The history of ‘Now and Then’ is a tangled, and quite intriguing, one. Originally recorded by John as a piano demo in the late 1970s, it never aired on the otherwise exhaustive exploration of his personal archive on US radio from 1988-92, The Lost Lennon Tapes. Nonetheless, it was one of unfinished songs Yoko handed over to Paul, George and Ringo to work on and transform into ‘new’ Beatles tracks for the Anthology project of the mid-1990s. Two of these – ‘Free as a Bird’ and ‘Real Love’ – were completed, and led off the first two volumes of The Beatles Anthology archive collections, but ‘Now and Then’ was abandoned and the final Anthology set appeared in the autumn of 1996 without a third reunion song.
I remember the feeling of huge disappointment when Apple announced this. There was no talk of ‘Now and Then’ officially at the time, but it was an open secret the three former Fabs (a.k.a. The Threetles) had been working on other songs. It was strongly rumoured that ‘Grow Old With Me’, a gorgeous tune that appeared in demo form on John’s posthumous Milk and Honey album in 1984, was on the tape Yoko had given them, and there were also whispers of a brand new McCartney-Harrison original, ‘All For Love’, which really set pulses racing. To the best of my knowledge, neither of these two numbers have ever been confirmed as Threetles works-in-progress (indeed, before recording a version of it for his 2019 album What’s My Name, Ringo claimed never to have heard ‘Grow Old With Me’), but talk of an unfinished third track was verified by Paul himself in 1997, while promoting that year’s Flaming Pie album. “George didn’t like it. The Beatles being a democracy, we didn’t do it,” he told Q magazine (interestingly, in another interview, he didn’t rule out that the song might be released one day). There were also reports that the quality of the original demo also posed major technical issues for the trio and producer Jeff Lynne. This became evident when the original Lennon version leaked out onto the bootleg market around this time. When a friend played me John’s demo recording in 1999, the loud buzz which accompanied it was definitely a problem. And while the tune itself was quite haunting, it also seemed a little ponderous and skeletal. Though their decision remained massively frustrating, I could kind of understand why the Fabs had passed on it.
Fast forward ten years or so, and Paul was reported to have said he remained interested in finishing the track off – something he reiterated when appearing on a BBC documentary about Jeff Lynne, Mr Blue Sky, in 2012. Despite again saying that George “went off it” (and, indeed, thought it was “fucking rubbish”), he added: “That one’s still lingering around…I’m going to nick in with Jeff and do it, finish it, one of these days.” Coincidentally or not, a new version of the Lennon demo began circulating online at around the same time, without the buzz and in much better audio quality. It was so good that fans began adding their own backing to it in an attempt to guestimate what a modern-day Beatles recording would have sounded like. One rendition, in particular, was stunning – not only allying John’s vocal with tasteful piano, guitar, bass and drum parts (and weaving in authentic harmonies here and there), it also revealed the song itself to be much more substantial than the original threadbare demo had indicated (and also belying Lynne’s assertion that “the song had a chorus but is almost totally lacking in verses.”) It demonstrated the art of the possible in fine style, even without the extra creative juice actual real Beatles could bring to the table.
Despite all this, I was still very surprised to hear it was still on Paul’s radar as recently as 2021, when he mentioned his interest in returning to ‘Now and Then’ in an interview with The New Yorker in the lead-up to the airing of Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back documentary series. Still, after my excitement subsided, realism set in (or so I thought). Wasn’t it a little late in the day to be doing this, I reasoned? After all, it will soon be 30 years (gulp) since those Threetles sessions. And could he really do it when, by his own admission, George had so firmly rejected the possibility of releasing it? Yet here we are: with AI giving us a nice, clean Lennon vocal to enhance the 1990s Threetles backing tracks (and who knows what other embellishments Paul has added since), and the whole Beatles family on board with the project, a farewell Fab Four song will soon be with us.
Of course, there are some who believe this shouldn’t be happening at all. That it won’t really be ‘The Beatles’, because the four didn’t record it together and two of them aren’t here to give their approval. Those same naysayers are usually the same people who don’t consider ‘Free as a Bird’ or ‘Real Love’ to be part of the band’s ‘official’ canon. I’ve always found this view strange. Whether or not you like them, or think they are worthy of The Beatles’ name is one thing, but claiming they are not Beatles songs defies logic in my view. They were written by a Beatle (‘Free as a Bird’ is actually credited to all four, with finishing touches added by Paul, George and Ringo), feature all four Beatles and were approved and released by all three surviving Beatles, plus Yoko. Ah, I hear some say, but John would never have sanctioned their release. Well, I would hazard a guess that the four people John was closest to in his adult life would have a better idea of what he would’ve approved of than complete strangers who never met him. But they’re not part of that 1962-70 EMI catalogue, I hear others cry. So, does that mean all the pre-EMI, pre-Ringo songs released on Anthology Vol. 1 are not Beatles songs either? Nor the BBC radio sessions material? Who exactly is deciding what is ‘canon’ and what isn’t? Shouldn’t that be up to, er, The Beatles? Yes, other dissenting voices cry, but John isn’t really on these songs, they were effectively performing as a trio. Right. So, by that token, ‘Here Comes The Sun’ isn’t a Beatles song. Nor ‘I Me Mine’, or ‘For No One, or ‘Because’, or ‘Back in the USSR’. And I dread to think how these people will react when someone breaks it to them that tunes like ‘Yesterday’, ‘Julia’ and ‘Blackbird’ feature just a single Beatle. Clearly such tracks are seriously lacking in the authenticity stakes.
The undoubted elephant in the room with ‘Now and Then’, however, is George – more specifically, the degree of his approval and his participation. By Paul’s own admission, it was Harrison who brought the curtain down first time around, branding the track “fucking rubbish”. Paul has also said how George felt some of John’s songwriting towards the end of his life wasn’t up to scratch. Even with Macca’s renowned talent for revising history, it’s going to be interesting to see how he circumvents that one when the promotional bandwagon for the recording kicks into gear later this year. That said, George wasn’t against reworking John’s unfinished songs, as his spirited playing and singing on the two tunes that were released demonstrates. And the fact that he called a halt to work on ‘Now and Then’ shows how fiercely protective he was of The Beatles’ legacy, refusing to put anything out under their banner which he felt was sub-standard. What’s not clear, though, is whether he didn’t feel the song itself was strong enough, that the technical problems couldn’t be surmounted, or that The Threetles’ attempts to transform it into a fully-realised, viable recording were just not coming together. It could even have been a combination of all three. What we can reasonably surmise, however, is that the version about to be released today is considerably cleaned up, and most likely improved, from the one the Fabs worked on all those years ago. So George may have more amenable to its release were he around today; certainly, I don’t think Olivia and Dhani Harrison would’ve given their blessing to anything he would’ve been opposed to.
Which brings us to, how much Harrison playing (and possibly singing) will feature on the final record? Indeed, how much work did all three Fabs put into it during those reunion sessions before calling it a day? Lynne is on record as saying the band spent just “one day — one afternoon, really—messing with it. We did the backing track, a rough go that we really didn’t finish.” Yet some other sources claim the Threetles had several stabs at the song over the course of 1994/95, before giving up the ghost. Either way, it’s fair to assume George could’ve laid down a guitar riff, or a few licks, at the very least. He was always very careful and precise in mapping out his parts, so I doubt there would’ve been any half-arsed jamming involved which would in any way sully his memory. He might even have taken a pass at a solo or two. Paul and Ringo could easily have polished up their performances in the years since, of course, but what’s really key is whether McCartney and Harrison recorded any vocal lines – particularly the kind of dazzling harmonies which adorned ‘Free as a Bird’ and ‘Real Love’. I really hope so, particularly bearing in mind the deterioration in Macca’s voice over recent times. He can still sing, of course, but no amount of studio sweetening could cover up the difference in his vocal prowess between, er, now and then. Other questions abound. Has Jeff Lynne produced the new recording, or did Paul and Ringo turn to George Martin’s son Giles, overlord of all the recent Beatles archive remixes? Have they kept it simple or did they add some strings and/brass to give it a bit more of a lavish, late-era Beatles feel? Will it have a ‘classic rock’ arrangement, or will they try to inject a more contemporary vibe? Will Paul (perhaps with George) have written any new sections to flesh out the original demo? Mouthwatering stuff to consider, and we don’t have long to wait.
Then there is the question of what form the song’s release will take. Surely they won’t just put it out as a standalone track to stream or download. As with the two Abba comeback songs in 2021, that would most probably result in a blaze of publicity and a flurry of interest for a few days, followed by a so-so chart placing and a collective shrugging of the shoulders as the world moves quickly on to the next showbiz sensation. To be fair, that will almost certainly happen anyway, but I would imagine Apple will want to monetise the song as much as possible, most likely by using it to spearhead a bigger Beatles release. I can’t see them sticking it on a remixed version of Rubber Soul, or something like that. I did wonder if they might use it to promote a long-overdue remaster of the Anthology albums, and add it onto Volume 3 as originally planned back in 1996, but well-placed sources say this isn’t the case. There is the possibility of a new, fourth Anthology collection, I suppose, rounding up other unreleased Beatles material, but with the ongoing series of expanded, deluxe versions of their studio albums mopping up all those odds and ends, I don’t see the point in that. There is always the grim possibility of another greatest hits album, expanding the mega-successful 1 compilation by adding the likes of ‘Please Please’ Me’, Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Here Comes The Sun’, plus ‘Now and Then’. More tantalising is the prospect of a Threetles EP, placing the new song alongside ‘Free as a Bird’ and ‘Real Love’ in one package. The latter songs were remixed in 2015 for the 1+ DVD collection of Fabs promo films, but these versions remain unavailable on CD or streaming/download sites. Who knows, perhaps Apple have employed AI to freshen up John’s vocal on those numbers, too?
What I would dearly love to see, but sadly cannot envisage happening, is for ‘Now and Then’ to be released in some form alongside recordings of Paul, George (on acoustic guitars) and Ringo playing together at Harrison’s Friar Park home in the summer of 1994. Brief (but glorious) snippets of this session were included on the Anthology DVD set’s bonus disc in 2003, but we know they performed much more, mainly rock ‘n’ roll oldies and early Lennon-McCartney originals from their pre-fame days (the clip on the DVD where a grinning George leads Paul into ‘Thinking of Linking’, a half-forgotten tune penned by a teenage Macca, is just sublime). Such a release, echoing their skiffle beginnings as The Quarrymen, would be the perfect way to bookend their career. And we’ve already been given a taster, so why not let us enjoy the whole thing? Alas, John’s absence from the proceedings is likely to put a block on this, despite the aforementioned long history of The Beatles recording as a trio. Or maybe Apple is holding that back for another project in 20 years time, when there’ll be no Beatles left to create new product (and, sadly, not many of us current fans left around to care either way). It would be such a shame to leave this in the can, though, and ‘Now and Then’ offers an ideal opportunity to get it out. There must also be plenty of unused interview footage of the three of them together from that time, and there’s surely mileage in a book documenting the whole Anthology/Threetles period (Paul has said he kept a diary through the sessions for ‘Free as a Bird’, for example). We can but dream.
Whatever happens, the release of ‘Now and Then’ is a wonderful final
gift from the band, one I’d pretty much given up on ever getting. Yes,
there will be some (incredibly, Beatles fans among them) saying this is
sacrilege, that they should just “let it be”, that it’s a self-promoting
cash grab by Paul, and so on. But unlike in 1995, when the snide
put-downs of the two reunion songs had me gnashing my teeth, these days I
really couldn’t care less. Seriously, how can this one song – even if
it isn’t very good – really besmirch The Beatles’ peerless legacy? More
likely, it will bring immense joy for millions of people around the
world who will get to savour one last Fab Four tune. And I don’t know
about you, but I find the idea of McCartney completing a Lennon song
more than 40 years after John started it quite beautiful, and perfectly Beatles.
Certainly, it seems like an itch Paul’s been wanting to scratch ever
since the Fabs worked on the demo back in the 1990s. This may or may not
have something to do with Carl Perkins’ claim (apparently relayed to
him by Linda McCartney soon after Lennon’s death in 1981) that the last
words John said to Paul, face to face, were: “Think about me every now
and then, old friend.” Either way, this new recording seems to have
given Paul some sort of closure, and I reckon it will likely do the same
for many more of us, too. Bring it on!