Review of The Beatles: Now and Then - The closing track delivers a poignant sense of conclusion
Tech issues caused Lennon's demo to be shelved in the 1990s. With a little assistance from AI and subdued new vocals by Paul McCartney, it turns into a moving ode to the band's friendship.
In order to air a documentary about the creation of the "final" Beatles single, Now and Then, BBC One had to change its schedule last night. It was succinct and somewhat poignant, yet it presented a deftly romanticized account of the events, logically skirting the sections of the narrative that may make anyone view Now and Then with suspicion. It discussed the early efforts made by the remaining Beatles to build up John Lennon's late 1970s demos in the mid-1990s, but it left out the somewhat subdued reception that the finished versions of Real Love and Free as a Bird had. It was the pinnacle of Britpop, with the Beatles' stock at an all-time high and their impact on modern music more apparent than it had ever been since their breakup. Nevertheless, Michael Jackson's Earth Song remained at the top of the charts for Free as a Bird, which was evidently released with the goal of becoming the Christmas No. 1 song, as the Beatles frequently achieved in the 1960s. In fact, by the time it reached its second week on the charts, Boyzone's rendition of Cat Stevens' Father and Son was outperforming both Jackson and Earth Song.
In the meantime, Real Love only lasted a few weeks in the Top 10 before going nowhere (by week two, Boyzone were also outselling that). Possibly due to Radio 1's reluctance to play it, Paul McCartney wrote a furious piece in the Daily Mirror criticizing the station's "kindergarten kings"; regardless of your opinion, there was something a little unsettling about the Beatles' comeback, culminating in Macca lashing out at Radio 1 for its ageism, a la Status Quo. The overdubbed sounds also had a strange, uncanny valley feel about them. There was no denying that Lennon's voice sounded spectral, even if all parties had obviously done their best with the technology at hand.
The new movie talked about how technical difficulties prevented the remaining Beatles from reworking Now and Then in the mid-1990s. Three "new" Beatles songs were supposed to be recorded, one for each volume of the Anthology compilations, but the song's recording sessions were called off because John Lennon's piano and vocals couldn't be separated for the new mix. Compared to McCartney's account from ten years ago, this was a somewhat different account of what happened. Then, he asserted that Now and Then's "fucking rubbish" description by the late George Harrison, the most unbiddable ex-Beatle, was the sole reason the sessions ended. "But that's John!" McCartney had reportedly objected, but in vain: Harrison shot back, saying, "This is fucking rubbish." Harrison did appear uncertain about the concept of altering Lennon's writing, after all. He later said, "I hope someone does this to all my crap demos after I'm dead – turn them into hit songs," which may not have been the ideal way to promote the new tracks Apple was seeking.It's difficult to understand Harrison's criticism of Now and Then from a purely musical standpoint. Though it's obviously never going to replace Strawberry Fields Forever or A Day in the Life in the hearts of Beatles fans, this somber and introspective piano ballad is better than Real Love or Free as a Bird. Reworked as a Beatles song posthumously, it undoubtedly carries more emotional weight. The lyrics offer plenty of opportunity to be moved, should you want to do so. The song clearly becomes about the Beatles after Lennon and McCartney sing a new middle eight together that expresses a longing for their relationship: "Now and then I miss you / Now and then I want you to be there for me." It's unlikely that Lennon had his fellow Beatles in mind when he wrote the song, but who knows? A very Harrison-esque slide guitar solo being played by McCartney, who reportedly objected to Harrison's slide guitar embellishments to the mid-1990s sessions because they were too similar to his 1971 solo song My Sweet Lord, has a similarly poignant quality. That was exactly the kind of judgment that Harrison always found annoying—there's something very endearing about McCartney giving credit, almost as if he were humbly conceding that he might have been mistaken, even though Harrison's real contribution seems to be limited to acoustic rhythm guitar.
The issues with Lennon's voice, which are nothing like the ethereal presence that drifted through Free As a Bird, have been resolved by technological advancements. By keeping McCartney low in the mix, you sense his presence rather than noticing it immediately. At 80 years old, his voice has matured significantly since the remaining Beatles last got together. This takes care of the second potential vocal issue. Again, unlike Free as a Bird, where McCartney's new middle eight jarred slightly against Lennon's original song, the additions to a song that was obviously incomplete are seamless. The arrangement is lavishly tricked out with orchestration, but it never resorts to using blatantly Beatles-y signifiers. The mid-1990s songs clearly weren't the Beatles performing together, but if you squint, you could almost pretend that they were.
Thus, Now and Then is a qualified success, but why is it there in the first place? Although the 7-inch single version retails for an eye-watering £18, it is evident that its purpose is not to raise money, which none of the Beatles or their estates need, nor to enhance the Beatles' already extensive back catalog, which barely needs enhancement. It's possible that McCartney is the true reason it exists. No Beatle appeared more devastated by their breakup or made a greater effort to keep the group together. No other Beatle has put in as much effort to give their story a happy ending. He has not stopped telling interviewers that the band was a tight studio unit from the beginning to the end, regardless of what was going on outside of it, and that he and Lennon were friends again at the time of his death. He has also approved the Get Back documentary series, which presented their 1969 recording sessions in a more positive light than the depressing Let It Be documentary, and he has used the same technology behind Now and Then to perform a duet with Lennon live at Glastonbury. He was obviously bothered by the early end of the sessions in the mid-1990s, as evidenced by his recurrent references to complete Now and Then in the years that followed. He has now achieved a sense of closure, which is highlighted by a phrase he added to Lennon's song: "always to return to me" comes after the words "I miss you and want you to be there for me."