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2 November 2023

The fatal flaw in the “final” Beatles song

On “Now and Then”, created using AI, John Lennon’s voice is punchy and crisp. Does that make it a great song?

By Fergal Kinney

An intriguing micro-revelation in Get Back – Peter Jackson’s 2021 documentary that rewrote the Beatles’ tortured ending – was their repeated use of the word “corny”. This limited but effective shorthand was used again and again to measure creative decisions, a metric that had presumably seen them through the Cavern, through Beatlemania, through psychedelia. It is also a good guide as to how the Beatles have sought to manage their lucrative afterlife – right up to and including “Now and Then”, a “new” song by the band released today, with the help of artificial intelligence. 

During the CD boom years, their product was kept at premium prices. When commercial logic said the opposite, the band’s company, Apple Corps, showed restraint over greatest-hits compilations and obvious cash-in projects. When the band’s songs were used in advertisements, Paul McCartney – genuinely hurt – fought hard to regain control over the band’s back catalogue. Now, in the 2020s, the Beatles archive projects are a familiar and bankable marker of the festive economy quarter. Big projects, but nothing corny. 

In the Nineties, the last time a “new” Beatles song was released, McCartney, Starr and a visibly reluctant (nay, mortified) George Harrison communed in lush country estates wearing various baggy knitted waistcoats to work on demos left behind by the late John Lennon: 1995’s “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love”. Those songs, which appeared in the Anthology documentary and CD project, weren’t at all corny, but their curio status in 2023 is a guide to how we should approach “Now and Then”. 

“Now and Then” was abandoned during the Anthology project, though it did appear on a (definitely corny) John Lennon Broadway musical. (Don’t look for it, it tanked after 42 days.) In 2022, artificial intelligence software developed for Get Back was used to separate Lennon’s vocals from the demo tape. Now re-recorded using those vocals, it has been released as “the Final Beatles Song” – a framing that carries an implicit message to its audience: don’t worry, this is not going to become a regular thing. 

[See also: My investigation into Russell Brand]

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The sound of Lennon’s reconstituted voice is astonishing. While his vocals on the 1990s recordings only emphasised his absence – drifting in and out at times like FM car radio signal while careering through mountains – here the recording is thick, punchy and of shockingly crisp quality. The song itself is a lethargic and downcast sketch. This works: its decidedly melancholic tone gives McCartney the room to capture some of the tension between despondent and chipper which powered the partnership’s finest work.

This is audible in the song’s best moment, around the 1:14 mark, when the clouds break and a little of McCartney’s now oak-aged vocal – and Ringo Starr’s terrific, understated drum performance – supports a brief, major-key bridge. Giles Martin’s austere and wintry string arrangement is great, recalling the regality of the scoring on “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “She’s Leaving Home” (without feeling like one of those big-budget late Oasis singles that featured shopping lists of Fab Four tropes). That said, the demo lyrics sound as though they were written pending further revisions, and the rhymes are as moon/June as you’d find in Liam Gallagher’s iPhone notes app. 

Pleasing too are the backing vocals, low in the mix, which have been grafted from other parts of the Beatles back catalogue, such as “Because”. Restraint, it seems, has been this production’s watchword. This speaks to the track’s fatal flaw. The main verse hook can only loop back around, and it fails to sustain momentum for its second or third outing in the four-minute piece. You can imagine McCartney’s dilemma: to leave it as it is underwhelms, but to write another piece would be deemed interfering. 

“Now and Then” arrives on the day that the British Prime Minister sits in on an AI summit at Bletchley Park. The Beatles remain a high-profile test case in a debate on its application in music. Neil Tennant has used AI as a tool against writers’ block to finish Pet Shop Boys songs, the US composer Holly Herndon has forged a fascinating niche through machine learning experiments, while Brian Eno has been crafting some of the least interesting ambient records of his career through generative experiments. 

But the “Now and Then” release is really a promotional bauble for the 1962-1966 and 1967-1970 Beatles compilation albums – termed the “Red” and “Blue” albums – on 10 November by Apple/UMR. Available in lavish physical packages for the fans, these songs will be most widely consumed as a mammoth 75-track playlist. Machine learning has been used to separate and reassemble early Beatles recordings like “She Loves You” and “Love Me Do” so that they sound sonically competitive against contemporary music on streaming platforms, rather than historical period pieces. They have been fattened up and sent to market.

“Now and Then” will not endure, and it is not really intended to. Anyone claiming the track as the perfect coda to the Beatles’ story is repeating PR guff. Indeed, there are more interesting unreleased projects than this from the band in the vaults – not least the 1967 avant-garde piece “Carnival of Light”, which Apple Corps internal politics has so far kept from release. But for what it is – a promotional machine exerting itself one more time; two musicians confronting an overwhelming legacy in the studio for the last time – it is perfectly fine. And it achieves its main aim: it is not corny.

[See also: Matthew Perry was brave to speak about addiction without full recovery]

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