June 12, 2024

In advance of Thursday’s release of the recently completed “Now and Then,” which is being billed as the final new track that will ever be finished and released under the Beatles‘ name, fans are hearing portions of the song — and more of the story behind it — in a 12-minute mini-documentary, “Now And Then – The Last Beatles Song,” that premiered on Disney+ Wednesday afternoon.

The doc includes footage from the 1995 recording session in which Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison first had a quickly aborted go at adding parts to a John Lennon demo that had been supplied to them for Yoko Ono. It also includes clips of McCartney and Starr recording new bass and drums parts for the song last year, after McCartney decided it could be finished after all, plus footage of an orchestral session that took place at Capitol Studios under McCartney and co-producer Giles Martin‘s guidance.

Most tantalizingly, it includes snippets of Lennon’s lead vocal, originally put down on a muddy cassette at home in the late 1970s — now cleaned up, using Peter Jackson’s audio separation technology, and sounding like Lennon is standing at a microphone in a high-end modern recording studio.

Listening to Lennon’s voice a cappella, fans may agree that McCartney is not exaggerating when he describes hearing the results of what was done with the MAL software to extract his late partner’s voice: “They said, this is the sound of John’s voice. A few seconds later… there it was. John’s voice, crystal clear… Peter took John off and gave him his own track. It’s like John’s there, you know — it’s far out.

“So in the mix, we could lift John’s voice without lifting the piano, which had always been one of the problems. Now we could mix it and make a proper record of it. I pulled it out, had a listen to it, and thought, ‘Oh, I could actually do the bass a bit better. So why don’t I start there?’”

The first attempt, in ’95, coincided with the remaining three Beatles making finished tracks out of Lennon’s “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” for the “Anthology” projects. The three are seen cheerfully entering McCartney’s countryside studio with then-producer Jeff Lynne… and, somewhat poignantly, exiting after they’d finished work (and abandoned “Now and Then”) as Ringo seemingly jokes: “OK, see you next week.”

“George and Ringo came down to my studio. Nice day. Fabulous day,” recalls McCartney of the ’95 reunion. “We listened to the track. There’s John in his apartment in New York City, banging away at his piano, doing a little demo. Is it something we shouldn’t do? Every time I thought like that, I thought, ‘Wait a minute. Let’s say I had a chance to ask John, ‘Hey John, would you like us to finish this last song of yours?’ I’m telling you, I know the answer would’ve been: Yeah! he would’ve loved that.

“We did ‘Free as a Bird’ and ‘Real Love,’ and we [had] a little bit of time left to do ‘Now and Then.’ When we started ‘Now and Then,’ it was very difficult because John was sort of hidden in a way. In John’s demo tape, the piano was a little hard to hear. And in those days, of course, we didn’t have the technology to do the separation…. Every time I want a little bit more of John’s voice, this piano came through and clouded the picture. I think we kind of ran out of steam a bit, and time, and it was like, well, I don’t know — maybe we’ll leave this one.”

In 2022, McCartney says in the documentary, “We had kept George’s [rhythm] guitar parts from ’95. And I thought what I’d like to do is do a slide guitar solo in George’s style — it was really a tribute to George. And then we started mixing it. Wow. This is it. Now it’s a Beatle record.”

McCartney describes the orchestral session, which almost no one involved knew was for a Beatles track. “I’d been vaguely thinking strings might be a good thing. The Beatles did lots of string things, you know, ‘Strawberry Fields,’ ‘Yesterday,’ ‘I Am the Walrus.’ We wanted to go to Capitol Studios ’cause that had been EMI … Giles worked on an arrangement like Giles’ dad [original Beatles producer George Martin] would’ve done in the old days. … We had to put the music out on the stands for the musicians, but we couldn’t tell ’em… It was all a bit hush-hush.”

Looking at the big picture, McCartney is heard saying: “My God, how lucky was I to have those men in my life and to work with those men so intimately and to come up with such a body of music, to still be working on Beatles music in 2023. Wow. We’re actually messing around with state-of-the-art technology, which is something the Beatles would have been very interested in. ‘Now and Then,’ it’s probably like the last Beatles song. And we’ve all played on it, so it is a genuine Beatle recording.”

In a statement about the documentary, writer-director Oliver Murray said, “The legacy of the Beatles set one of the most important foundations for modern youth culture. It is a great honor to be given the responsibility of telling this story and I think it will conjure up a lot of different emotions for people as we all have a very personal relationship to the band’s work. ‘Now And Then’ is a story of musical archaeology and a brotherly bond between four guys that gave the world some of the most popular entertainment in history.”

The Disney+ streaming documentary kicks off a 10-day rollout of material that will be momentous for Beatles buffs. The doc will be soon followed by the release of the “Now and Then” track on Thursday at 10 a.m. ET/7 a.m. PT, with Peter Jackson’s music video for the song bringing up the rear on Friday. The following Friday, Nov. 10, expanded versions of the “1962-66” and “1967-70” collections, featuring dozens of new stereo and Atmos remixes, will hit DSPs and stores.

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