Now and… Then what? The Beatles’ bittersweet final chapter

*This article was originally published in our Summer 2024 print edition*

By Lilian Martin

The year is 2023. And The Beatles have just released a new single. 

Not just a remix or remaster of a beloved classic, but a new song called Now and Then.  

Well, new-ish.  

Now and Then is constructed from audio elements from the last five decades. It began life as a cassette demo by John Lennon in 1977. More than a decade after John’s murder, the three remaining Beatles came together for the gargantuan Beatles Anthology project. During this time, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr finished two other John demos (released as Free As A Bird and Real Love in 1995/6) but had to abandon Now and Then because technology at the time was not sufficient to separate John’s vocal from the muffled demo. Skipping forward almost 30 years and past the death of another Beatle (rest easy, George) to 2021, Paul teased a new project he’d been picking away at, and there was a collective horrified shudder at the idea of an AI Beatles song. 

AI Beatles song.  

This was at best an oversimplification, or at worse, a complete misunderstanding of how Now and Then came to be. 

AI music (which, for this piece of writing, I’ll crudely define as computers imitating and copying pre-existing music to make ‘new’ compositions) is a controversial topic. I firmly believe we shouldn’t be using the voices of the famous, and worse, the dead, to make them sing songs they wouldn’t otherwise sing. Yes, it’s funny for a hot minute to make The Beach Boys harmonise to Low, or to make Elvis Presley croon out Hotline Bling, but when you stop and think about it, it’s sickening that we can make computerised imitations of the dead and famous do whatever we want. This topic easily blends into the world of defamation and using people’s likeness and voice to say and do things they have not consented to. 

But AI as a restoration tool? That really excites me. 

I am a big fan old media (I am writing about The goddamn Beatles while wearing a Who t-shirt and spinning a Crosby, Stills & Nash LP on my turntable) and, quite simply, so much old media is in shockingly shite picture and sound quality. Learning about new ways in which old stuff can be restored is incredibly exciting. Modern audiences can now enjoy once-forgotten parts of history in acceptable quality. Historians (and fans) can re-evaluate the past and uncover new secrets. Beatles fans all remember how Get Back (2021) essentially rewrote an entire chapter of Beatles history and debunked the narrative that they all hated each other at the end of their career.  

Now and Then is not an AI song in the sense of that a computer has regurgitated haunting imitations of John and George’s voices and instrumentation and programmed them to perform a brand-new song. Rather, AI and machine learning were utilised to restore what John and George had already recorded last century, to make it useable for recording.  

A team led by well-known Kiwi filmmaker Peter Jackson had developed a technology called MAL (that’s Machine-Assisted Learning) to restore footage to the make the eight-hour, fly-on-the-wall documentary Get Back (2021). MAL poured over tons of Beatles recordings, learning what The Beatles sounded like, and eventually, MAL was able to pick out specific sounds, making murky recordings emerge in shocking clarity.  

Despite the tireless restoration and production, as a Beatles fan, I can say Now and Then is not some lost masterpiece. In fact, I wouldn’t even consider it an especially remarkable song, except for its context of being the Last, Final, For-Real-There-Is-No-More-After-This-One Beatles single.  

The song is larger than life, and not in a bombastic, brilliant, kind of way. I’d even describe it as over-produced (this was a technical decision – the over-produced segments cover parts of John’s demo where the quality remains too poor). The lyrics and style are typical late 70s Lennon lyrics – a simple, glum love ballad. George features on the track but only lightly. Ringo keeps a reliable drumbeat throughout. Paul is head producer, and uses the clean, precise production style that’s present in his contemporary songs, adding piano, bass, and an orchestra to the song. It’s jarring to hear these modern instrumentations nestled between a 70s John vocal. This modern medley of sound makes Now and Then a far cry from the bold, delightfully rugged, grounding sound of classic Beatles music. If Now and Then is meant to be a homage to the 60s Beatles sound, then it has failed.  

But I don’t think “homage” is what it’s meant to be about at all.  

After a few months reflecting on Now and Then, I think finishing this song was Paul, Ringo, and the world’s way of getting closure on The Beatles story. I’ve been thinking a lot about The Beatles and what they mean as all this footage and history has been restored and released, and I’ve realised that there are unbandaged wounds in their legacy.  

The Beatles broke up in 1970, as years of poor business decisions, drug addiction, and the psychological demands of being exceedingly famous caught up with them. A decade of hopeful speculation of a Beatle reunion followed, but when John was murdered in 1980, the prospects of reunion was lost to the tune of five bullets singing out in New York.  

Each of these events left the Beatles legacy unresolved in a bitter, fizzled out way. It felt like when a TV show is cancelled in the middle of its arc, leaving audiences without closure. 

So, Paul and Ringo (and George) took a melancholy little demo of John’s and threw their souls into making one last song together as the Fab Four. Decades of work and technological advances culminating in well-deserved ending on the Beatles’ own terms. In true spirit, The Beatles took a sad song and made it better. This final chapter is bittersweet, but there’s joy in it ending happily. The book closes. The back cover reads: 

The Beatles 

Lilian Martin is a writer, poet and zine-maker based in Meanjin/Brisbane and a recent creative writing graduate from QUT. Their work tends to explore intersectional identities and themes through a humorous lens, and has appeared in #EnbyLife Journal, QUT Glass, ScratchThat, and Vermillion Record’s Groove Garden. When Lilian isn’t writing, they are busy listening to old music, talking about old music or singing along (badly) to old music. Stay up to date with their work here.


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