The “last Beatles song,” was released today. “Now and Then” was originally slated for inclusion on Anthology 3, the last in a series of dust bunny triple albums the band released in the ‘90s. I have them all and they are a wonderful piece of archaeology. It’s great fun to listen to studio works in progress on those records while reading along with their backstories in my yellowing copy of The Beatles Recording Sessions by Mark Lewisohn. I’ve read that John Lennon’s “Now and Then” demo was too lousy a recording on which to base a master at the time. Technological advances (blah blah blah) made it possible to enhance “Now and Then” to something of releasable quality, to which the surviving Beatles added overdubs. They followed a similar process for “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love,” which were also from old John Lennon demo cassettes.
To my ear, “Now and Then” is more of an idea than a song. On “Free As A Bird,” I suspected that Paul McCartney contributed the B section where he sings lead. It sounded like a co-written effort. I didn’t get that impression with “Now and Then.” This one seems to have been left as is with sections being repeated multiple times. There are some strings and many overdubs of guitars and piano and vocals, but this is mostly a chord progression with a drum rhythm. Many songs are, but because of this approach, I was left feeling like it didn’t bring listeners the catharsis our imaginations might have demanded of the “last Beatles song.” (In fact, I thought they did exactly that with “The End” on Abbey Road.) My favorite songs always demonstrate an unmistakable compositional development that builds and builds on its journey to conclusion. “Now and Then” is a shorter trip, building only with the arrangement.
The first musical high point on “Now and Then” is absolutely the “All because of you” vocal melody at the end of the first verse, which is over Asus2 to Am. That long note on B that lingers before it limps subtly up to a C is just sublime. What a wonderful surprise! Another gem was the bass figure that answers the first “And now and then” line of the second verse. (Exactly what I would have done – maybe because I play a little like Paul?) Then there’s the electric rhythm guitar with a 16th note pattern that enters on the left in the third verse. (Also what I might have done…) I think I would have preferred fatter vocal pad chords for support under the guitar solo, but with half the band having left us, they just bumped it up with strings. At least that’s what it sounds like to me. I was needing those Beatle “aahs” and “oohs” by the solo section. I think they achieved the effect they were going for.
The most important thing with this record, this event really, is to listen with your ears. If you’re watching the video, you’ll miss a lot of what’s happening in the tune. I call this a dirge because of the minor key and tempo. At the start I could visualize a funeral march, with a kid out in front, slowly thumping a bass drum to pace the steps of the mourners, like in that scene in Rio Bravo. As I listen, all I can think of is the pain – the terrible ways that John Lennon and George Harrison had to die, the finality of this event, and most startlingly, the cold truths a project like this exposes. Technically, it’s a Beatles record because they all supposedly played on it, but I’m fairly certain that George isn’t playing slide and for the life of me, I can’t pick out Ringo in the backing vocal stack. It doesn’t really feel like they’re collaborating on anything. It’s like listening to ghosts with overdubs. I’m used to just listening to the ghosts. “Now and Then” made me realize why I listen to those same old albums year after year. I escape into those records endlessly with headphones, sitting in the dark. Sure, I’m listening to the music, but what I’m really experiencing is an exchange of energy with the people in those grooves. As an active listener, I can climb right into those sounds. Despite their humanity and ordinary frailties, the Beatles still managed to produce something extraordinary that only exists on the records. In that controlled place, their frailties are kept safely outside of frame, as are my own. Every cut is the intersection of an infinite number of decisions made by the individuals involved, captured at a purposeful moment, even if the moment consisted of many sessions. It’s there for me to experience as only I can, time and time again. “Now and Then” feels like people playing music into the machine that’s making the recording. Even watching Paul overdub the bass in the video reminds me of a thousand overdubs I’ve done, sitting there anticipating the feel of the track coming at me, concentrating to stay in sync and hold up the illusion of an ensemble that I’m trying to create in the studio. This kind of music is a different thing. Anyone who’s made records knows the difference. No one’s playing together here. This is the ultimate “fix it in the mix” exercise. There were no other options. The John and George tracks are what they are. Those guys are long gone and what they left behind must be enhanced and stretched and clarified via audio surgery.
In “Now and Then”, the frailties are implicit, laid bare even. John and George are dead, Paul and Ringo are elderly men. It’s reminder of many things the Beatles had always enabled me to forget – illness, weakness, ambivalence, doubt, even failures to accept the temporary nature of all things. There is great sadness in “Now and Then” for me. A valid emotion to be sure, but worlds apart from those available to me on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or The White Album.
The “Now and Then” video is very distracting. I’m constantly being thrown out of the experience. I can see that what is being played from the very start of the song is not what I’m hearing. Someone pops a cassette into a deck and presses play. It’s a TDK tape that I used to prefer in the ‘90s. This is most certainly not John’s late ‘70s demo tape. Even if the tape was historically accurate in the video, his parts have long since been transferred off that medium. Ringo stands in front of a microphone without cans, supposedly singing backup, which I can’t hear. He’s right next to Paul, who is wearing headphones, the way you actually would while tracking vocals. See? I’m totally distracted. I simply cannot suspend my disbelief.
There are many familiar images and movies in the clip. With so many meticulous Beatles historians in the world exposing every conceivable image, you’d think there would be nothing left to unearth, but I read that the Cavern Club footage with them in leather has never been seen before. I think the most disturbing part of the whole thing was this ponderous track juxtaposed with a young John Lennon mugging and dancing inanely like Woody Allen in Love and Death. It’s creepy as all hell and most decidedly unflattering if you really consider the context. He’s been dropped digitally into recording studio scenes where people are working on the song, but not responding to him. They tried a cutting in a few reaction shots from Ringo, but it really wasn’t funny. It was cringeworthy. Other digital animations of old photographs are featured, some in which young Beatles are gyrating quite unnaturally. It’s like some horrific popup book. You’re better off closing your eyes than seeing Grandpa George sitting in the studio next to his younger self in his Pepper getup. Just listen to the record.
Amid the melancholy baked into this record and its monumental significance (if the marketing is to be swallowed whole), objectivity can be a challenge. The lyrics sound like scratch words, with hackneyed rhymes. The song seems no more than it must have been on the original cassette, a sketch at most. You would have to take what you’re given in this very unique situation, but I wonder – if it were made by anyone else, might I have dismissed the record completely? I bloody well might have. I know that I would not have been satisfied if I had written “Now and Then.” But it’s the Beatles, so they get a pass. Why? Because the record is so great? That can’t be it.
Music, or what we call music, is such a complex thing in the human psyche. I don’t think it’s just the song or the record. It’s the idea of the Beatles that we find fascinating and comforting, each for our own reasons. The Beatles are a musical touchstone that perhaps they themselves never understood completely, but all of those sentiments are not in the grooves. They represent a human reaction to something that over decades and generations has been thoroughly idealized and proven completely reliable in its fictionalization. The power of that illusion cannot be overstated. Humans love mythology. They love a good story. These things serve a vital purpose in our happiness, our wellness and, as it happens, our advancement as a species. Inspiration, mythology and idealism give us the will and the courage to test ourselves against something perceived as greater, and in so doing, we enable ourselves to achieve greatness in our own right. “Now and Then” is not “In My Life” or “Something” or “The Long and Winding Road,” but it’s songs like those that make “Now and Then” seem more important. It reinforces the myth. “Now and Then” could just as well be any of those songs in the memory of the cultural consciousness. The feeling people want to derive from “Now and Then” is like the one they experienced with any of the other songs. I suspect that the audience for this record has already decided to view it, the memory of the band, their imagined connection to the players, the cultural impact, the time in which they truly did exist, the records they love most and the significance of their own life journey as a gestalt. With this much psycho-emotional mojo packed into it, we are likely to expect greatness or at least emotional overflow, no matter what happens with the record. Our idea of the Beatles is one that does not change, regardless of how those people and their records actually did. It soothes our fear, because we know that everything does in fact, change.
Or does it?
After it had been treated with Peter Jackson’s black box of separation, there was John’s voice in all its full fidelity splendor. (Gasp! It’s like he’s still around!) And just like that, the world around you is transformed, not by the Beatles, but by your own emotions. The mythology took care of your expectations. Your mind was already set up, by you. The sound of that voice grazes your ear, and it feels like the force of a universe unfathomable: somewhere there is still a John Lennon. A dreamy euphoria follows. For that instant, the miasma of 2023 does not exist. If that can happen for an instant, maybe that instant can be extended. Maybe we’re just doing it wrong.
This is the power of records. In today’s release of the final recording by Beatles and its accompanying video, I could not escape the poignancy of what the long timeline of the Beatles represented. It was because of the records and the mythology that records can create that the Beatles flourished. They were so close to you and yet so far. That’s how they became what they are. They made art. They made those recordings like it was the most important thing in the world. After a time, they weren’t even a live band. The records were the art.
As a recording artist in 2023, my reality is vastly different than the reality of the artists that inspired me to do what I do. Over the last fifteen years, the infamously exploitative “music industry,” whatever that is, has run the idea of recorded music into the ground. You hear all kinds of ridiculous, self-serving notions, but the worst is that music is a service, not a product. But make no mistake, a record is art. It is also exhausting, all-consuming work. A recording enables a creative expression that a live performance cannot produce. Recorded music has the power to make us emotionally intelligent and self-aware. The experience of a musical recording can evolve and change as we do. It’s a rare shortcut to the essence of human experience. Recorded music must be cherished and valued, purchased and protected. For we are in a dark age.
There are only two Beatles left alive. Today, I heard the last Beatles record that will ever be made.
And I have no idea where to buy it.