Thoughts on the ‘Last’ Beatles Song, ‘Now and Then’

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Reunited in the “Now and Then” music video.

We asked some of our Beatlefan staff members and regular contributors to share their thoughts on The Beatles’ “Now and Then.”

In 1996, nearly a year after the rollout of “The Beatles Anthology” project, which included the release of the three “Anthology” CD sets and the VHS expanded version of the original “Anthology” documentary, I wrote a piece for Beatlefan in which I noted how enjoyable the whole process, covering nearly a year, had been.

I especially enjoyed the communal feeling of the broadcast of the first installment of the documentary and, at the episode’s end, the countdown to the debut of the first electronic Beatles “reunion” song, “Free As a Bird.”

And, 28 years later, we had a similar shared moment at the beginning of November, with the debuts of a 12-minute documentary on the making of what was being billed as “the final Beatles song,” then the new recording itself, “Now and Then,” followed by the Peter Jackson-directed music video.

However, those three days turned out to be not nearly as universally enjoyed as Thanksgiving week of 1995, and at least part of the problem can be attributed to 21st century social media.

Oh, sure, there was social media in 1995-96. There were AOL chat rooms and message boards and discussion forums. But Facebook and Google and Twitter still were a decade or more away, with Instagram and the dreaded TikTok even farther away. And the vast majority of the Beatle world was not yet involved with the early social media, so we could enjoy each segment of the project without feeling obligated to express an opinion on it, save for those of us in the print-dominated Beatles media.

Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney finished off “Now and Then” for release.

Today, it’s a whole new world, as a 1990s catch phrase put it — one in which peer pressure dictates that everyone immediately weigh in on any big event, even if one isn’t all that knowledgeable about said event.

So, within moments of the Nov. 2 debut of “Now and Then,” there was a torrent of instant reactions. That’s all well and good, but soon came the reactions from those who only knew this as the supposed “A.I. Beatles song” (thanks for putting that out there, Paul!), as well as musical know-it-alls providing oft overdone analysis.

This also was the first time for most millennials and all of Gen Z to experience the debut of a new Beatles record and, of course, they had to chime in with their reactions. Many of them were not pleased that “Now and Then” wasn’t an upbeat slice of Beatles pop, that it wasn’t an “Eight Days a Week” for the 21st century.

It seemed that the only group truly moved by “Now and Then” was Beatles fandom’s first generation, some 60 years on from our first listen to a record by the group.

I think a bit of perspective is in order. As everyone reading this presumably knows by now, “Now and Then” started out as a John Lennon demo from his late ’70s househusband days at the Dakota. It was not one of his better ones, not nearly as good as “Free As a Bird” or “Real Love,” or most of the demos and unreleased recordings heard in the late ’80s on “The Lost Lennon Tapes.”

The back cover of the “Now and Then” single.

But it was one of the three songs on a cassette said to have been labeled “For Paul” (exactly who labeled it as such has been a subject of much speculation), and which Yoko Ono gave to Paul McCartney after he inducted Lennon into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

Those demo recordings became the foundation of the 1994-95 Threetles sessions involving McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. But the “Now and Then” demo, with the TV playing in the background, was of lousy sound quality and after some brief time spent working on it, Harrison reportedly concluded they should abandon the number. (Whether that was just because of the poor sound quality, or also because he didn’t think much of the song, has been another subject of debate.)

So, the song was put aside and became the stuff of fan obsession, much like the ’60s unreleased track “Carnival of Light,” with people making their own recordings of what they thought a Beatles version of “Now and Then” would sound like.

Then came the 2020s and Jackson’s revelatory work with his MAL technology (which is a machine-learning filtering process, not what most people mean by “A.I.”) on the “Get Back” docu-series.

The Threetles at work on the track in 1995.

With this new tool available, McCartney’s continuing interest in doing something with “Now and Then” came to the fore. And, with Giles Martin brought into the project, they were able to, um, take a sad song and make it better.

Going in, I was very apprehensive about this being “the final Beatles song,” because, basically, the number really is not up to The Beatles’ group standards.

But the work done somehow gave the final recording the majesty shared by so much of the group’s canon and Jeff Lynne’s production work on “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love.”

To me, this recording does indeed have the feel of a final bow.

Back in the ’70s, a lot of us held out hope that The Beatles would get together for at least one big reunion show.

My own fantasy had the group doing one blowout concert, climaxed by a performance of the entire “Abbey Road” medley, from “You Never Give Me Your Money” through “The End.” The Beatles then would take the traditional Brian Epstein-suggested bow and that would be the climax for the group.

Now, in an updating of my alternate-universe fantasy, The Beatles would return to the stage after the medley, perform “Now and Then,” take another final bow, and walk off together into history. …

Al Sussman

The “Now and Then” CD single.

Waking up to a day highlighted by a new recording featuring a never-before-released Beatles song was something nobody imagined might happen again. And, from what the surviving members of the band tell us, now that it has happened, it never will again.

We’d been anticipating “Now and Then” for months, ever since Paul McCartney mentioned in a BCC Radio interview that The Beatles’ camp had used “artificial intelligence” to create a “new” tune using John Lennon’s voice.

What Paul meant was that new technology — created and used by film director Peter Jackson’s team to isolate obscured audio in “The Beatles: Get Back” documentary and then also used by producer Giles Martin in the remixing of last year’s “Revolver” package — had been deployed to isolate and clean up Lennon’s vocal on an old demo.

While many in the media and on social media went crazy misinforming anyone within clicking range of a hyperlink that “A.I.” had been used to create a “fake” Lennon vocal, most fans knew what Paul meant. And we also knew that he was talking about “Now and Then,” a Lennon track that he, George Harrison and Ringo Starr all had worked on during their “Anthology” sessions in the mid-1990s, but gave up on because the sound quality of Lennon’s cassette was so bad.

Likely, many people who hear the new track wrongly will believe that the Lennon voice they hear is computer-generated, but we shouldn’t let that distract or prevent us from enjoying this new Beatles song, because it is enjoyable, as well as moving, tender, surprising, melodic and vital, and also because it is a Beatles song.

All four members of the band are heard on the tune: John’s vocal, George’s acoustic rhythm guitar, Ringo’s drums, and Paul on harmony vocals and a number of instruments, including, of course, bass, keyboards and a slide guitar solo that pays tribute to Harrison.

The tune opens with a count-in a la “I Saw Her Standing There” and a few other songs from The Beatles’ catalog. That’s followed by a stately, minor-key piano melody and Lennon’s voice, clear as day.

Hearing Lennon here is haunting, yet welcome, like the voice of a dear friend you thought you’d never hear from again, speaking to you anew. Everything else on the track, the new instrumental parts, backing vocals and strings (arranged by Martin) supports and pays tribute to that voice, as if to say, “We hear you, John. We’re listening to you. And we are here for you.”
As such, the song arrives as a comforting message of support to the listener, telling us that The Beatles’ music is still present and here for us, offering solace, wisdom, peace and respite from all of the madness at hand.

The band did this throughout their career, providing us with positive, affirmative messages that made us feel better about things, including ourselves, from “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand”  and “The Word” on through “Here Comes the Sun” and “The End” on “Abbey Road,” which repeats “Love you, Love you” before landing on the prayer-like sentiment, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
Lennon’s song acknowledges the obstacles to love and the need to overcome them and preserve what’s important and sacred, which is friendship and commitment to a relationship. It’s a message that we need to take to heart, now more than ever.
Only the most dark-hearted cynic would see this as a money grab or a last bid for more attention. It’s a gift, and one I receive with deep appreciation and gratitude. The world today is a sad song and The Beatles (yes, The Beatles) now have made it a little bit better.

John Firehammer

Ringo showing off the “Now and Then” disc in an online video.

The release of “Now and Then” was another one of those moments in Beatles history when the Fab Four’s music created a global listening party.

Like the release of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in June 1967, the satellite broadcast of “All You Need Is Love” a few weeks later (reaching an estimated 400 million viewers in 25 countries), the much-anticipated debut of “Free as a Bird” in 1995, and 2021’s “Get Back” documentary series, the “last Beatles song” gave fans a shared experience.

Released in a world connected virtually, “Now and Then” allowed us to listen, react and shed tears together in real time. Coupled with the release of director Peter Jackson’s music video, the song carries an emotional impact worthy of The Beatles’ legacy.

For first-generation fans, the song and video unleashed a flood of memories. For Gen-X, millennials, Gen Z and beyond, “Now and Then” brought the thrill of witnessing the release of a new Beatles song.

It has given all of us the chance to hear John Lennon again, his voice lifted pure and clear from a tape made more than four decades ago, joined by his three bandmates in a collaboration that evokes love, regret and remembrance.

It is a fitting coda to the best-loved music catalog of our time, and a moving tribute to four friends who shook the world.

Kathy Urbanic

Look for much more on “Now and Then” in Beatlefan #265 in December.