For any Beatles fan, casual or die-hard, Thursday’s release of the first “new” Beatles song in almost 30 years was a bittersweet gift, offering us the last new track that will ever feature the Fab Four as a group. The song, “Now and Then,” owes its existence to three separate recording attempts spanning nearly fifty years: a demo tape from 1977 recorded by John Lennon at the Dakota Hotel; a 1995 attempt by the three surviving Beatles that ended after only two days; and a revived effort by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr to finish the song with the help of artificial intelligence. It’s truly a miracle to hear the voice of John Lennon 43 years after his assassination, and the expert guitar stylings of George Harrison 22 years after his death.
But make no mistake: this is not a Beatles song.
Sonically, the song bears much more resemblance to recent Paul McCartney works than to other pieces from the Beatles’ repertoire.
This statement is not meant to belittle the quality of the tune, nor to imply that only the most artistic tracks from their vast repertoire should be considered “true Beatles songs.” After all, one aspect of the band’s enduring charm was their uncanny ability to include bizarre and unmemorable songs alongside their most beloved. You can’t have a “Rubber Soul” without “What Goes On,” and you can’t have a “White Album” without “Wild Honey Pie.” So, then, what is it about “Now and Then” that seems off? For one thing, the song lacks the real-time collaboration that defined the Beatles’ style, despite the deliberate attempt to include all four members on the track. The drive to finish this song seems to have been spearheaded by McCartney. His has been the main voice calling for its completion since 2007, even after Harrison reportedly called it “f**king rubbish.” McCartney is credited not only on several instruments, but also as a producer of the track and one of the composers of the string arrangement.
Sonically, the song bears much more resemblance to recent Paul McCartney works than to other pieces from the Beatles’ repertoire. The song’s jaunty rhythm, guided by heavy piano and acoustic guitar, would fit much better on McCartney’s 2018 “Egypt Station” than on any Beatles album. McCartney’s changes to the song are most apparent when you listen to the original demo (although Universal Music Group is now copyright striking YouTube videos of the demo, so good luck finding it). The new version is sped up, while the original feels much more like a late-period John Lennon ballad in the style of “Woman” or “Grow Old With Me.” The new release even cuts out the bridge from the demo, the most intimate section of the song and arguably the most Lennon-like with its odd key-change from A-minor to F sharp-minor. The absence of the bridge may be attributable to Lennon’s half-formed lyrics and weak singing on the demo tape, but its removal still leaves a noticeable hole in the final product. Interestingly, a brand new bridge is added in its place, with one section lifted from “Abbey Road’s” “Because” injected toward the end.
Ultimately, 2023’s “Now and Then” is not a Beatles song, but rather a Beatles tribute song.
Compare this new release to 1995’s “Free as a Bird” and 1996’s “Real Love” from the Beatles’ “Anthology” project. Like “Now and Then,” these two songs originated from demo tapes recorded by Lennon and gifted to the three surviving Beatles as a way to bring the band back together one final time. Unlike “Now and Then,” however, the studio versions of these songs stay truer to both the original demos and the Beatles’ own sound. Neither “Free as a Bird” nor “Real Love” tamper with the structure of Lennon’s original compositions, as the only real changes to the songs themselves are finishing touches to some incomplete lyrics in the chorus of “Free as a Bird.” (Paul would later say that “Free as a Bird” was more satisfying for the three remaining Beatles to record than “Real Love” because it felt as though they were all chipping in on the song.) This distinction is important, because despite Lennon’s absence from the “Anthology” sessions, his demo tapes were his voice. The only agency he could exert on the final songs were his lyrics and melodies, and the others Beatles respected his voice by limiting their input to instrumentation of the songs and providing the few unfinished lyrics Lennon had left for later. In this way, “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” feel much more like the Beatles in conversation than the final product of “Now and Then,” which suffers not only from Lennon’s absence but – outside of a few guitar parts and background harmonies – Harrison’s as well.
Ultimately, 2023’s “Now and Then” is not a Beatles song, but rather a Beatles tribute song. It is a beautiful effort to bring John, Paul, George and Ringo back together on one final track, paying homage to a fleeting moment when four lads transformed the music world in ways that reverberate to this day. I have no doubt that McCartney and Starr completed this song as a loving gesture to their former bandmates and lifelong friends, and watching the documentary short of the story behind the song brings a tear to my eye. But without Lennon and Harrison here to provide their own artistic input on the final product, “Now and Then” can never truly be a Beatles song, no matter how much it would please me to have one more track to attribute to my favorite band.
The song should instead be remembered as an opportunity for the remaining Beatles to say goodbye to the ones who have left. Like McCartney’s “Here Today” and Harrison’s “All Those Years Ago” in the wake of Lennon’s assassination. Or Starr’s “Never Without You” and McCartney’s “Friends to Go” after Harrison’s death. Or even “When We Was Fab,” Harrison’s nostalgic tribute to his time in the band that remains one of the greatest recreations of the Beatles’ style in music history. As the final track that will ever feature all of the Fab Four together, “Now and Then” gives McCartney and Starr – and the rest of us – a chance to say one last farewell to the band that inspired us all.
Listen to the full song below, via YouTube:
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