SINCE ITS RELEASE AT THE BEGINNING OF November, The Beatles' Now And Then has been making up for lost time – sending its tendrils everywhere, outraging and beguiling fans as a reverse-engineered Beatles song released by only half of The Beatles was bound to do.
And yet, the most startling thing about the revived and restored song is how much it really does sound like The Beatles. Where both Free As A Bird and Real Love, under Lynne’s direction, veered perhaps too close to ELO while Lennon’s ghostly tones drifted eerily from the afterlife, Now And Then is simpler and punchier and expands beautifully upon the dreamy grace of John Lennon’s original demo. John’s voice, meanwhile, is back: front and centre and up-close.
Giles Martin, brought in to co-produce the track with Paul McCartney, has been immersed in the restoration – and subtle updating – of Beatles productions since Love in 2006. Despite his absorbed and applied knowledge of Beatle sound and recording techniques, he’s taking no more than a modicum of credit. “That’s the thing. It is The Beatles,” he says. “I didn’t do anything to make it modern.”
Back in the mid ’90s, when Jeff Lynne and the surviving Beatles were first tackling the scratchy demos – featuring Lennon on piano and singing into his domestic tape recorder – there wasn’t much in the way of technology to pull his voice away from unwanted audio elements. The only available tool was filtering – as utilised on Free As A Bird and Real Love – which reduced the lower frequencies of the piano and made the voice clearer.
But the Now And Then demo was an even more problematic recording, made by Lennon at the Dakota in 1979 on a cassette machine positioned on top of his piano, while a TV burbled in the background. The strength of the song made the obstacles agonising. “It was a very sweet song,” reflected Jeff Lynne. “I wish we could have finished it.”
But for Ringo, the lo-fi quality of Lennon’s sketch was only one of the reasons for shelving Now And Then. For a start, maybe two new Beatles songs was enough. “‘Let’s not get too crazy…’” he remembers thinking. In addition, Lynne’s preferences for looped drum parts and overdubbed fills were neither to Starr’s taste nor in his style.
“Jeff is very particular and meticulous,” explains Ringo today. “He always wants a click track and I keep telling him I’m the click. He likes you just to hit the drums or do a short rhythm pattern and then he uses it. He said, ‘OK, now do some fills.’ But the fill comes when I’m emotionally involved in the track. I think maybe that’s what ended the sessions.”
Not to forget the heavier emotions stirred up when working in the studio with Lennon’s voice. “It really brought to the fore,” Starr adds, “to the three of us in the ’90s, y’know, that John’s gone.”
Giles Martin acknowledges the original attempt to record Now And Then may have been triggering for The Beatles, a stark reminder of their friend’s murder. “That’s a hard thing to deal with,” he stresses. “Not only dealing with your mate that’s dead, but you’re playing on a record where it’s like, ‘What should it sound like?’”
Talking today, McCartney acknowledges the push and pull of feelings attached to the track.
“It hung around for a while… years,” he says, “and every so often I’d kind of go to the cupboard and think, There’s a new song in there, y’know. We should do it, we’ve got to do it. But it would go back in the cupboard. A couple of years ago, I said, ‘No, we’ve really got to do something.’”
“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 have been, Yeah…”
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