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The Beatles Tug The Heartstrings On Final Song, ‘Now And Then’

'It took almost a quarter of a century for us to wait until the right moment,' says Paul McCartney
The Beatles in April 1969 (photo: Bruce McBroom / Apple Corps Ltd.)

The Beatles‘ “Now and Then” debuted around the world this morning (Nov. 2), bringing to life a rough John Lennon voice-and-piano home demo from the late 1970s thanks to the same machine-learning technology developed by Peter Jackson during work on his 2021 film about the group, Get Back.

As previously reported, the surviving Beatles attempted to work on “Now and Then” in 1995 but left it unfinished; it was completed in the past year by the group’s lone living members, Paul McCartney, 81, and Ringo Starr, 83. The song will be included on the upcoming expanded reissues of the Beatles’ classic Red and Blue compilations albums, which will be released Nov. 10.

“Now and Then” is an elegiac, haunting ballad featuring Lennon’s crystal clear, instantly recognizable voice. It retains the late George Harrison’s 1995-era acoustic and electric guitar parts, sports a new drum part from Starr, and bass, guitar, piano, and slide guitar from McCartney. The string arrangement was written by Giles Martin, McCartney, and Ben Foster, while Martin wove in original backing vocals from Beatles songs “Here, There and Everywhere,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and “Because,” in much the same mashup fashion as the Beatles’ 2006 Love album.

“Every time we wanted a little more of John’s voice, this piano came through and clouded the picture,” McCartney says of the initial attempts to work on the song in the Oliver Murray-directed making-of film released yesterday. The Beatles did finish two other Lennon songs from the same demo, “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love,” for the Beatles Anthology collection, and although “Now and Then” was not one of them, Harrison says in 1995 b-roll that he was sure Lennon “would have really enjoyed that opportunity to be with us again.”

McCartney recalls wondering, “Is this something we shouldn’t do? Every time I thought like that, I thought, wait a minute. Let’s say I had a chance to ask John: hey John. Would you like us to finish this last song of yours? I’m telling you, I know the answer would have been, yeah! He would have loved that.” Still, work on “Now And Then” simply ran out of steam, according to McCartney. “It was like, well, I don’t know. Maybe we’ll leave this one. ‘Now and Then’ just kind of languished in a cupboard. And then in 2001, we lost George, which kind of took the wind out of our sails. It took almost a quarter of a century for us to wait until the right moment to tackle ‘Now and Then’ again.”

Cut to 2021, and thrilled by the audio restoration done for Get Back, the Beatles sent the original demo cassette to Jackson and his team, who were able to isolate Lennon’s vocal from his piano part for the first time. “So in the mix, we could lift John’s voice without lifting the piano, which had always been one of the problems,” McCartney says. “Now we could mix it, and make a proper record of it. I pulled it out and listened to it, and thought, oh, I could actually do the bass a bit better, so why don’t I start there?”

“My dad would have loved that, because he was never shy to experiment with recording technology,” says Lennon and Yoko Ono’s son Sean, who was only five years old when his father was murdered in New York in December 1980. “I think it’s really beautiful. It was incredibly touching to hear them working together after all the years that my dad had been gone. It’s the last song that my dad and Paul and George and Ringo will get to make together.”

After Starr re-recorded his drums, McCartney selected Capitol Studios in Los Angeles to record the string parts “because that had been EMI and it was sort of Beatle-y. We had to put the music out on the stands for the musicians, but we couldn’t tell them it was a new Beatles song. It was all a bit hush-hush. We pretended it was just something of mine. On the new record, there’s a guitar solo. We had kept George’s guitar parts from ’95, and I thought, what I’d like to do is do a slide guitar solo in George’s style. It was really a tribute to George. Then we started mixing it. Wow. This is it. Now it’s a Beatle record.”

“Now and Then” is liable to send Beatles fans reaching for a tissue to dab their eyes, as it adds yet another deeply emotional new chapter to the band’s ever-legendary story. Murray’s short film concludes with audio of McCartney, Harrison, and Starr discussing musical ideas for the song back in 1995 — a full-circle moment as only the Beatles seem able to conjure.

“All of those memories come flooding back,” McCartney admits. “My God. How lucky was I to have those men in my life, and to work with those men so intimately, and to come up with such a body of music? To still be working on Beatles music in 2023, wow. We’re actually messing around with state of the art technology, which is something the Beatles would have been very interested in. ‘Now and Then,’ it’s probably like the last Beatles song, and we’ve all played on it, so it is a genuine Beatle recording.”

Jackson’s official music video for “Now and Then,” his first as a filmmaker, will be released tomorrow, even though he initially declined the invitation to direct it due to his own anxieties. “To be honest, while we hope we’ve given the Beatles a suitable final farewell, that’s something you’ll need to decide for yourselves,” he says. “Having got to the end, I’m very happy I’m not waiting for the release of somebody else’s ‘Now And Then’ music video. I have genuine pride in what we made, and I’ll cherish that for years to come. A huge thanks to Apple Corps and the Fabs for giving me all the support I needed — and not allowing me to wriggle away.”