Variety - With all the hoopla around “Now and Then” — which has been officially billed as “The Last Beatles Song” and erroneously described as the legendary group’s “first new song in 50 years” — some reality-checking is in order. Yes, it is a “new” Beatles song in that all four members, including the late John Lennon and George Harrison, play and sing on a previously unreleased composition. But it is not some long-lost “Abbey Road” outtake (those were all exhumed long ago), and in reality even Lennon’s part was recorded and presumably written many years after the Beatles broke up.
“Now and Then” has a similar provenance as “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love,” the other two “new” Beatles songs to have been released since 1970: All are rough Lennon home demos recorded during the late 1970s and provided by his wife Yoko Ono in 1994 for the surviving members to complete.
The songs were intended for the three-volume “Beatles Anthology” outtakes collection (and accompanying long-form video) released in 1995 and ’96. The other two songs were completed and released on Vols. 1 and 2, but Vol. 3 was issued without one: Although the surviving members at the time — Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and Harrison, along with “Anthology” co-producer Jeff Lynne — recorded instrumental backings for “Now and Then,” they were unable to finish it satisfactorily due to Lennon’s piano drowning out his voice in places on the demo (as detailed in the 12-minute documentary video released yesterday).
Call me a bitch, but I'm a sucker for nostalgia. And I fucking love this song.
The vinyl crackle is a nice touch, and those opening piano chords combined with the acoustic guitar send chills. They somehow managed to make this 100% Beatles, yet not overdoing it. If that makes sense. It has everything. Paul McCartney's signature bassline strum, a string orchestra (you know I love violins) playing what sounds like a different keyed "Eleanor Rigby" in the background, a slide guitar solo from George Harrison, and pristine vocals (thanks to A.I. technology) from Lennon.
“I know it’s true, it’s all because of you,”
How this actually came about is pretty fucking crazy.
It's not technically artificial intelligence at work, but it's heavily due, thanks to artificial intelligence if that makes sense.
It all started way back in the late 70s. John Lennon penned and performed "Now and Then" at his residence in New York City. In 1994, Yoko Ono, Lennon's wife, handed Paul McCartney a cassette tape labeled "For Paul," out of nowhere one day, which also featured Lennon's demo tracks for "Free As a Bird" and "Real Love."
While "Free As a Bird" and "Real Love" were later finalized by McCartney, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison, and launched as singles for the Beatles Anthology series, technical constraints prevented the isolation of Lennon's voice and piano in "Now and Then" to be harmonized with new recordings from the other Beatles members, leading to its shelving.
Enter elite film director and mega Beatles fan Peter Jackson.
Jackson unearthed a shit ton of never before seen home video footage from the Beatles which he poured over and edited into a wonderful documentary called "Get Back".
While working on that documentary, there were some major breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and digital audio workstations (DAWs for production nerds).
All of a sudden, producers and DJs became able to not only manipulate artists voices (something you've seen all over social media the past year, and here on the blog), but also parts (layers) of real songs.
In this case, Jackson and The Beatles didn't manipulate Lennon's voice, as this recording Ono gave McCartney is as legit as they come. However, they were able to finally render and isolate the vocals from the instrumental part of the song, giving them essentially a pure acapella they could then "remix" into a new song.
More than quarter of a century later, Jackson used AI-assisted software to de-mix the original audio from Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 footage of the Beatles recording their final album, Let It Be, to isolate instruments, vocals and conversation, and turned the audio and images into the Get Back documentary series.
The technology was then used to produce a new mix of Revolver in 2022 and inspired the surviving band members to revisit Lennon’s Now and Then demo. Jackson and a sound team led by Emile de la Rey used the same technique to isolate Lennon’s original vocal performance from his piano.
Starr said in a statement: “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.”
In June, McCartney told BBC Radio 4 that AI had been used to “extricate” Lennon’s voice from a cassette recording. “We were able to take John’s voice and get it pure through this AI,” he said. “Then we can mix the record, as you would normally do. It gives you some sort of leeway.” Can’t say too much at this stage but to be clear, nothing has been artificially or synthetically created. It’s all real and we all play on it. We cleaned up some existing recordings – a process which has gone on for years. We hope you love it as much as we do.”
Really cool stuff.
Robbie beat me to this last week, and asked a few questions that have since been answered as to how this was all made possible.
McCartney and Ringo Starr recorded completely new components for the track, incorporating guitar segments Harrison recorded back in 1995, along with a string composition from McCartney, Giles Martin, and Ben Foster. Original backing vocals from "Here, There and Everywhere," "Eleanor Rigby," and "Because" were also seamlessly integrated into this fresh rendition. Something that should be really cool to hear. Additional production elements were added by famed producer Jeff Lynne.
A fun fact about this song is that its existence has been rumored since the late 1990s. In an interview, McCartney did with The New Yorker back then, he confirmed the existence of the Lennon vocals, and a rough rework the band attempted to rerecord with it, but admitted the band decided to shelve it because "George Harrison thought it was fucking rubbish."
Harrison’s widow, Olivia Harrison, said in a statement: “Back in 1995, after several days in the studio working on the track, 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, [son] Dhani and I know he would have wholeheartedly joined Paul and Ringo in completing the recording of Now and Then.”
The popular thing nowadays is to hate on everything new or attempt to recreate the old. I'm actually excited for this. Do I think it's going to be on par with "All You Need Is Love" and enter the pantheon of Beatles' greatest hits ever? Of course not. But it will be cool to witness a breakthrough in technology and something one of the most influential bands of all time has been seeking to complete for decades and decades.
“There it was, John’s voice, crystal clear,” Paul McCartney said in a statement. “It’s quite emotional. And we all play on it, it’s a genuine Beatles recording. In 2023, to still be working on Beatles music, and about to release a new song the public haven’t heard, I think it’s an exciting thing.”
I am really happy that Peter Jackson got a producer credit for this, and he should as well for any award nods the song gets nominated for (won't be surprised if it gets nominated for best-engineered record for employing this technology).