Young Americans album coverWritten by: David Bowie
Recorded: January 1975
Producers: David Bowie, Harry Maslin

Released: 17 February 1975

Available on:
Young Americans

Personnel

David Bowie: vocals
John Lennon, Carlos Alomar, Earl Slick: guitar
Emir Ksasan: bass guitar
Dennis Davis: drums

David Bowie recorded a version of the Beatles’ ‘Across The Universe’ in January 1975 with John Lennon for the Young Americans album.

‘Across The Universe’… was a flower power sort of thing John Lennon wrote. I always thought it was fabulous, but very watery in the original, and I hammered the hell out of it. Not many people like it. I like it a lot and I think I sing very well at end of it.

People say I used John Lennon on the track… but let me tell you… no one uses John Lennon. John just came and played on it. He was lovely.

David Bowie
New Musical Express, August 1975

The Beatles recorded ‘Across The Universe’ in February 1968, and first released on a World Wildlife Fund album the following year. With further overdubs, it reached a wider audience as a track on 1970’s Let It Be album.

Lennon remained proud of the song, despite misgivings over the Beatles’ recording.

It was a lousy track of a great song and I was so disappointed by it. It never went out as the Beatles; I gave it to the Wildlife Fund of Great Britain, and then when Phil Spector was brought in to produce Let It Be, he dug it out of the Beatles files and overdubbed it. The guitars are out of tune and I’m singing out of tune ’cause I’m psychologically destroyed and nobody’s supporting me or helping me with it and the song was never done properly.
John Lennon
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

Bowie and Lennon had first met in September 1974, at a Los Angeles party thrown by actor Elizabeth Taylor.

Surrealistically enough, we were first introduced in about 1974 by Elizabeth Taylor. Miss Taylor had been trying to get me to make a movie with her. It involved going to Russia and wearing something red, gold, and diaphanous. Not terribly encouraging, really. I can’t remember what it was called – it wasn’t On The Waterfront anyway, I know that.

We were in LA, and one night she had a party to which both John and I had been invited. I think we were polite with each other, in that kind of older-younger way. Although there were only a few years between us, in rock and roll that’s a generation, you know? Oh boy, is it ever.

So John was sort of [in Liverpool accent], ‘Oh, here comes another new one.’ And I was sort of, ‘It’s John Lennon! I don’t know what to say. Don’t mention the Beatles, you’ll look really stupid.’ And he said, ‘Hello, Dave.’ And I said, ‘I’ve got everything you’ve made – except the Beatles.’

David Bowie, 8 May 1999
Commencement address at Berklee College of Music

In January 1975, prior to the ‘Across The Universe’ session, John Lennon, his girlfriend May Pang, Tony Visconti, and Paul and Linda McCartney visited Bowie at the Sheraton Netherlands hotel.

Bowie, then in the throes of an escalating cocaine habit, insisting on repeatedly playing his guests an acetate of Young Americans, and was upset when they requested a change of record.

John and I had seen him a couple of times before our Christmas holiday and he had always insisted upon playing us the tracks of his new album. That night he played the album for Paul and Linda, even though John and I had heard it many times before. When it was over he played it again. I could see Paul getting restless. ‘Can we hear a different album?’ he asked. David ignored him and when he began to play it a third time John said, ‘It’s great. Do you have any other albums that might be of interest?’ For a moment Bowie seemed startled by John’s request and then he smiled and told me to pick another record. I selected an Aretha Franklin album and put it on the turntable and then David said, ‘Excuse me for a second.’ He marched out of the room. ‘I think you hurt Bowie’s feelings,’ I told John.
May Pang
Loving John

Lennon and Pang left soon after, and returned to her apartment on 52nd Street. Shortly after they arrived the telephone rang; it was Bowie, still stung by Lennon’s behaviour, but the pair managed to patch up their differences.

As soon as we got home that night David called John. They talked quietly for a while, and when John got off the phone, he told me, ‘David really did feel hurt when I asked him to change the record. He was very upset. I kept tellin’ him I didn’t mean it that way.’ John was very distressed by David’s reaction.

‘When David looks at you, his eyes are always filled with admiration,’ I told him. ‘You’ve got to be especially careful when you’re around people like that, because every little word and gesture means something special to them. Whether you like it or not, you’ve just got to be a little more thoughtful.’

May Pang
Loving John

Shortly afterwards, Bowie called Lennon and announced he was planning to record a version of ‘Across The Universe’, and invited Lennon to take part. At that time the Young Americans album was considered complete, but Bowie saw the opportunity for a collaboration with one of his heroes.

David told me he was going to do a version of ‘Across The Universe’ and I thought, ‘Great,’ because I’d never done a good version of that song myself. It’s one of my favourite songs, but I didn’t like my version of it. So I went down and played rhythm on the track. Then he got this guitar lick, so me and him put this together in another song called ‘Fame’ which is on his next album too, I had fun and it’ll be out soon.
John Lennon
Melody Maker, 8 March 1975

During Lennon’s so-called Lost Weekend, the 18-month period in which he separated from Yoko Ono, he partied hard with musicians including Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, Alice Cooper and Phil Spector. Bowie, whose tastes were more for cocaine than alcohol, was outside of this circle, but he and Lennon nevertheless became good friends.

I seem to be the guy in New York that all the Englishmen say hi to. No, it is good, the mix in town, halls in town. Anybody comes, I love it. All the rockers come and say, ‘Hey, what’s happening?’. I’m supposed to show them what’s happening. Or they already know – most of them anyway.

I got to know David through Mick [Jagger], really, although I’d met him once before. And the next minute he says: ‘Hello John, I’m doing ‘Across The Universe’, do you wanna come on down?’ So I said all right, you know, I live here. I popped down and played rhythm.

John Lennon, 1975
The Old Grey Whistle Test, BBC

The late recording of ‘Across The Universe’ and ‘Fame’ led to a reworking of Bowie’s soul album, which was originally intended to be titled The Gouster. The insertion of the two new tracks led to three others – ‘John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)’, ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’, and ‘Who Can I Be Now?’ – being dropped.

The finished Gouster didn’t have ‘Across The Universe’ and ‘Fame’. It was all finished. It’s more about what isn’t on there than what is. I was OK with losing ‘Who Can I Be Now’, but I was sad about ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ and ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ – that they weren’t going to be heard.
Tony Visconti
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

The Gouster was released in 2016 in the Who Can I Be Now? (1974–1976) box set, in its original iteration.

Bowie’s version of ‘Across The Universe’ is generally considered by fans to be one of the weaker spots on Young Americans, with overly dramatic and bombastic vocals with none of the delicateness of the Beatles’ original.

Bowie’s never performed the song live, although it was considered during his Lennon tribute at the last night of the Serious Moonlight Tour on 8 December 1983, three years to the day since the former Beatle’s death.