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The Beatles: "Now and Then" (2023)

All the way back in 2008, I wrote a series of  posts covering the recorded output of an obscure 1960s band called The Beatles. Though never especially popular or commercially successful, they managed to release an impressive 13 albums and 2 compilations in a 7-year period.

Once I completed those reviews, I promptly forgot all about the Beatles. I was sure that I didn't need to keep tabs on them, because all indications were that they'd never reunite or release any more music.

So you can imagine my surprise a couple of weeks ago when I came across a YouTube video claiming to be about the making of a new "final" Beatles song called "Now and Then."

And then imagine even more surprise when I learned that this song was not the first new Beatles song since 1970. It's the third!

As it turns out, the Beatles had actually "reuinted" to record more music in the 1990s. Though band member John Lennon was killed in 1980, he left behild some unfinished songs. Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr teamed up with Jeff Lynne (of Electric Light Orchestra fame) to turn those circa 1977 demos into new Beatles songs.

They woked on three songs, "Free as a Bird," "Real Love," and "Now and Then." The first two were were released in 1995 and 1996 respectively, but "Now and Then" was abandoned. Reportedly, the lads were frustrated by the low quality of the demo, and ran out of time to finish. 

All this time, the song has stuck in McCartney's craw. Fast forward 20 years and technology has advanced enough that Paul was able to use machine-aided learning to extract John's vocal from the original demo and use that to finally bring his vision for the song to life. Wow, living in the future ain't so bad sometimes.

So, to complete this project I started all those years ago, let's review the final three Beatles songs!

"Free as a Bird" (1995)

Apparently, this song premiered to the world at the end of the first part of a documentary that aired in Novemeber 1995. The documentary was a ratings disaster and the song sunk into obscurity (it certainly didn't go top 10 on the charts and win two Grammys). 

Now I don't believe the recpetion is an indication of its quality, but there is something that feels off about "Free as a Bird." It's not just the semi-goulish nature of a collaboration between three live musicians and one dead one, but it is the combination of that and the ghostly, dirgelike melody. For a song ostensibly about joy and freedom it just feels so sad. I think Paul recognized this, and that led him to switch roles with John and write a verse about regret and loss. There are a few Beatles songs that make good use of the happy / sad dynamic, but I think it might have been more effective here if Paul and George's verses had shifted into an uptempo major key sort of thing. 

All that said "Free as a Bird" has some little joys, such as Harrison's opening guitar solo, the gorgeous "ah" harmonies on the bridge, and the false ending with the little bit of John dialgoue.


"Real Love" (1996)

"Real Love" is more like it, and its creative success reveals another fault of "Free as a Bird." From the midsixties on, the Beatles weren't an especially collaborative group. Or more precisely, the results of their collaborative process weren't readily obvious in the final product. So while Paul writing a verse, and Paul and George both taking turns on lead vocals on "Free as a Bird" was nice and all, it wasn't something that felt especially Beatlesque.

"Real Love," on the other hand, feels very much like a John song with Ringo playing drums, George adding lovely guitar bits, Paul on bass, and, once again, those harmonies. While it's not quite something you could imagine fitting on Abbey Road or Let It Be, it at least feels part and parcel of the Beatles discography, and doesn't betray the circumstances of its creation.


"Now and Then" (2023)
I'm going to put it out there: This is my favorite of the three. While there are likely many reasons why, I'm going with the simplest explanation: It has the best melody. 

I love that Paul showed the restraint to go the "Real Love" route and honor John's song above all else, while at the same time making it into one final collaboration between two men. Working with co-producer Giles Martin, Paul smartly reduced the original demo down to its esssence, removing a prechourus and unfinished verse, and adding his own floursishes in their place.

John's vocal is strong and immediate, placed front and center on the track. Since George Harrison died in 2001, his contribution is limited to some rhythm parts he recorded back in 1995, but we have Ringo on drums, Paul on bass and Harrison-esque guitar, and a touching string arrangement. The harmonies are said to be lifted from "Here, There, and Everywhere," Eleanor Rigby" and "Because," though the latter is the only one readily indentifiable to my ear.


And there we have it. The last three songs from a band that never quite got the attention they deserved, but nonetheless leave behind a discography worth revisiting now and then. 

If you'd like to check out my reviews of the Beatles' older work, here you go:
Help! (1965)
Rubber Soul (1965)
Revolver (1966)
The Beatles (1968)
Abbey Road (1969)


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