In the studio

On 19 January 1975 John Lennon typed a letter to the Beatles’ former publicist Derek Taylor, which read:

BOWIES CUTTIN “UNIVERSE” (LET IT BEATLE) .AM A GONNA BE THERE(BY REQUEST OF COURSET).THEN POSSIBLEY DOWN TO NEW ORLEONS TO SEE THE McCARTKNEES…ITS A LONG WAY TO TIP A NEGRO!

The ‘Across The Universe’ session took place at Electric Lady Studios on New York’s 52 West 8th Street shortly afterwards.

After completing the song, Lennon – as impatient as Bowie in the studio – suggested they record something else, and with guitarist Carlos Alomar they quickly wrote and recorded ‘Fame’.

God, that session was fast. That was an evening’s work! While John and Carlos Alomar were sketching out the guitar stuff in the studio, I was starting to work out the lyric in the control room. I was so excited about John, and he loved working with my band because they were playing old soul tracks and Stax things. John was so up, had so much energy; it must have been so exciting to always be around him.
David Bowie
Musician magazine, May 1983

The session also marked Bowie’s first collaboration with drummer Dennis Davis. He remained a core part of Bowie’s team for several years, performing on Station To Station, Low, “Heroes”, Lodger, and Scary Monsters… And Super Creeps.

Bowie’s girlfriend and backing singer Ava Cherry was also present during the session, although she did not perform on either song.

I was there the day David brought John Lennon into the studio. He actually wrote a diary entry that day where he says, ‘January 30th, introduced Ava to a Beatle.’ We were going in that day to record ‘Fame’, and before the session David was freaking out because he was so nervous. He really admired John Lennon, and that day David was like a little kid. And then John comes in the door and John had those granny glasses on, right? And David looks and me and says, ‘He really does wear those granny glasses!’ He really liked the fact that Lennon had the whole Lennon look.

What you imagine John to be is exactly how he was: Charming, funny, and they both hit it off immediately. They became really, really good friends. It was only me, Carlos, John, and David in the studio – and I think Geoffrey [MacCormack] might have been there. Yoko came and brought us some sushi and then she left. She was very sweet. I liked her. She was not how I imagined her and how the Beatles said she was.

John was sitting there at one point with his twelve-string getting ready to play ‘Across The Universe’, and he looks up and says, ‘Are we having a good time?’ We were all so happy that John Lennon was so relaxed. David was just over the moon. He drew David a caricature of himself. And David put it in this solid gold frame. He really loved it. I didn’t think ‘Fame’ would turn out the way it did. I thought because John Lennon was on it that he was going to get lots of critical acclaim, but it was just a James Brown groove at one point.

Ava Cherry
David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones

Bowie’s producer Tony Visconti was in England at the time of the session, and regretted not being informed early enough to attend.

At the same time I was working on the strings and new mixes something was afoot in New York. David personally phoned me to tell me he had met up with John Lennon and got him into the studio with a band now consisting of Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis and bassist Emir Ksasan. They wrote and recorded ‘Fame’ in one evening, also recording Lennon’s ‘Across The Universe’ for good measure. David said, ‘I’m sorry Tony, but they have to be on the album.’ I also met John Lennon earlier for the first time with David and responded with, ‘If you gave me a day’s warning I would’ve flown myself on the Concorde to do that session.’ I was quite upset. Well, anyway, ‘Fame’ is a great song; a great record and we all love it. Not so much for ‘Across The Universe’, I think it was just a token gesture and years later Lennon told me, ‘I don’t know why he wanted to record it, and I didn’t even like my version.
Tony Visconti, May 2015
Who Can I Be Now? (1974-1976) book

Visconti remixed Young Americans in 5.1 surround sound for a 2007 special edition. That version of ‘Across The Universe’ was 10 seconds longer than Bowie’s original, and ends with Lennon’s comment “Er, let me just drop in.”

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