Who doesn’t look wistfully back at life and love, friendship and loss, now and then?
It’s incredible to write the following words, but here I go: “Now and Then” is a new song by the Beatles. Released late last week, it’s a warm, nostalgic, big-hearted rocker that explores the depths of human longing. And it never would have emerged without today’s cutting-edge sound technology.
For me, working up the nerve to give the song a listen — cautiously reopening some doorway to a beloved, beautiful, tragic past — took about a day.
Then, I spent the weekend unable to stop listening.
For many of us, the Beatles have always been a matter of looking backwards. It was the mid-1970s, when I was around 10 years old, that I fully absorbed the greatness and the madness — both of which were gone by then, but certainly never forgotten.
“Now and Then” is supposedly the grand finale in what’s been a remarkably durable unspooling of impossible-yet-true posthumous Beatles discoveries across the decades since the band broke up a literal lifetime ago, in 1970. But, in an age of technological marvels that seem to be testing the very boundaries of life and possibility, who knows whether final is ever really final anymore?
The Beatles certainly seemed done-and-then-some in the mid-1990s, when the three surviving members of the band — Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr — reunited to work on Lennon demo tapes they were given by Yoko Ono, John Lennon’s widow.
The “Threetles,” as they jokingly retitled themselves, overdubbed their full and unmistakable sound on three humble cassette-recorder demos Lennon made at home, which hadn’t been intended for release. Two of those newly completed songs, “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love,” were issued as part of The Beatles’ massive, authorized autobiography of themselves in film and music, the 1995 “Anthology” project.
“Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” were a pair of little gifts to loyal Beatles fans whose hopes of a real reunion had always been dashed. These two pleasant, slow, contemplative tunes seem to amble down the boulevard of post-superstardom contentment that Lennon achieved in the late 1970s. Given that their core sources were low-quality cassette tapes, nobody was surprised that they sounded heavy on production and polish, most especially, and unfortunately, on John Lennon’s thin, ghostly voice.
Arriving 15 years after Lennon’s death, “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” sure seemed like the very final word from The Beatles. How could they not be? After a little work on “Now and Then,” George Harrison reportedly vetoed going further with source tapes that just didn’t sound good. Harrison’s death in 2001 seemed to seal that deal forever.
Martin and Jackson
But public appetite for more Beatles wasn’t sated, and the long road kept winding.
For one thing, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, now both in their 80s, continue to defy rock-star gravity with respected new releases and sellout tours that never seem to end.
Innovative music producer Giles Martin — the son of original Beatles producer George Martin, the inarguable “fifth Beatle” who added such musical seasoning and technical brilliance to the band’s sound — developed ways to rejigger, refresh and rejuvenate Beatles music, bringing terrific new depth and clarity to a series of expanded 50th-anniversary editions of the band’s late-album catalog, “Revolver” through “Abbey Road.”
Filmmaker Peter Jackson took the technological revival of inferior source material even further two years ago with the release of “Get Back,” a sprawling TV documentary about the band during deeply troubled times. “Get Back” turned out to be the unexpected rescue mission that the flat, lifeless 1970 film “Let It Be” always deserved, finding hitherto unknown color and joy in famously unhappy sessions — and nurturing the Beatles’ image as simply magical.
The Beatles are such a cultural touchstone that a cheesy-but-likeable romcom film called “Yesterday” recently tried imagining a world without their music, and seemed to conclude that was impossible.
Now, the latest (OK, maybe last) chapter in the Beatles story even includes artificial intelligence. In addition to his voice and piano, John Lennon’s original demo of “Now and Then” reportedly also featured background TV chatter and some sort of ongoing electric hum. All of which is why The Threetles concluded that Lennon’s tape just wasn’t up to snuff, and shelved work on “Now and Then.”
But a lot has changed since 1995, when it wasn’t possible to separate voices from noises on the same tape. Today it is, thanks to artificial intelligence in the hands of technical wizards Jackson and Giles Martin. So Paul McCartney (always the careful custodian of the Beatles’ legend) and Ringo Starr took on “Now and Then” again.
If your first listen is anything like mine, you’ll start out skeptical, emotionally swamped, even a little mistrustful of the technological trickery: Come on, how can this really be the Beatles?
It really is, unmistakably, The Beatles. Not quite the Beatles of the 1960s, of course, but some weirdly time-warped version: older, wiser, sadder, maybe even stronger. The uniquely nasal croon of John Lennon is so boldly forward in the mix, it’s a bit jarring how alive and vulnerable he sounds. It’s a vast improvement over the shadowy Lennon voice of those 1995 “Anthology” songs.
The real magic, though, is in Lennon’s yearning subject: the crucial people in life who make us what we are, and then disappear. Perhaps the very simple lyrics would have seen development and revision if Lennon had lived to work on “Now and Then” more.
Listening today, there’s a strange, complex poignancy to hearing the famously cynical Beatle, whom we lost to gun violence in 1980, admitting that he misses lost loved ones — while accompanied by the bandmates who never reunited during his lifetime.
“Now and Then” may be sweet, but it’s never syrupy (despite soaring orchestral backing) thanks to Starr’s muscular drumming, McCartney’s earthy bass and a distinctly slow, elegant, Harrisonesque slide-guitar solo that McCartney has called his tribute to his “baby brother.” (Harrison’s voice and acoustic guitar, recorded in 1995, are the subtlest ingredients here.)
“Now and Then” may be melancholic, but it’s never downbeat, thanks to the same comforting, unhurried-but-purposeful groove it shares with “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love.” It’s as if all three songs came to Lennon while he took a stroll, pondering his past — and a future that never came.
There’s no use comparing “Now and Then” to Lennon’s greatest achievements — the cosmic consciousness of “Across the Universe,” the abstract isolation of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” even the rocking poetry of “Nowhere Man.” This song is the work of an older composer and, decades later, even older bandmates. Spontaneity and electricity between them (so amazingly plentiful in the “Get Back” documentary) weren’t possible across the intervening years, only respect, tenderness and a bittersweet sense of closure.
Musically, “Now and Then” sits comfortably — if a little less majestically — alongside grand late-Beatles productions like Harrison’s “Something” or McCartney’s “Let It Be.” Lyrically, it approaches Lennon’s thoughtful, confessional “In My Life,” as the singer admits: “If I make it through, it’s all because of you.”
It’s uncanny how those longing, grateful lyrics seem to speak to The Beatles themselves: the old group we lost, the new group we’ve found again.