Why The Beatles Waited So Long Before Releasing ‘Across the Universe’

Some songs in the Beatles catalog took a long while before seeing the light of day. “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number),” the wacky B-side on the “Let It Be” single (March 1970), is a good example.

The Fab Four first started work on “You Know My Name” in early 1967. That May, they took it to the studio and worked out basic tracks for the song. By June, they had a number of odd effects and, somehow, the Stones’ Brian Jones playing sax on the track.

But nearly three years passed before they finished the song and released it. That type of timeline wasn’t too far off from one of the signature John Lennon songs: “Across the Universe.”

After putting in significant studio time on the song in February ’68, the song probably sounded complete to some ears. However, the track wouldn’t be the next Beatles single — or turn up at all on The White Album or Abbey Road.

Lennon disliked the original recordings from ’68

John lennon gets surrounded by fans, 27 June 1969. | Mirrorpix via Getty Images

If you’re a fan of “Across the Universe,” you might think the song sounds finished with just John playing acoustic guitar and delivering his customary powerhouse vocal. But he didn’t see it that way.

After getting a take with his guitar, George Harrison on sitar, and Indian percussion behind them, John decided to add backing singers to the mix. (He actually got these singers from outside the Abbey Road studios, where the “Apple scruffs” hung out day and night.)

But John wasn’t satisfied with the effort. After trying to add keyboards to the mix, he decided to leave it as a valiant attempt. Looking back at the “Across the Universe” sessions in 1980, John spoke about how he thought it went poorly.

“The Beatles didn’t make a good record of it,” he said. Then he went so far as to claim Paul McCartney tried to sabotage the effort to make the song what it could be.

‘Across the Universe’ next appeared on a WWF charity album

The Beatles perform their last live concert on the rooftop of the Apple building, 30 January 1969. | Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Later in ’68, someone producing a World Wildlife Fund charity album asked John if WWF could use the song for it. He agreed, and “Across the Universe” had its first release (with animal noises added) in late ’69 on that record.

John hadn’t given up on it, however. In the Let It Be documentary, John tries to revive the song with some help from his uninterested bandmates. But like many other things in those early ’69 sessions, John’s effort fell flat.

At that point, its last chance was getting the Phil Spector treatment for the promised Let It Be LP. While many criticized how Spector handled it, John liked the producer’s Wall of Sound treatment. It finally got released as a Beatles song in Spring of ’70.

More than anything, though, John was proud of the lyrics. “The words stand, luckily, by themselves,” he told David Sheff in the ’80 Playboy interviews. “Such an extraordinary meter and I can never repeat it! It’s not a matter of craftsmanship; it wrote itself.”

Also see: Why Paul McCartney Bumped George Harrison’s Lead Guitar From ‘Hey Jude’