Notes From the Listening Room- The Beatles , "Now and Then"
There doesn’t seem to be anything in society these days that doesn’t stir up controversy. Social media has rendered any event, past or present, into a virtual football match. To quote the Replacements, “Which side are you on?”.
The newest and final (?) Beatles song was made available to stream yesterday and it too is already becoming a point of contention in the Beatles universe.
If you are a fan of the Beatles then you are aware of ‘Now and Then’, the last of 3 songs Yoko Ono gave to George Harrison, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr in 1994 while working on the Anthology project. The song itself is a cassette demo that John Lennon laid down in the Dakota sometime in 1977. The original plan was for the three remaining Beatles to complete these songs as a way of reimaging an actual Beatles reunion. The songs completed at the time were ‘Free as A Bird’, ‘and ‘Real Love’ both released to much fanfare in 1995 along with the Anthology. ‘Now and Then’, was worked on during this time as well, but due to the poor quality of the demo cassette itself, Jeff Lynne (producer/ELO) and the three remaining Beatles decided to shelve that song.
A Technical Aside: The original demos were indeed recorded on a Boom Box by John, to use as a working reference most likely. Unlike a professional recording or even a 2 or 4 track recording where instruments and voices can be balanced and separated on their own track, these recordings had Piano, voice and assorted background noise all on the same tracks. When the three remaining Beatles convened to add their parts in a professional recording studio it would have been very difficult to make John’s home demo tape match the new recordings of Bass, Guitars, Drums, and other overdubbed bits and sound cohesive. For the technology available in 1994 I think Jeff Lynne did an outstanding job marrying the old elements to the new parts. Yes. John’s vocals on Real Love and Free as a Bird sound slightly distanced and processed, but I would add that John was known to dislike his own voice and was quite keen to use all sorts of processing on his vocals during the Beatles recording years.
Jump to 2020: Peter Jacksons’ innovations that went into the Get Back documentary. For those that are unaware, Peter Jackson and his team developed software that could in essence, learn a persons voice (vocal patterns are like a fingerprint in a way) and then separate out that persons voice from other noises and then be put on an individual track of just the voice. The scene in the Get Back documentary where John and Paul are discussing George leaving the group is an excellent example of how powerful this technology is. In addition, Giles Martin has also employed Peter Jacksons technology to separate the Beatles actual 4 track recordings to enable him to create the new Beatle remix albums. Revolver being the first, but now that I’ve seen the track listing information on the new ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ albums I can only assume he has remixed the entire catalog this way. Prior to this, The Beatles did not use 8- Track recording studios until 1968 and they had to go to Trident Studios first before EMI upgraded their own facilities.
Jump to 2023: With this new technology, John’s voice could be separated from the original cassette demo and Ringo and Paul could go back to the studio and properly mix the new recording of ‘Now and Then’. From what I have read from Giles Martin, they did indeed use George Harrisons original acoustic guitar parts from 1994 and repurposed some harmonies from the Beatles recording of the 1960’s (I believe I hear Because in the mix). So, in effect this song has all 4 Beatles playing on an original song by John Lennon and is therefore a Beatles song. Right?
I can hear the brakes screeching right now.
‘Repurposed harmonies?’ ‘Computer Technology?!’ ‘Artificial Intelligence?’
‘Blasphemy! This is fake and is not a Beatles song.’
To this I say, ‘Easy does it. It's only rock and roll. There are so many more things going on in the world to get upset about. Try and go along with it.
But to be honest, I understand what these people are saying. To me the fact that John was working on this song alone 45 years ago and he did not record it during sessions for Double Fantasy, clearly indicates he wasn’t finished with the song itself, so it is not a true Beatles song. And what I mean is, John wasn’t trying to collaborate on this material or necessarily seek out input from others. He may very well have decided that he wasn’t that happy with the songs so why continue working on them let alone record them. All conjecture obviously. As a songwriter myself it is not uncommon to have lots of ideas floating around for years. In fact, I would say that because he recorded the original demos that were fully formed, he was actively working on these songs and perhaps the songs on Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey came along more easily to him. Or perhaps he forgot them altogether. However, like Free as a Bird and Real Love, I think Paul did an excellent job of completing the songs and arranging them.
As far as the technology used to finish the song, it doesn’t bother me in the least. One of the hallmarks of the Beatles, is their fearlessness in using whatever technology was available to them at the time. By all accounts they were excited by what they could do with new gadgets and would often intentionally throw the proverbial kitchen sink at tracks and songs, just to see what would happen. And furthermore. whether or not the song can live up to the rest of their original catalog is irrelevant. Of course, it can’t. Their output from 1962 to 1970 is an impenetrable fortress. There is no catalog in all modern music that has been as influential on such a global and generational scale.
I was not alive when The Beatles were together, but like millions and millions of people, I had the good fortune of hearing them from as far back as I can remember. I owe this to my father, who would play Rubber Soul (The American version) Abbey Road, and of course the ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ albums while I would be playing with my toys on the floor in our living room.
To the naysayers I say, be grateful and celebrate the fact that in the year 2023 we have the excitement of hearing a song written by John Lennon that has Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr playing on it. Their parts are real, the song is real.
Hearing John Lennon’s majestic voice so clearly, is an emotional and bittersweet reminder of his gift and what should have been. The whole track made me equal parts happy and sad. Hearing Ringo’s signature fills and Paul’s bass (and tribute slide solo for George), and George’s rhythm guitar felt like time itself could be manipulated. That somehow The Beatles could take us back before John and George passed on. They could cut through the horrors and injustices of our world, and just for a moment we could remember when they were all with us and it seemed that everyone was paying attention. The wonderful thing is that it isn’t fantasy. There is an actual song to listen to. I was transported back to my parents living room. Playing on the floor. Big Yamaha bookshelf speakers blasting Let it Be from my fathers, SL-1650 TechnicsTurntable. and me not even wondering where or when this glorious music was made.
Arguing the merits of any art is a fool’s game. But if your attitude is negative or suspicious going in, then the odds are pretty good you’ve already made up your mind, which is a shame because how many times can you say you were alive to hear the premiere of a Beatles song?