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The Beatles ‘Now and Then’: One Final Hurrah for the Band That Made Music History

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The Beatles have come together for the final time to release the single “Now and Then” — a demo originally created by singer-songwriter John Lennon in the late 1970s, recently perfected with assistance from AI technology — along with an accompanying short film and music video on Nov. 2.

The song started as a low-quality cassette recording given to The Beatles’ bassist and singer-songwriter Sir Paul McCartney by Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono, along with the songs “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love.” In 1995, the three remaining Beatles — McCartney, guitarist George Harrison and drummer Ringo Starr — decided to collaborate and finish these three tracks in remembrance of Lennon, though the process was emotionally grueling.

“We just pretended that John had gone on holiday or out for tea and had left us the tape to play with,” Starr said in the docuseries “The Beatles Anthology,” which chronicled the Beatles’ 1995 reunion. “That was the only way we could deal with it, and get over the hurdle because it was really very emotional.”

While the other two recordings were implemented into The Beatles’ outtake collections “Anthology 1” and “Anthology 2” in 1995 and 1996 respectively, “Now and Then” was ultimately set aside due to the lack of technology available to separate Lennon’s vocals from the piano accompaniment.

“Every time I wanted a little bit more of John’s voice, this piano came through and clouded the picture,” McCartney said in the short film. “‘Now and Then’ just sort of languished in a cupboard.”

However, with the help of AI technology also used in creating the 2021 documentary “Get Back” on Disney+, famous director and screenwriter Sir Peter Jackson was able to isolate and technologically restore Lennon’s voice. With only two Beatles members remaining — Harrison having passed due to lung cancer in 2001 — McCartney invited Starr to finish working on “Now and Then” in 2022 as a tribute to their missing brothers.

“It’s very special for me to be singing with John again,” McCartney said to BBC Radio 1. “It was kind of magical doing it.”

The final version of “Now and Then,” while not technically an authentic Beatles track due to its conception after the band’s breakup in the early 1970s, is still a genuine Beatles collaboration with Lennon’s vocals, guitar and backing vocals recorded by Harrison from 1995, a new drum section recorded in 2022 by Starr, and bass, guitar, piano and backing vocals from McCartney. Additionally, McCartney added a string arrangement — similar to the one in the iconic song “Eleanor Rigby” — and a slide guitar solo in homage to Harrison’s style.

The song starts with a count-in of “one, two, three,” paralleling the inaugural track of The Beatles’ 1963 debut album, “I Saw Her Standing There,” where McCartney rambunctiously yells “One, two, three, four!” In “Now and Then,” however, the voice fades before finishing the complete four-count, making only the words “one, two” fully audible. This incomplete phrase evokes the current state of incompleteness within The Beatles today, as McCartney and Starr are the sole surviving members contributing to the final version of the track.

The lyrics themselves are simplistic, following a repetitive verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure with four to five lines per stanza, which is reminiscent of their earlier music in 1963 albums “Please Please Me” and “With the Beatles.” Some critics have questioned McCartney’s omission of the demo’s original pre-choruses, where Lennon sings of a lost lover —“I don’t wanna lose you (oh no) / Abuse you or confuse you (oh no)” — before devolving into placeholder scatting. 

Photo from Jeff Lynne / Song Database

However, McCartney’s changing of the song into a more bittersweet tale of friendship is arguably more authentic to the iconic Lennon-McCartney songwriting methods of the 1960s. McCartney has even confessed to changing lyrics he thinks Lennon would find “too soppy.” In other words, like the lyrics in his song “Hey Jude,” McCartney will “Take a sad song / And make it better.”

The titular lyric “now and then” is especially emotionally resonant to McCartney. As Carl Perkins, rockabilly guitarist and massive musical influence for The Beatles, reported to the New York Times, “[T]he last words that John Lennon said to Paul [were] … ‘Think about me every now and then, old friend.’”

After holding onto this demo for nearly 30 years, some might question why McCartney was so determined to complete the track. Giles Martin, the producer for “Now and Then” and son of The Beatles’ original producer George Martin, explained to GQ Magazine, “I do feel as though ‘Now and Then’ is a love letter to Paul written by John. And I get the feeling that’s why Paul was so determined to finish it.”

In an interview with the New University, David Brodbeck, a music professor and current instructor of UCI’s “Beatles and the Sixties” course, explained his thoughts on the new song.

“I wouldn’t say that ‘Now and Then’ stands above much of the band’s original work,” Brodbeck said, “but that original work is a hard act to follow. But, as someone who loves the ‘grain’ of John Lennon’s voice, I have to say it was quite moving to hear the first strain of the tune, and the tune of the verse itself has really stuck with me. It’s also hard not to be moved by the track knowing how much it meant to Paul McCartney to ‘reconnect’ with his mate John after so many years.”

Brodbeck has been a fan of The Beatles since first seeing them perform on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964 — commonly known as the day Beatlemania came to America.

 “I would never have guessed that sixty years later I or anyone else would have much cared about the band,” Brodbeck added, “much less that I would be teaching university courses devoted to the music and its impact!”

Getting a perspective on what the younger generation of Beatles fans thought of the track, the New University also interviewed Abby Whittington, a third-year aerospace engineering student and member of Brodbeck’s Beatles class. 

“I definitely think it feels very weird. It feels surreal,” Whittington said when asked how she felt hearing that a Beatles song was coming out in 2023. “Two of the members are dead — they’ve been dead for almost 20-plus years now — but it’s really cool that they were able to use AI to separate Lennon’s voice from the piano.”

“Now and Then” was released as a double A-side single alongside “Love Me Do” — the official debut song of The Beatles from 1962. Putting together The Beatles’ inaugural song and concluding collaboration reinforces the full-circle moment “Now and Then” provides to the band, and brings a sense of closure to one of the most legendary bands in history.

Kaylie Harley is a 2023-2024 Copy Chief. She can be reached at copy@newuniversity.org.