Music

Now and Then: is it time for Beatles fanboys to finally let it be?

Peter Jackson has said that more Beatles material is conceivable. But just because they can, does that mean they should?

The Beatles, Sgt Pepper's launch party, 19 May 1967

The Beatles, Sgt Pepper's launch party, 19 May 1967

Can there ever be too much Beatles in the world? If you’d asked me that question after watching Peter Jackson’s archive-diving fly-on-the-wall docuseries Get Back in 2021 in all its sprawling eight-hour glory, the answer would have been a resounding no. I would gladly sit down to another eight hours and then some of ambient John, Paul, George and Ringo – laughing, joking, jamming, bickering, smoking, farting, drinking tea and occasionally breaking out into epochal song. 

Asking myself that same question now, upon the reveal of The Beatles “final” single Now and Then, my feelings are more complicated. It’s been lovely to experience another national moment of celebration for the greatest band that ever was, and there’s undoubtedly an authentic and uplifting centre to the tune. But it’s hard to regard Now and Then as being The Beatles in a true sense. And the way it’s been made raises questions around the boundaries of good taste when it comes to using artificial intelligence as a tool in music, and whether, once you let that technological genie out of the bottle, it’s possible to put it back in.

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Lord of the Rings filmmaker Jackson had a hand again in this latest coda to the Fab Four’s catalogue, which continues to grow some 53 years after their break-up in 1970. We’ve had posthumous “new” Beatles songs before – 1995’s Free as a Bird and 1996’s Real Love – and Now and Then derives in part from the same retrospective sessions involving the then three surviving members of the band.

The psychedelic ballad was originally written and recorded by John Lennon in 1977, three years before his death in 1980. Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison (who died in 2001) attempted to add to Lennon’s solo piano home demo version, but eventually determined that it was too sonically patchy to work with and shelved the project.

Fast forward nearly 30 years, and at McCartney’s behest in came Jackson with the same AI technology – called Mal, or “machine audio learning” – which he used in Get Back to “clean up” archive audio and separate sounds and voices.

Lennon’s voice was excavated from the tape and used as a core around which McCartney and Starr could rebuild Now and Then in the present, with added overdubs and guitar tracks by Harrison unearthed from the abandoned 1995 sessions. Voilà – the Fab Four reunited, and a brand-new Beatles song. Sort of. 

An advert for the "last" Beatles song, Now And Then

In its opening bars, Now and Then sounds less like The Beatles than it does the world’s greatest Beatles tribute band, Oasis. The haunting vocal, melody and lyrics are quintessential late-period Lennon – full of sadness, wonder, and a suitable twist of nostalgia.

But the sound world built around it is quintessential late-period McCartney and Starr Disneyfied schmaltz – all cloying orchestration and wonky OTT backing vocals from songwriters who, for all their many great achievements, brought you the likes of We All Stand Together and Back Off Boogaloo in their post-Beatles lives. The video, directed by Jackson, is a cringe-fest – Lennon reduced to clown, goofing off in the studio beside present-day footage of his now much older bandmates; a low-grade computer-spliced time-warp nostalgia fantasy barely above the sort of fan-made stuff you find on YouTube.

If Get Back taught us anything, it’s that The Beatles was the magic made by all four members in a room, encouraging the best in one another while challenging and mitigating one another’s worse instincts. It was McCartney’s straight up and down semi-cheesy anthemry kicked shrewdly sideways by Lennon. It was Paul’s major-key positivity lifting John out of his tendency towards neurosis and self-indulgence. It was real chemistry in real time. While Now and Then may be many things, it could never have been that. 

And it may not be the final Beatles song, either. In an interview with The Sunday Times, Jackson revealed that there could be more unfinished Beatles music pulled out of the 60 hours of footage and 150 hours of audio he trawled through editing Get Back. “We can take a performance from Get Back,” he hypothesised, “separate John and George, and then have Paul and Ringo add a chorus or harmonies. You might end up with a decent song but I haven’t had conversations with Paul about that.

“It’s fanboy stuff,” he added, “but certainly conceivable.”

Trouble is, once you set off down a road like that, with all its commercial and technological incentives, it can be hard to know when to stop and good art can get trampled in the rush. In the future, when there are no more living Beatles left, might gaps in the musical DNA start to be filled with generative AI? Will machines one day churn out infinite Beatles?

Protecting and augmenting the Fab Four’s legacy going forward will require a strong curatorial hand and the guts and integrity to decide when enough is enough. Otherwise, the question won’t be whether there’s too much Beatles in the world, but rather how and when The Beatles ceased to actually be The Beatles.

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