Twenty-seven years after their last commercial release, legendary rock group the Beatles dropped “Now And Then,” billed as “the last Beatles record,” Nov. 2, marking an end to the group’s illustrious 63-year career.
Originally recorded as a solo piano-driven demo by John Lennon in his New York apartment in 1977, the song’s journey toward a commercial release made headlines when Paul McCartney revealed in a BBC Radio 4 interview that he used artificial intelligence in the process of finishing the song.
I was apprehensive when I first read the news. In my eyes, the thought of generative AI mimicking the deceased artists I have grown to love is equal parts unnerving and morally objectionable. Even without AI, the legacies of countless artists have been tarnished by thoughtless posthumous releases. What’s to say the Beatles wouldn’t be next?
The one thing that gave me faith was the character of the surviving members themselves. The Beatles always embraced technological innovations during their heyday not as gimmicks but as tools used to perfect their music. If any group were to find a way to tastefully tie AI into their art, it would be them.
The song opens with the simple but somber piano chords from Lennon’s demo and the gentle, rhythmic strumming of the late George Harrison’s acoustic guitar pulled from recordings of the 1995 sessions.
Together, these elements penned by the two late Beatles instantly clue the listener in to the song’s sound. It is a soft, heartfelt ballad; the same kind of song that was the band’s bread and butter during their eight-year stint atop the world of popular music.
Mere seconds in, the listener is greeted by the most striking element of all: Lennon’s voice.
Paul McCartney and co-producer Giles Martin isolated Lennon’s vocals originally drowned out by noise, using the same AI used to isolate the fab four’s voices in the footage used in the 2021 “The Beatles: Get Back” documentary series.
In the opening refrain, Lennon sings of his complete, unwavering dependence on another person with the chilling line, “And if I make it through, it’s all because of you,” a message he repeats throughout the song’s verses.
Following the short refrain, the first verse sees McCartney’s bass line and Ringo Starr’s rock-solid drum beat enter the fold, a strong but lumbering momentum. The instrumentation further builds as a string section reminiscent of the accompaniments added to “The Long and Winding Road” and other songs from the band’s final album, “Let It Be,” which further build up the emotional weight of the melody.
Lyrically, the song is nothing out of the ordinary for a Beatles or solo-Lennon track — at least at first glance. Lennon and McCartney sing of undying and unwavering love in a way that, while more thought-provoking than the ballads of the band’s early years, is a far cry from the depth one finds in “In My Life” or “Across the Universe.” As a love song, the lyrics are fairly straightforward.
But when recognized instead as the bookend of the Beatles’ career, the clear-cut chorus takes on a new, unintended meaning. McCartney and Lennon, 43 years after the latter’s murder at the hands of a deranged fan, harmonize as they sing, “now and then, I miss you, now and then, I want you to be there for me.” Just as these words can be read as a desperate call for a distant lover, they can also be interpreted as the surviving bandmates reminiscing on the days before Harrison’s and Lennon’s deaths.
As Lennon moves through another verse, Martin sprinkles in electric guitar flourishes from Harrison and vocal harmonies sampled from past Beatles hits, evoking an ethereal aura through the end of the final chorus.
To close out the journey through the song, McCartney breaks out into a slide guitar solo clearly meant as an homage to the technique Harrison embraced in his solo work prior to his death in 2004. The guitar and strings carry through a single repetition of the opening refrain before the song comes to a sudden, unresolved end.
In just four minutes, McCartney, Starr and company find a way to do the impossible and make a real, faithful Beatles track decades removed from the band’s last commercial release and two of the members’ deaths. By drawing from the styles and characteristics the late members mastered during their time both as band members and solo artists, the surviving bandmates managed to produce a song that truly brings back the magic that ran through their discography so many years ago.
As detractors have and will point out, “Now and Then” is not the band’s magnum opus. It will never mirror the significance and grandeur of songs like “A Day in the Life” or “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and it is possible to argue the song may have been better fit as a more subtle ballad rather than the dramatic composition McCartney turned it into. But the song excels in the one criterion it had to fulfill above all else: serving as a fitting end to the Beatles’ career.
In just eight years, the Beatles were able to grip the world of popular music in a way no artist has ever been able to replicate, all the while changing the norms of the music industry and inspiring countless acts that went on to become legends in their own right. “Now and Then” finds a way to reflect the band’s past, revisit tried-and-true subject matters and reminisce on their history in superb fashion.
Most of all, I hope this song inspires people who are disillusioned with the ethos around the Beatles to recognize the significance of the band. The Beatles are not just innovators or pioneers. They are truly great artists, and the story of “Now and Then” undoubtedly proves that fact. After all, few bands have stood the test of time like the Beatles, and few ever will.