When Paul McCartney said in June that the power of AI had enabled a ‘final’ Beatles song, I was admittedly a little bit sceptical.
Following the legendary band’s messy split in 1970, they never fully reunited as a four, something made impossible by John Lennon’s murder in 1980. Yet, in 1995, the three living members, McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, reworked and fully recorded two old John Lennon demos – “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” – and released them as new Beatles songs, with the aid of Jeff Lynne of ELO (Mr. Blue Sky) fame. They had intended on recording over a third Lennon demo, ‘Now and Then’, but abandoned the idea due to the choppy nature of Lennon’s recording. Yet, in 2023, McCartney and Starr, along with long-time collaborator Giles Martin (son of their iconic producer George Martin), were able to record the song and release it properly as the “last ever Beatles song”.
This is quite a moniker for a song to have to live up to – to be the final song of the most iconic and pioneering band of all time – especially with only half the remaining members. Those expecting something akin to ‘A Day in the Life’, ‘Let It Be’, or ‘Here Comes the Sun’ in complexity and scope will most likely be somewhat disappointed. But for those like me, who simply wanted to hear the melodic harmonies of John and Paul, the sweet guitar tones of George, and the stirring drumming of Ringo, all together on a song for the final time, ‘Now and Then’ does the job beautifully.
The song opens with confident minor piano chords and strumming from the late George Harrison, recorded in the 90s, before we are introduced to Lennon’s voice. Unlike in ‘Free as a Bird’ and ‘Real Love’, Lennon’s voice is crisp, clear, and young as ever – as if we are hearing him as a young man once again. “I know it’s true, it’s all because of you, and if I make it through, it’s all because of you,” he sings. Recording the demo in 1977, he was likely referring to his wife Yoko Ono, but released as a Beatles track, the otherwise simplistic lyrics take on an added meaning towards his former bandmates.
“And now and then, if we must start again / Well, we will know for sure, that I will love you,” sings Lennon in the next line; the double tracking overdubs by a now-aged McCartney bring back a Beatlesque feel to the song despite its obvious modernity. The penultimate two words of the line, “love you”, are sang solely by McCartney, as Lennon had not quite found the words to fit in his demo. McCartney taking on the rest of the line feels symbolic of the pair’s creative song-writing partnership in their youths, during which they would frequently riff on each other’s lines to help one another out.
It cannot be pretended that the chorus, “now and then, I miss you,” contains a lot of lyrical complexity. But its simplicity is what makes it beautiful; at its core, it is a duet of Paul and John, two artists separated by 45 years, singing about how they miss one another. Though the sound of the song is distinctly present-day, there is still a Beatlesque feel to it – not just because of the chord changes, but also because of the “ooh” and “ahh” harmonies under the chorus that have been lifted directly by McCartney and Martin from actual Beatles songs (‘Here, There and Everywhere’, ‘Because’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’). The chorus feels like a journey in time; we are simultaneously hearing 60s Beatles, 70s Lennon, 90s Harrison and 2020s McCartney and Starr – apt for the song’s title of now and then.
Following the second verse and chorus, we get a guitar solo that feels distinctly George Harrison, despite his 2001 death, overlaid with more “ooh”s and “ahh”s from him and the other Beatles, as well as a delicate string arrangement that could be straight out of “Eleanor Rigby” or “Yesterday”. The refrain (“I know it’s true”) subsequently returns, and the song ends with a short return of Harrison’s solo, along with a beautiful string outro that finishes on a minor chord – a melancholy yet nostalgic finish to the Beatles’ catalogue. The true end of the song is a faint “good one” from drummer Starr, the heart of the band. And, with that, it is the end of the Beatles.
Truth be told, when I first heard the song, I was not completely blown away. But on subsequent relistens, picking up more and more of the song, such as McCartney’s delicate harmonies, the weaving of multiple eras of recordings into one, and the genius sampling of old Beatles tracks, I have begun to appreciate it more and more. It is a journey through time that is in equal parts nostalgic and sombre due to the losses of Lennon and Harrison, underpinned by Martin’s expert production, McCartney’s intricate harmonies, and Starr’s drumming, consistent as ever. It is not particularly complex or a lyrical masterpiece, but a beautiful rendition of a John Lennon demo, and a lovely song in its own right.
Having listened to the original demo, many pointed out that Lennon’s middle section, containing the lines “I don’t wanna lose you / Lose you or abuse you” were ignored in the new recording, though I think they would have felt a little out of place. Indeed, my only minor issue with the song is that, often, the listener cannot quite hear McCartney, Starr or Harrison distinctly enough (as, say, you could do on ‘Free as a Bird’, which contains middle sections sung by McCartney and Harrison respectively); a final Beatles song should, in my opinion, have felt more equal between the band members. But I digress.
The song was accompanied by a Peter Jackson-directed music video, which documents the process in which the song was created, interspersed with old clips of the band together; it also features brushed-up VFX-edited clips of a young Lennon and Harrison, inserted such that they are standing and singing alongside the present-day McCartney and Starr. Though these can border a little on the uncanny valley side, the video is an emotional experience, particularly the final third, which takes the Beatles all the way back in time to their beginnings as the Quarrymen in the Cavern Club in Liverpool. The song finishes with the Beatles bowing following a live concert, and then disappearing from the frame, a creative decision from Jackson that almost brought a tear to my eye (even as someone who wasn’t old enough to experience half of the band being alive, yet alone performing and releasing music!).
As far as “final Beatles songs” go, I still find myself preferring their 90s songs ‘Free as a Bird’ and ‘Real Love’, which are more musically complex and inventive. Yet ‘Now and Then’ is still a worthy final addition to the Beatles canon, made greater by masterful production and seamless interweaving of old recordings with new, as well as a particularly poignant music video. In any case, as a teenager who fell in love with the band decades after their time, experiencing a new Beatles song releasing in my lifetime is incredible in itself.
All in all, ‘Now and Then’ is a sweet song that serves as an emotional goodbye from the four boys in Liverpool that are, and always will be, the greatest band of all time.