I love the new song, Now and Then, but I’m not sure of the implications of manipulating the voices of dead people. It could change history and what we know – or think we know – about people.
In the mid-’70s, long after The Beatles had officially parted ways, John Lennon recorded a series of demos straight to cassette tape in his home in New York City. After his death in 1980, his wife, Yoko Ono, passed the tapes to the remaining Beatles, and in 1995, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison began work on a trio of new Beatles songs born from Lennon’s sketches. You’ve heard a couple of them before—“Real Love” and “Free as a Bird”—but one of them never came to fruition during those sessions. “When we started ‘Now and Then,’ it was very difficult because John was sort of hidden in a way,” said Starr in a documentary about how The Beatles’ final song came together. “In John’s demo tape, the piano was a little hard to hear,” said McCartney. They put together some of the song’s building blocks, including having Harrison record guitar parts for the song. But they couldn’t properly isolate Lennon’s vocals from his piano. So “‘Now and Then’ just kind of languished in a cupboard,” McCartney said.
Fast-forward to 2022. Using machine-learning technology that director Peter Jackson’s team had developed for the 2021 Beatles documentary Get Back, engineers were able to separate Lennon’s voice from his original demo of “Now and Then,” finally allowing the remaining Beatles to finish the track. “It’s like John’s there,” said Ringo of the now-crystalline vocal track. “It’s far out.” Paul and producer Giles Martin (son of Beatles producer George Martin) were then able to assemble John’s 1970s vocals with George’s 1995 guitar lines and Paul and Ringo’s new vocal and instrumental parts, as well as a string arrangement, to complete the song.
Bearing the signatures of all four Beatles, it’s a doleful ballad and a poignant good-bye, with lyrics—“And if you go away, I’ll know you’re there”—that resonate far beyond their initial intentions. Hear The Beatles’ last song alongside their very first—1962’s “Love Me Do”—and watch the trailer for the documentary about how “Now and Then” was made.
Now and Then’s eventful journey to fruition took place over five decades and is the product of conversations and collaborations between the four Beatles that go on to this day.
The long mythologised John Lennon demo was first worked on in February 1995 by Paul, George and Ringo as part of The Beatles Anthology project but it remained unfinished, partly because of the impossible technological challenges involved in working with the vocal John had recorded on tape in the 1970s. For years it looked like the song could never be completed.
But in 2022 there was a stroke of serendipity. A software system developed by Peter Jackson and his team, used throughout the production of the documentary series Get Back, finally opened the way for the uncoupling of John’s vocal from his piano part. As a result, the original recording could be brought to life and worked on anew with contributions from all four Beatles.
This remarkable story of musical archaeology reflects The Beatles’ endless creative curiosity and shared fascination with technology. It marks the completion of the last recording that John, Paul and George and Ringo will get to make together and celebrates the legacy of the foremost and most influential band in popular music history.
What do you think?