For a band that broke up in 1970 and half of whose members are deceased, the Beatles sure keep busy. Every couple of years there’s a new reissue or documentary or something or other to keep our interest. Now, thanks to breakthroughs in recording technology, we have the first “new Beatles song” since 1995. “Now and Then” was released on November 2 along with a music video and 12-minute making-of film entitled Now And Then – The Last Beatles Song, which is available for viewing on both Disney+ and YouTube.
The song is built around a solo demo John Lennon recorded at home in 1977. He was retired from public life at the time, instead dedicating himself to raising his son Sean, who was born in 1975. In the making-of video, Sean says that though his father was no longer touring or putting out records, he was still writing new music. The original recording featured just vocals and piano and is a typically bittersweet Lennon ballad with haunting chords folding into each other and lyrics that speak of memory, gratitude, potential loss and possible reunion.
The recording was one of three Lennon demos the surviving Beatles tried to resuscitate in the mid 1990s, adding new instrumentation and their own vocals. This process resulted in two “new” Beatles songs, “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love,” which were included on the career spanning Anthology compilations along with a treasure trove of Fab Four rarities. The recording of “New and Then,” however, was deemed too rough for rehabilitation. Bassist Paul McCartney says it was shelved for a later date, something that seemed impossible following guitarist George Harrison’s death in 2001.
During the production of the 2021 documentary series The Beatles: Get Back, the team working for director Peter Jackson developed new technology which used artificial intelligence to separate different sound elements from preexisting recordings. Named MAL, both an acronym for machine-assisted learning and a tip of the hat to former Beatles roadie Mal Evans, the software improved clarity and mixing capabilities. The Beatles camp later sent the “Now and Then” demo to Jackon’s team, “And there it was: John’s voice crystal clear,” says McCartney.
Record scratch moment; yes, the new Beatles song was created using AI. However, it’s important to make a distinction between an original recording which uses AI-technology to improve audio quality and functionality and an AI-generated song, which is rendered using prompts entered into an AI interface. “Now and Then” features Lennon’s original vocal take, guitar parts George Harrison recorded in 1995, and new instrumentation from surviving members McCartney and drummer Ringo Starr.
The important question is, is it any good? Yes, it is. Though underwhelming at first, due to its minor key verse and stately tempo, repeated listens pull you in with its its artistry and gravitas. McCartney‘s arrangement takes some of the teeth out of Lennon’s original version but also improves upon it, making it more memorable and concise. The production leans a bit too much on Giles Martin’s orchestration, at the cost of Starr and McCartney’s muscular rhythm track, but isn’t as heavy handed as Jeff Lynne’s production on the ‘90s-era tracks.
Does “Now and Then” rank with the Beatles best? Not necessarily, but that’s a high bar to top. Were I to hear another artist perform the same song, say Beck or Jason Isbell, I’d like it all the same. Is it actually a new Beatles song? That’s debatable. It’s essentially a John Lennon solo song, and a good one at that, which the surviving Beatles have put their stamp on without writing any additional parts outside of an instrumental bridge, featuring a McCartney lap steel solo meant to evoke Harrison’s expressive slide guitar playing which owed more to South Asia than the Mississippi Delta.
The making-of video is informative but rather cursory. We learn the basics of how the song came together but there’s no great insights other than McCartney repeatedly claiming it’s “the last Beatles song.” The Peter Jackson-directed music video is even less successful, jumping between archival footage we’ve seen 1,000 times before and animation of Starr and McCartney performing the song with their past selves and dead bandmates. A CGI-rendered Lennon staring at an ocean sunset is cloying and silly, although the YouTube comments include multiple people saying how much they cried watching the video so perhaps I’m being unfair.
Millions have grown up with the Beatles, myself included. Their fanbase stretches from children to octogenarians, like the surviving band members themselves. Few things tap into our nostalgia as well as music and nostalgia is a great marketing tool. “New and Then” came out 8 days ahead of deluxe reissues versions of the “Red” and “Blue” singles collections, originally released in 1973. Is “Now and Then” a heartfelt tribute and suitable send-off to one of the greatest music acts of all time? Yes. Is it a promotional cash-in to help drive sales of a record that’s being reissued for the eighth time since its first release? Yes. Is it truly the last Beatles song? Let’s hope so lest we all start crying again.
Benjamin H. Smith is a New York based writer, producer and musician.