Now And Then: The Last Beatles Song
Now and Then - 45 years later, how was it achieved?
It’s been 54 years since The Beatles recorded their swan song masterpiece album, Abbey Road. But now, we have a new Beatles song for the first time in decades — and for the last time ever. Released on November 2nd, 2023, the song “Now And Then” took 45 years to be completed, with the help of artificial intelligence. It debuted on BBC radio at the same time it became available on streaming services. It is also available on CD and vinyl. A short film about the making of the song can be seen on the Beatles’ official YouTube channel.
When I first heard that AI would play a part in a new Beatles song featuring the voice of the late John Lennon, I was skeptical. My thoughts turned to silly YouTube videos I had seen, in which a deepfake version of Arnold Schwarzenegger could be heard singing songs by Elton John or Whitney Houston. That’s just one example; it’s a whole genre now. Artificial intelligence software can “learn” what a celebrity’s voice sounds like and be used to manipulate an existing recording, making it sound as if a different person were singing. Several major news outlets, including CNBC, even suggested that the new Beatles song was using AI to “recreate John Lennon’s voice.” For me, it was a disturbing thought.
Luckily, this turned out to be entirely false. The use of artificial intelligence in “Now And Then” didn’t recreate Lennon’s voice, or manufacture an electronic zombie John to sing along with his bandmates. Nor was AI used to make someone else’s voice sound like John’s. Instead, it was simply used to clean up an old demo recording that John made back in the late 1970s. In the mid 1990s, Paul, George, and Ringo first attempted to complete “Now And Then” as part of The Beatles Anthology project. George even recorded a rhythm guitar part. But John’s 1978 demo was plagued with noise, and at the time, it just wasn’t usable. So for many years, the remaining members of the Fab Four assumed that the song would remain unfinished forever. Fast-forward to 2022. Peter Jackson’s documentary serieswowed Beatles fans, using proprietary technology to “demix” mono recordings, thus allowing archival footage to come to life with newly-mixed audio. Beatles fans everywhere, myself included, found watching the documentary to be an awe-inspiring experience, almost like traveling through time.
It occurred to Sir Paul that this same technology, developed for Jackson by WingNut Films, might be used to rescue John’s 1978 recording of “Now And Then” from a noisy background, and separate his vocal performance from what was intended to be a temporary piano accompaniment. Sure enough, Jackson’s team was able to isolate Lennon’s voice on the recording, remove background noise, and improve sound quality. As I discussed in my article about the Get Back docuseries, the concept of demixing had been around for some time, but it had never been executed at such a high level before Jackson’s team went to work on Get Back. The clever people at Park Road Post built custom software, using an AI-based machine learning system, that allowed them to teach the computer “what a guitar sounds like, what a bass sounds like, what a voice sounds like. In fact we taught the computer what John sounds like and what Paul sounds like,” Jackson explained. This same highly-educated software was able to analyze the mono demo of “Now And Then” that John had recorded and split it into multiple tracks, as if John’s vocal and the piano had been recorded on separate tracks all along. With a pristine vocal track finally available, the remaining Beatles were able to bring John’s song to life.
There it was, John’s voice, crystal clear. It’s quite emotional. And we all play on it, it’s a genuine Beatles recording. In 2023 to still be working on Beatles music, and about to release a new song the public haven’t heard, I think it’s an exciting thing.
— Paul McCartney
On the BBC’s “Today” program, McCartney seemed undecided when asked about the implications of artificial intelligence within the music industry. “It’s a very interesting thing, you know. It’s something we’re all sort of tackling at the moment and trying to deal with,” he said. But he showed no lack of enthusiasm for the way Jackson’s team was able to “extricate” Lennon’s voice “from a ropey little bit of cassette.”
When we came to make what will be the last Beatles record, it was a demo that John had, that we worked on, and we just finished it up. We were able to take John’s voice and get it pure through this AI, so that then we could mix the record as you would normally do. It gives you some sort of leeway. There’s a good side to (AI), and then a scary side, and we’ll just have to see where that leads.
— Paul McCartney
It was the closest we’ll ever come to having him back in the room, so it was very emotional for all of us. It was like John was there, you know. It’s far out.
— Ringo Starr
AI Magic Restores John Lennon's Vocals
This powerful technology probably would have seemed like magic to John back in 1978, when he recorded the “Now And Then” demo with a television on in the background. The software was able to completely remove the sound from the TV, along with other noise from the apartment and the street outside. John was not afraid of new technology during the Beatles’ incomparable tenure of the 1960s, but he was generally happy to leave the particulars up to the band’s producer and collaborator, Sir George Martin. John would describe the sound he was going for to Martin, who was tasked with finding the technological means to bring John’s sonic visions to life. Martin’s contributions to the band’s legacy of recorded music were immeasurable, and many fans refer to him as the fifth Beatle. Nowadays, all things Beatle-related are entrusted to George Martin’s son, Giles Martin, who co-produced “Now And Then” with Paul McCartney. Giles recently spoke toabout how the new Beatles song came about.
"When you’re working on something like this, you can’t think of the scale,” he said. “If you do, you’d be like a rabbit in headlights and be constrained by what you’re doing. There’s going to be no more new songs with all four of them on it. This is definitive by its nature, because the nature is there are no more tracks with all four Beatles on it, and there won’t be. It’s a pure fact that this is the last song.” Giles Martin is no stranger to working on beloved material. He has created new mixes for the recent re-releases of several Beatles albums, including Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Abbey Road, The Beatles(The White Album), and Revolver. Martin has also provided new mixes for The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones. “All of this stuff, people really care deeply about, and everyone has an opinion about it,” Martin said. “But for this, it’s not just me. Paul McCartney is really driving most of it. He is one of the greatest artists of all time, so I can hide behind him, if you like."
Back in 1995, after several days in the studio working on the track, George felt the technical issues with the demo were insurmountable and concluded that it was not possible to finish the track to a high enough standard. If he were here today, Dhani and I know he would have whole-heartedly joined Paul and Ringo in completing the recording of ‘Now And Then.’
— Olivia Harrison
Although Beatles guitarist George Harrison died in 2001, he, too, is featured on “Now And Then,” thanks to the recording sessions from the mid 1990s, when Paul, George, and Ringo got together to work on material for The Beatles Anthology project. Harrison recorded a rhythm guitar part before the band ultimately decided that two other John Lennon demos — “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” — were more viable recordings to work with at the time. Yoko Ono had given the demos to Paul, George, and Ringo in 1994.
“So the three collaborated on those two tracks, and (‘Now And Then’) was the third track,” Giles Martin said. And now that Peter Jackson’s technology has made the impossible possible, Paul felt it was time to revisit John’s “Now And Then” demo. “This song came about with Paul being in his studio and wanting to play with his friend,” Martin said. “It didn’t come from Paul thinking, ‘We should do one last Beatles song.’ The conversation around it was ‘What do you think of this song?’ as opposed to ‘How about this for a campaign?’ That’s what I love about it — the sincerity.” Despite Paul’s good intentions, Giles Martin recognizes the negative connotations that phrases like “machine learning” and “artificial intelligence” have for some people. But in this case, Martin is clear that it’s being used as a force for good.
The scary thing about the phrase ‘machine learning’ is that it reminds you of The Terminator. It will learn what the voice of John Lennon sounds like, and it’s extracting from the source, not recreating it. An archeological dig is the best I could compare it to: You’re dusting off something you found that’s been covered. And that’s the process of machine learning. There’s nothing of John on this that he didn’t perform back at the Dakota (apartment building) that day. All that’s happened is now we have the ability to take his piano track and vocal track and separate it.
— Giles Martin
Paul and Ringo New Studio Session Contributions
In addition to John’s vocal and George Harrison’s rhythm guitar, the new song features contributions from Paul and Ringo that were recorded in 2022, including backing vocals. Paul also performed the piano part that John had composed, along with a slide-guitar solo meant to honor George. For his part, Giles Martin added backing vocals taken from other 1960s Beatles recordings — he simply repurposed them for the new song. He also added strings (recorded at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles), just as his father did on songs like “Yesterday,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and “Eleanor Rigby.” Originally, there were 23 string players recorded for “Now And Then,” but Martin felt it was too much. “It didn’t sound very Beatles-y,” he said. “It was too posh. My dad was very economical with his strings. Cheap, you could even say. On ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ he only used eight players, for example. So for ‘Now And Then’ I ended up using just eight of them for the song.” The same demixing technology was used to create new stereo and Dolby Atmos mixes for new versions of the Beatles’ Red and Blue compilation albums, which should be available by the time you read this. These new albums were mixed by Giles Martin, Sam Okell, and Paul Hicks at Abbey Road Studios.
It was incredibly touching to hear them working together after all the years that Dad had been gone. It’s the last song my dad, Paul, George, and Ringo got to make together. It’s like a time capsule and all feels very meant to be.
— Sean Ono Lennon