Beatles fans around the world have been holding their breath for a week now, anxiously awaiting the moment when the Fab Four — which is now an Octogenarian Two — release their final song, Now and Then. The worldwide release Thursday at 10 am ET has certainly taken on the feel of an “event,” complete with an accompanying Peter Jackson-directed music video (the first of his career) and a 12-minute documentary about the song available on YouTube. Expectations, to say the least, are sky-high.
How could they not be? This, after all, was the band that defined the 1960s. The band that redefined popular music. A group that still captures the imagination of everyone from wannabe musicians to CEOs like Steve Jobs, who told an interviewer a few years before his passing that he thinks about most things in life in the context of either a Bob Dylan or a Beatles song.
And now, the world is getting one final Beatles song — a world, by the way, that looks a lot different from the one that produced The Beatles in the first place. It’s been sixty-odd years since the band took us on a Magical Mystery Tour to Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields, introducing us along the way to characters like Eleanor Rigby and The Fool on the Hill while also assuring us that things are getting better all the time.
Is the magic still there? Does the world even need a new Beatles song?
Here’s what I’ll say about Now and Then, as both a lifelong Beatles fan and someone who’s interviewed Ringo Starr three times, as well as John Lennon’s son Sean and a few other people in The Beatles’ orbit over the years. Whatever fans end up thinking about the plaintive piano ballad, Now and Then adds a sweetly satisfying, nostalgia-laden coda to the story of a group that split up in acrimony more than 50 years ago. And all it took was the magic of machine learning to clean up a low-fi John Lennon demo of the song, augmented by new musical contributions from Ringo and Paul McCartney.
Before George Harrison’s death in 2001, they’d actually had an earlier go at tackling Lennon’s demo of Now and Then. Unfortunately, there was too much hiss and background fuzz on the cassette — so the project was indefinitely shelved. That is, until Jackson and his team in recent years developed technology that was able to isolate sounds and clean up audio files, which was used to great effect in Jackson’s Get Back Beatles docuseries on Disney+. The three-part series not only looked stunningly fresh, like it was filmed yesterday, but its sound quality is pristine.
The Get Back series hit Disney+ at the end of 2021, and just a few months later Jackson was already teasing work on something new and hush-hush for the Beatles — “another project, something very, very different than Get Back.”
Turns out, all you need is love — and artificial intelligence.
The last time I interviewed the Beatles’ drummer, it was at the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood on a glorious California afternoon. I can still see him now — the 83-year-old rock star, still with a spring in his step — bounding into the room like a hippie sprite. He wore sleek black shades, a designer jacket, and sneakers. Outside, the palm fronds swayed languidly in the golden, afternoon sun. We bumped elbows in lieu of a handshake. All of us got older, but the cheeky, cheerful musician is still a Beatle from head to toe.
Just a few months before that encounter, I was standing outside the gate at Abbey Road in London. There was a car parked nearby with the windows rolled down that was playing the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. Just a few feet to your left, there it is — the intersection that the band immortalized on the cover of their final album, Abbey Road. People from around the world gawked, smiled, took photos, and scribbled messages of love on the wall outside the studio.
“Oh, that magic feeling …”
Honestly, I can’t really sum up my feelings about this moment as a Beatles fan any better than Philip Seymour Hoffman’s deejay character did in the 2009 film Pirate Radio — in a scene that was unforgivably cut from the movie but which is still available on YouTube.
In the scene, Hoffman’s character and several others are standing in front of The Beatles’ studio, gazing in awe as the former’s character delivers a great monologue:
“This, my friends, is Abbey Road. Somewhere in there, John, Paul, George, and Ringo are making music. And you know I love American rock ‘n’ roll, but I have enough brains in my head to know that we’re standing within 50 yards of four of the greatest geniuses of our time. And no matter how famous we get on rock radio, what we really are is fans … and gentlemen, I’d consider it an honor if you’d join me on this historic night in a salute to the Fabulous Four. The glories of our age. The bringers of joy, to our and future generations.
“Because there will always be poverty and pain and war and injustice in this world, but there will, thank the Lord, also always be the Beatles.”