Five Thoughts About the Beatles’ Last Song, “Now and Then”
Five Thoughts About the Beatles’ Last Song, “Now and Then”

Five Thoughts About the Beatles’ Last Song, “Now and Then”

Five Thoughts About the Beatles’ Last Song, “Now and Then”

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The last album the Beatles recorded ended with “The End.” (Unless you count “Her Majesty.”) But the actual end of the band’s official output—at least according to the marketing materials—came on Thursday, when the corporate entity called the Beatles released “Now and Then.” The song, which was written by John Lennon in the late 1970s and demoed on a handheld cassette recorder perched on his piano, was considered for the full-band treatment during the 1995 Beatles Anthology project, when the surviving “Threetles” (Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr) worked with producer Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra and Traveling Wilburys fame to finish a few of Lennon’s songs.

Included on the tapes Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, had given McCartney were demos of four tracks: “Free As a Bird,” “Real Love,” “Grow Old With Me,” and “Now and Then.” Lennon’s former bandmates recorded the first two but passed on recording “Grow Old With Me,” which had already been released on the posthumous Milk and Honey in 1984. (Starr and McCartney would eventually cover it on Starr’s 2019 solo album, What’s My Name.) After some experimentation, they also rejected “Now and Then,” largely at the behest of Harrison, who thought the quality of Lennon’s demo was insufficient for a full-fledged recording.

Harrison passed in 2001, but McCartney never dropped the idea of returning to the song, which seems to hold some special significance for him: According to Carl Perkins, Lennon’s last words to McCartney were “Think about me every now and then, old friend,” which may have made the demo smack of a message from the beyond. Recent technological advances made that message much clearer: Peter Jackson’s machine audio learning algorithm (MAL, named for Beatles roadie and confidant Mal Evans), which was developed for the 2021 documentary The Beatles: Get Back, isolated Lennon’s vocal from its piano accompaniment and removed the hum and background sounds that marred the original recording. The Beatles version of the song, which was coproduced by McCartney and Beatles producer George Martin’s son Giles, incorporates Lennon’s singing, Harrison’s 1995 guitar work, harmonies sampled from Beatles songs of the ’60s, new recordings by McCartney and Starr, and additional orchestration.

Speaking of orchestration, “Now and Then” is the centerpiece of a three-part, three-day rollout: on Wednesday, a short film about the making of the track; on Thursday, the song itself; and on Friday, Jackson’s music video. It’s also an enticement to purchase some merch: For the full-circle feels, the song is being sold as a double-A-side single alongside a MAL-demixed, stereo version of the Beatles’ mono first single, “Love Me Do”—a figurative “Hello, Goodbye.” It will also appear on newly expanded, remixed, and demixed releases of the band’s vintage greatest-hits compilations, known as the Red and Blue albums.

“Now and Then” almost certainly won’t remain in your rotation as long as the rest of the cuts on those classic comps, but at minimum, it’s a fascinating artifact. And if it’s the official farewell from a group whose legacy will long outlive any of its members, it merits a close listen. At slightly more than four minutes long, the track is a trifle compared to the nearly eight-hour Get Back, but after asking five questions sparked by that chronicle of the Beatles’ last released album, I’m back to share five thoughts prompted by the band’s last released song. Now, then: Let’s examine “Now and Then.”

Yes, this is all slightly disconcerting.

As with “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love,” but even more so, the release of a new “Beatles” song without the knowledge, approval, and active participation of all four Beatles may strike some fans as morbid, presumptuous, or creatively questionable. Before he was murdered in December 1980, Lennon sometimes sounded receptive (or was said to have sounded receptive) to the idea of all four Beatles working together again. At other times, not so much. I tend to think that had he lived longer, there would have been some sort of Beatles reunion: the repair (for the most part) of his and McCartney’s relationship after the acrimony of the Beatles’ breakup, the fact that up to three of the former bandmates often played on one another’s songs, and the Anthology project (and the examples of so many other ’60s and ’70s groups who eventually got the band back together) all suggest that the four Fabs would have been seen at some point on stage or in studio. But would Lennon have wanted a reunion to take this form, with this demo of this song? Not even those who were closest to him can know with absolute certainty.

Harrison’s absence adds an additional layer of uncertainty, given that he was the one who scuttled the first attempt to finish “Now and Then.” In 1997, McCartney told Q Magazine, “George didn’t like it. The Beatles being a democracy, we didn’t do it.” Fifteen years later, long after Harrison’s death, McCartney said, “George went off it,” recounting how Harrison had called it “fuckin’ rubbish.” But those quotes are unclear: rubbish because the demo was so rough, or rubbish because he simply disliked the song?

Possibly both. In 2021, Mark Cunningham, the technical musical consultant to Beatles press officer Derek Taylor, told The Daily Beast what Harrison had told him when Cunningham had asked why the Threetles didn’t record the third song. “He was very critical,” Cunningham said. “He was a real downer about it and said, ‘I wasn’t really interested.’ He said, ‘Apart from the quality, which was worse than the other two, I didn’t think it was much of a song.’”

The Beatles are still a democracy, but Harrison no longer has his own vote. His family does, and his wife and son say his objections were limited to the demo’s vocal quality. In a recent press release about the new song, Harrison’s widow, Olivia, said, “George felt the technical issues with the demo were insurmountable and concluded that it was not possible to finish the track to a high enough standard. If he were here today, Dhani and I know he would have wholeheartedly joined Paul and Ringo in completing the recording of ‘Now and Then.’” That’s certainly plausible—it was Harrison who first spoke to Ono about the surviving Beatles tinkering with John’s songs, and he helped out with “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love.” But even if Harrison would have signed off on the MAL-enhanced vocal, the new “Now and Then” lacks whatever adornments he might have added to the basic rhythm track he laid down in ’95.

Asked about the prospect of a Beatles reunion in 1974, Harrison said, “If we do it again, it will probably be because we’ll be broke and need the money.” That’s clearly not what’s happening here: This song seems to have flowed from the best of intentions of McCartney and Starr, with green lights and love from the families and estates of Lennon and Harrison. Still, I’d understand if any fans shared the late George Martin’s misgivings about long-after-the-fact recordings. When Martin was asked in 2013 about why he didn’t produce “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love,” he said, “I kind of told them I wasn’t too happy with putting them together with the dead John. I’ve got nothing wrong with dead John, but the idea of having dead John with live Paul and Ringo and George to form a group, it didn’t appeal to me too much.”

Decades earlier, in 1976, Martin told Rolling Stone, “What happened was great at its time, but whenever you try to recapture something that existed before, you’re walking on dangerous ground, like when you go back to a place that you loved as a child and you find it’s been rebuilt. … The Beatles existed years ago; they don’t exist today. And if the four men came back together, it wouldn’t be the Beatles.”

That’s no less true now that two of the men are gone and the others are in their 80s. I don’t object to the exercise so much as the branding: This obviously isn’t a Beatles song in the same sense as the songs from the ’60s, or even “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love.” Which doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable. But …

How you feel about the music depends in part on whether you’ve heard it before.

If you haven’t heard Lennon’s demo, don’t listen to it before you take in the new “Now and Then.” I’ve heard the former untold times over many years, and my familiarity with it can’t help but color my perception of the “Beatles” track.

Lennon’s demo is spare, imperfect, and fittingly ghostly. The new release is heavily produced (after the fairly faithful, unvarnished first minute), and so sonically compressed in its streaming incarnation that the muddy mix obscures some of the depth and detail in the bass and strings. In some respects, the more polished approach is preferable. In others, the haunting, ethereal, stripped-down demo sounds more appropriate for a plaintive love song sung by a man who’s been dead for longer than he was alive. It’s a little like the difference between the Let It Be version of “The Long and Winding Road” and the Let It Be … Naked version without the wall of sound. Both have adherents, but the latter’s intimacy is more my speed. (In the case of “Now and Then,” though, McCartney and the younger Martin added the overdubs, whereas Macca and the older Martin were the ones excoriating Phil Spector’s alterations to “The Long and Winding Road.”)

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However, my primary source of dissatisfaction (which has lessened a little as I’ve listened more) stems not from the sound of the new “Now and Then,” but from its structure. Earlier, I referred to the Threetles “completing” or “finishing” Lennon’s musical sketches, but this time, McCartney collaborates with his former muse not just by building on Lennon’s work, but by undoing it. The Lennon demo is almost a minute longer than the Beatles release, largely because the former includes two pre-chorus bridges that the latter removes (aside from a subtle, hard-to-hear allusion in McCartney’s piano chords during the new solo).

I understand why McCartney cut these “I don’t want to lose you / Abuse you or confuse you” sections. For one thing, Lennon’s lyrics trail off into placeholder scatting. It was one thing for McCartney and Harrison to replace Lennon’s incomplete pre-chorus vocals on “Free As a Bird” in 1995. It would have been another for McCartney to do the same on “Now and Then” in 2023, with his husky, warbly, 81-year-old voice. Moreover, a reference to abuse might have landed differently now, what with the wider awareness of Lennon’s history with women.

Setting aside the unanswerable question of whether Lennon would have wanted the song released without a section he may have considered essential, I can’t help but be a bit let down by the bridge’s omission. Without those surprising, distinctly Lennon-esque digressions, the song’s structure is simpler and more repetitive: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, solo, verse. Plus, its sentiment is less poignant without some of the singer’s self-doubt. Even if there were no respectful, seamless way to preserve those fragments, I miss them sorely, having grown accustomed to them during my many spins of the demo. It’s enough to make me do a “distracted boyfriend” glance at the fan edits and covers that keep the pre-choruses in.

MAL is magic.

Whatever one might think about the “Beatles” arrangement of “Now and Then,” the vocal revealed by Jackson’s proprietary software is a minor miracle. In contrast to the reedy original rendition, Lennon’s voice sounds strong and clear yet in essence the same, dispelling any misplaced panic conjured by mentions of “AI.” It isn’t studio caliber, but it’s close enough that “Now and Then” doesn’t suffer from the Anthology tracks’ somewhat distracting dissonance in vocal quality and unscrubbable snippets of piano. “There it was, John’s voice, crystal clear,” McCartney said of hearing the cleaned-up performance. “It’s quite emotional.” Starr agreed: “It was the closest we’ll ever come to having him back in the room, so it was very emotional for all of us. It was like John was there, you know. It’s far out.”

It is far out! Even after the incredible demonstrations of this tech’s potential in Get Back, I’m as thrilled and delighted by each new implementation as a baby is by peekaboo. MAL is magical in an Arthur C. Clarke kind of way. I’d imagine that we’ll hear much more of its output in the coming years, with the Beatles and beyond; training this tool on more mono mixes and crackly recordings should give Apple Corps, Capitol, and Universal an excuse to sell us portions of the Beatles’ back catalog yet again. (Sign me up for MAL-aided remixes of “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love,” and perhaps a less screamy Live at the Hollywood Bowl.)

Jackson hasn’t directed a narrative feature film since 2014’s The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, but since then he’s been bringing the past to vibrant life—both visually, via the colorized, retimed footage in World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, and audibly, through the gifts he’s given fellow Beatles fans. His greatest triumphs as a filmmaker have come from using technology to render real and fictional characters and worlds in unprecedentedly lifelike ways, making them feel fresh, vital, and visceral. I’m not saying he shouldn’t make more movies about Tintin, but selfishly, I hope he keeps catering to my personal interests. Thanks for fixing Get Back and “Now and Then.” Now do Magical Mystery Tour.

This is a better Beatles tribute than it is a song.

Considering that “Now and Then” is an amalgamation of music made over four different decades with varying levels of fidelity, constrained by both the unreachability of John and George and the need not to tamper too much with their past contributions, it’s a wonder that it sounds as cohesive as it does. But the song’s greatest strength isn’t its sound—it’s the way its production echoes and amplifies the motif of the melding of past and present.

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The Anthology recordings are as old now as some of the Beatles’ songs were when the Threetles convened in the mid-’90s, and time has taken its toll on both the band’s roster and its surviving members’ skills. Paul’s voice is much diminished these days, but on “Now and Then,” that’s an asset: Like the footage old Paul plays of young John as they do live “duets” on “I’ve Got a Feeling” in concert, the blending of the 30-something Lennon and the 80-something McCartney on this track is a guaranteed tearjerker. The first words McCartney sings alongside Lennon are “love you,” and in the chorus’s confession and plea, “Now and then / I miss you,” the two seem to be talking to each other while we listen and gently weep. Jackson’s irreverent, touching, time-hopping music video doubles down on these themes.

“Now and Then” is Lennon’s song, but this recording is unmistakably a Paul project. Of course, the Beatles were often a Paul project in their later years, and it wasn’t uncommon for the bandmates to write and record individually and then stitch their creations together. This isn’t the first Beatles song recorded without Lennon at the sessions, or the first on which McCartney subbed in for Harrison on the solo. McCartney may be “a bit overpowering at times,” as Harrison once said, but here he recedes into the swirl of sound enough for John to stay center stage.

Between McCartney’s George-inspired (but not George-soundalike) slide solo and a piano that could’ve been ported from one of Paul’s 21st-century solo tracks—I hear shades of the Harrison-inspiredFriends to Go”—“Now and Then” slightly updates the band’s sound amid its many conscious invocations of the Beatles’ musical hallmarks. Then again, the Beatles’ sound was always evolving, and if they were all alive and aligned on a track today, they wouldn’t sound the same as they used to. “Now and Then” bears the sonic stamps of more recent efforts, just as “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love” reflected Harrison’s, McCartney’s, and Starr’s separate work with Lynne.

“Now and Then” isn’t an authentic song by the Beatles in the same way that Hackney Diamonds is an authentic album by the Rolling Stones—the British Invasion is back!—but it’s a convincing spiritual successor. “It’s not some sort of cynical marketing exercise to try and push catalog sales,” Giles told Variety, adding, “I think [Paul] just misses John and he wants to work on a song with him. It’s just as simple as that.” If this song brings some creative closure to McCartney, a tireless and responsible steward of the band’s IP, I won’t begrudge him that. All in all, I’m moderately happy to have this recording, although musically, it’s my least favorite of the post-Lennon Beatles songs, and I doubt it will displace the demo in my affections. There was no way for “Now and Then” to live up to the hype of a new Beatles song or, for that matter, to match the standard set by the Beatles’ library, but it’s a sweet, nostalgic, and not excessively schmaltzy or self-referential postscript.

The Beatles’ body of work didn’t need another coda, but this one works. “Good one,” Ringo mumbles at the end. Not great one, but we’ll take it.

The Beatles always return to us.

The long-awaited arrival of “Now and Then” is bittersweet because, barring a creative reversal or the discovery of a new stash of songs, it’s the end of the end, the last new track that will ever be released by the Beatles (air quotes or asterisk implied). But the band as a cultural touchstone and source of inspiration is almost immortal. The rereleases, documentaries, and books will keep coming, and so may periodic deliveries from the vault. (With “Now and Then” unveiled, Beatleologists will focus their willpower on unearthing McCartney’s “Carnival of Light.”)

This may be the band’s final single, but in the end, the enjoyment we take is greater than the music they make. As Lennon—and only Lennon—sang in his “Grow Old With Me” demo: “World without end / World without end.”


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