The Beatles, Now and Then
In 1968, The Beatles unleashed their sprawling, eternally divisive masterpiece, the White Album (to use its colloquial title). That same year, humanity received a chilling glimpse of the destructive potential of artificial intelligence (AI) when bad bot Hal 9000 went crazy in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Back then, it would have seemed unthinkable that The Beatles and Hal could become pals and make wonderful music together. But that’s what has essentially happened with Now and Then – a hugely anticipated new single from The Beatles, assembled using cutting-edge AI and billed as their “final” release.
Now and Then started life as a grainy 1977 John Lennon demo, recorded at his apartment in New York. After his death, the tape was passed on to Paul McCartney by Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono. However, despite several attempts to build a song around Lennon’s vocals and piano for 1995′s Anthology retrospective, technical limitations forced the remaining Beatles to abandon the project (though they did salvage two other Lennon compositions from the same period, Free as a Bird and Real Love).
But now AI has allowed surviving Beatles McCartney and Ringo Starr to record around Lennon’s original vocals. They have also added guitars from the late George Harrison, who had tinkered with the tune in the 1990s before concluding it was beyond rescuing.
The results are near miraculous – and far removed from the justifiable fear that technology might result in an uncanny valley effect and a tune that approximated the textures of the Beatles while lacking their spirit.
There is plenty of spirit on Now and Then. Lennon has never sounded more emotionally present than when singing the unadorned opening line (having been counted in by Macca).
“I know it’s true ... it’s all because of you,” he croons, surrounded by a lush piano before he and McCartney duet across the decades, singing, “I want you to be there for me”. Just as affecting is Harrison’s fervently swooning guitar (fleshed out with strings by Jeff Lynne and backing vocals from the original recordings of Eleanor Rigby and Here There and Everywhere).
We are living through the twilight of the rock gods. Now and Then reminds us of the void they will leave when they finally exit the stage.
The Rolling Stones have already put their stamp on 2023 with their irreverent blockbuster Hackney Diamonds (featuring a zinging bass solo from McCartney). Now and Then is far less swaggering than the Stones comeback – but, in reuniting the four Beatles, it’s just as affecting.
Though made with the assistance of AI, the punch it packs is entirely human. It’s a 2023 pop odyssey sure to warm the cockles of Beatles fans young, old and in-between. A sad, fab farewell from a group who did so much to redefine rock music in their image and continue to thrill us all these decades later.