Review by Bruce Spizer
The world’s worst kept secret can now at last be told. Apple, Capitol and Universal Music will soon be releasing what is properly dubbed as “The Last Beatles Song.” The track, “Now And Then,” features a John Lennon vocal and later contributions from the other Beatles. There has been much confusion and misinformation about the track that needs clarification.
First and foremost, “Now And Then” was not created by AI (artificial intelligence). The track contains John’s actual vocal that was pulled from a poor-quality cassette home demo of the song. This was accomplished by WingNut Films’ MAL audio technology, a variation of AI, that was used to de-mix and isolate separate vocals and instruments for Peter Jackson’s 2021 Get Back documentary. So, while AI learned what John’s voice sounds like, AI did not create John’s vocal heard on the upcoming release of “Now And Then.” The MAL audio technology merely isolated John’s vocal from all the other sounds on the tape, allowing for John’s pure voice to be used in the recording of a new backing track for his vocal. What you hear is actually John singing, not an incredible simulation of thereof.
Second, George Harrison did not halt production on “Now And Then” during the Anthology sessions because he thought the song was terrible. George’s concern was that the home demo of “Now And Then” was rubbage due to its poor sound quality. It would be too difficult to build an acceptable-sounding track from the cassette tape. The song was one of four known home demo recordings given to Paul by Yoko Ono for the surviving Beatles to record for the Anthology project. The other songs were “Free As A Bird,” “Real Love” and “Grow Old With Me.” After George Martin declined to produce the recording of the songs, George Harrison insisted that Jeff Lynne be brought in. The surviving Beatles completed “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love,” with both tracks being released on Anthology. Although initial work was done on “Now And Then,” George decided that the group should not complete the song for release due to the poor fidelity of and extraneous sounds on the home demo.
John’s original demo of “Now And Then,” with John backing himself on piano, has been available on the grey market for years. The song was one of two previously unpublished tunes to appear in the 2005 Broadway show Lennon, though under the title “I Don’t Want To Lose You.” With the advent of AI, multiple versions with improved sound can be found on YouTube. In addition, there are versions of the song with instrumental backings added. The official Beatles release of “Now And Then” renders such audio creations mere curiosities that need not be listened to again.
The recording history of “Now And Then” began during the second half of the 1970s when John recorded his home demo of the song. During the Jeff Lynne-produced Anthology sessions of the mid-nineties, Paul and George played acoustic guitars and added backing vocals, while George contributed electric guitar and Ringo played drums over the home demo recording, but that was about as far as it got. Paul, however, was able to resurrect the song project due to technological advances. While engineers during the Anthology era were unable to separate John’s voice from his piano and the extraneous sounds on the low fidelity cassette, AI was used to isolate John’s pure vocal. By way of comparison, for “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love,” the three surviving Beatles added their instruments and voices over an John’s cassette tape, while for “Now And Then,” John’s voice was pulled from the tape to use as a separate track on which to build a new recording. In sessions produced by Paul and Giles Martin in 2022, Paul and Ringo added vocals to the track, along with overdubs of a new Ringo drum part and Paul on piano (copying John’s original part) and bass. Paul also contributed electric harpsichord and a slide guitar part in the style of George Harrison. Additional percussion includes Paul and Ring on shakers and Ringo on tambourine.
The Beatles release of “Now And Then” has the sound of a final statement evident from the song’s opening notes. You immediately know that you are about to hear a meaningful and significant musical statement from the Beatles. And then John’s voice glides in with pristine clarity and tenderness. Later, when Paul and Ringo sing “Now and then I miss you,” you feel they are singing those words to John and George. That’s because they are, making the track a heart-felt reminder that this is indeed The Last Beatles Song and that John and George are gone and missed.
While John’s demo merely contained his vocal accompanied by piano, the Beatles “Now And Then” is a majestic production reminiscent of the Beatles 1967 and 1968 recordings. Paul and George’s acoustic guitars not only help propel the song but add beauty and depth. Paul plays melodic bass lines and Ringo, as usual, provides the perfect drumming for the song. A tasteful string arrangement, written by Giles Martin, Paul and Ben Foster and recorded at the Capitol Tower in 2022, effectively adds to the poignant mood of the song. Paul and Giles also mixed in backing vocals from the Beatles sixties recordings of “Here, There And Everywhere,” “Eleanor Rigby” and “Because” utilizing the techniques employed for the Love show. Paul’s slide guitar not only fits in well with the recorded song, but also serves as a fitting tribute to George and his growth as a guitarist during his career. And while George was right in bringing production of “Now And Then” to a halt during the Anthology sessions due to the poor sonics of John’s home demo, we are fortunate that Paul recognized what could now be done with the song utilizing current technology. “Now And Then” is clearly worthy of being The Last Beatles Song.
Apple prepared a 12-minute film on the making of “Now And Then” that will be available for viewing on the Beatles YouTube channel starting on November 1 at 3:30 PM Eastern Daylight Time (7:30 PM GMT and 12:30PM Pacific Daylight Time). The film not only tells the history of the recording of the song over the years, but also contains footage from the Anthology and recent recording sessions. It is well worth watching.
Apple will also be debuting a video of “Now And Then” on November 3. The video was directed by Peter Jackson, who is best known for creating marathon-length films such as The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies and the nearly eight-hours-long Get Back documentary. He now has demonstrated that he can work his magic in a film of under five minutes length. Using and mixing bits of videos dating back to the sixties and continuing through the present, Jackson has created a touching masterpiece sure to move even the cold-hearted. It is full of surprises and ends appropriately with an iconic image from the height of Beatlemania. I was fortunate to see the video three times in a single day back in September. I have no embarrassment admitting that the video brought tears to my eyes during each viewing. It’s a touching and brilliant video interpretation of The Last Beatles Song, “Now And Then.”
On Friday, November 3, Apple, Capitol and Universal will be releasing “Now And Then” in limited quantities of four variations of seven-inch vinyl singles (black, light blue, marble and clear), a 10-inch black vinyl single, two variations of 12-inch singles (black and red) and a cassette single. For these releases, The Last Beatles Song, “Now And Then,” is paired with the first Beatles song, “Love Me Do,” which was remixed by Giles Martin and Sam Okell utilizing the same AI-based MAL audio isolation technology used on “Now And Then.” But in this case, each of the Beatles instruments and vocals were separated out and effectively placed on a separate track to allow for the first-ever proper stereo mix of the song.
One week later, on November 10, Apple and Universal will be releasing CD and vinyl expanded editions of The Red Album and The Blue Album, with “Now And Then” appearing on the latter collection. I will write about those albums in an upcoming separate review.