between what is real, and what is merely pretending to be. It’s only when you become older, more cynical, do those lines become more clear and ever more blurred.
The more I see, the less I know for sure - J.L.
At weekends in the 1980’s, Great Britain’s youth was faced with a couple of options in regard to domestic competitive entertainment. Amongst them were ‘Grandstand’, bringing you the best of the nations bowls, darts and regional athletic meets, and ‘All Star Wrestling’ where we got to marvel at Kendo Nagasaki or Big Daddy bleakly dancing their tragic dance of anachronistic masculinity to other soon to be anachronistic men and almost awoken children in the audience (assuming they could see them at all through the Christmas tree lights, smoke and casual attitude to alcoholism).
As playground children are prone, these were our models of endeavour, entertainment and aspiration. Obesity and effort seemed to mime the theatre of success and boy, did we mime.
We suspended our belief in these works of fiction, knowing that Kendo was an ex-accountant from Walton-on-the-Naze and that Big Daddy had a minority stake in a haulage company outside of Bristol. This may not be true, but may as well be. Nevertheless, there was excitement enough in the facade to keep our interest burning. That is until some kid, probably called Kyle or Justin, started talking about REAL American wrestlers like Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Ravishing Rick Rude and the Ultimate Warrior.
This is what it must have been like to be a young person in 1956, raised on gruelling plates of How Much Is That Doggy In The Window to suddenly be force fed three course meals of Elvis, Richard & Holly. Everything you’d known to be true was revealed to be a lie, and a stinking pile of one at that. Kendo was unmasked and all you saw was his calculator. You could never go back.
“How stupid was I then, five minutes ago?” - me, then.
Finally, something to believe in, something real. You could almost touch it (buy the merchandise). Taste it (have a bigger boy ‘Tombstone’ you in the playground). Smell it (buy the merchandise again). That is until Kyle spreads it around that his big brother Jason reckons it’s all fake.
"IS NOTHING REAL?" - Me, shortly after
When the WWF released a surprise charity album on December 12th 1969, ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change Our World’, they accidentally included a song so crushingly authentic, natural, universal, that it even deceived the composer who’d received it cosmically during an argument with his wife 10 months earlier. It having come so freely, it was written down before it was finished and promptly forgotten.
“I was lying next to my first wife in bed…and I was irritated. She must have been going on and on about something…I’d kept hearing these words over and over, flowing like an endless stream. I went downstairs and it turned into sort of a cosmic song rather than an irritated song…whatever, right?” Peace Guru, Lennon.
Lennon didn’t trust it, it was too easy. So it lay in the vaults for 10 months, untouched, unloved; not unlike his first wife Cynthia. This distrust is a crystallising point of difference between the characters of the Beatles’ leading protagonists.
When McCartney doesn’t trust his own instincts, like the humble-brag exercise of wheeling the similarly cosmically received Yesterday round his hip society mates, trying to convince them he didn’t write it by merely falling out of bed and onto a piano, he demonstrates his own confidence.
When Lennon didn’t, and this was a rare incidence of a pure lack of self assurance having nearly tripped himself into oblivion over the previous three years, he hides the product of his inspiration away. Destruction of his ego is not only the subject but also the mechanism behind the creation of the song.
There is evidence enough to suggest that, although Lennon recovered his mental health after the clear nervous breakdown he suffered in 1968, (calling a meeting of the band to announce that he was Jesus Christ, indulgences of people like hanger-on extraordinaire, Mad Alex and significant pointers of depression and PTSD from the trauma of Beatlemania and childhood) he never quite was able to scale the surreal soundscapes or visions he’d found so naturally at his disposal pre-1967.
His wit never deserted him, but his imagination was diminished. Had he written Across the Universe in 1967, it would likely have taken on a form much more akin to Strawberry Fields Forever or I Am The Walrus, recorded only five months previously. Instead, he had no idea what to do with it.
Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letter box
YOKO ALERT: Many point accusatory fingers toward Yoko Ono for this, claiming he took on her first person muse and lost his own brand of vision, but I argue vehemently that instead, she saved his life…and just in time.
I daren’t say he suffered a form of brain damage from the ‘1000 trips’ he endured in a short space of time, but I will point out other less robust men who’d gambled with much lower stakes but paid a much higher price - Syd Barret and Peter Green to name two obvious candidates who never quite got home again.
His indecision and bereft state of confidence in a unique piece of work that came so naturally is evident in the stoned variety of approaches that varied so slightly so as hardly to warrant them, but seemed to think significant enough to release more than once. Harrison-esque, he nudged the song meekly toward the band, but they remained unmoved to help their former leader.
There are now 5 released versions of the song, two of which came out during his lifetime. The World Wildlife Fund’s charity record version - all ducks taking off and Apple Scruff harmonies (a nudge in the back of Blackbird?) and the Phil Spectre dirge of the Let It Be album version.
The World Wildlife Fund’s release of ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change Our World’ in December 1969 is sped up from the original performance in the hope that it reduced the sense of fear and lack of conviction that Lennon felt permeated every syllable. It’s tangible in all performances of the song, which only adds to its air of sincerity and sparse beauty, but Lennon wasn’t prepared to share it this way, so the globally famous mega-rock star hid it away on a charity release, relieved that only around half the world’s population would hear it.
When the band were piecing together their bitty final collection Let It Be, (recorded more than a year previously - everyone know this) Lennon again brought the even older by nearly a year song to the table and was promptly Harrisoned once more. Through being John alone, he got a redux version on the record, courtesy of Phil ‘Gunny’ Spector, which had been artfully slowed down, bringing the key down a semi-tone from a light D, to a heavy C#, thus draining all the energy and summer-y air out of the performance, giving added emphasis to the drone like quality of the melody.
That it wasn’t rerecorded, just recycled, slowed down and some syrupy strings plastered all over it said plenty of John’s frame of mind, he being now inert and dependent on Heroin rather than mere hallucinogens. Each permutation of the song reflecting the mind of the composer at point of release.
In his effort to reclaim the album from Phil Spector, who’d sabotaged the record (or saved it, depending on which Beatle you can’t ask) without his permission, Paul McCartney unmixed the remixed songs in 2004 and released them without their trousers on. Let It Be….Naked, breathes fresh life into the lament by bringing the same performance back to its original speed, deletes the ducks and the Apple Scruff chorus and does John a posthumous solid - just by letting him sing and play. There are some nice chimes in the background to give it some colour, but here is the song in its best, saddest, purest form from the performances we have.
There are some earlier takes available on Anthology 3, complete with clicking noises and a second sometime chiming guitar in harmony to Johns, and a 2018 White Album deluxe box set outtake, ‘take 6’ - which, slower again, is exactly the same as the other takes, except this one starts with an “Alright, Richie?” From John to Ringo, and a closer vocal mic for a more relaxed and intimate experience of the song. Still, the differences are almost indecipherable.See for yourself. Wrestling is wrestling.
What’s real, then?
Across The Universe treads the tightrope of being one of those songs you really like at around the same time you realise that you never really asked to be born. Teenagers really like this song; John’s so cosmic and wise, our very own scally angel sent from above, pointing toward the answer. You also tend to really enjoy this song alongside the pseudo-intellectual spoken word poetry of that other ’60’s mystic, Jim Morrison. You have a poster of him on your wall. All that imagery, man. It just means….everything. Or something. Or eventually, nothing.
Just as you eventually realise that all wrestling that also sells merchandise is choreographed, a charade, you also come to understand that Morrison had hoodwinked you all this time. It’s just words. Flowery, stinking words. You go off Morrison. He did that on purpose, you’re sure of it. Lennon however, wrote this by accident. Its ugly performance, which defines its beauty, is all channelled from his subconscious desire to communicate to anything, that the universe is too big to hope for an echo, words and meaning lost in the ether. John’s jumble wasn’t a cynical faked seance, it was a communique to his ego, in the hope we’d see it and return it to him.
Our WWF is full of fat egos and tight pants. His WWF is full of wild, incomprehensible beauty. Feral wildlife, sung like he was face to face with a tiger. This was real. This was John.
What did you think of Across the Universe? I'd love to hear your thoughts! See you in the comments.