Now and Then

The Beatles playing Now and Then
The Beatles playing their final single, Now and Then

“There were three that we liked, Free As A Bird, and Real Love so those are the two that we did and there was another one that we started working on, but George went off it.  George said, ‘What’s that?  It’s rubbish, this is.’  I responded, ‘No, George, this is John.’  He groused, ‘This is rubbish.’  So I said, ‘Oh, okay then.’  So we didn’t finish it.  But that one’s still lingering around, I’m going to do it, finish it one of these days.”

— Paul McCartney, 2012

Now and Then‘s long journey to fruition happened over five decades:  it combines a John Lennon song and vocal recorded in the 1970s with contributions later added by Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr.  In that sense, it is the product of conversations and collaborations between the four Beatles that go on to this day.

The track was first worked on in February 1995, during the same phase of creativity that produced Free as a Bird and Real Love, new Beatles songs that were based on home recordings made by John provided to the other Beatles by Yoko Ono Lennon, and placed at the forefront of the Anthology project.  Throughout these sessions, everyone inevitably felt the poignancy of what they were doing.  “It was the closest we’ll ever come to having John back in the room so it was very emotional for me and I know it was emotional for the other two,” says Ringo.

As Now and Then started to take shape, George played electric and acoustic guitars.  From Paul came piano that matched John’s original part, and a vocal that doubled some of John’s singing; he and Ringo also added shakers.  But it remained unfinished, partly because of the almost impossible technological challenges involved in polishing what John had put on tape.

Then, in 2022, there was a stroke of serendipity.  A software system developed by Peter Jackson and his team — known as Maching Assisted Learning, or MAL — had been used throughout the production of the documentary series Get Back.  It finally opened the way for the uncoupling of John’s vocal from his piano part.  As a result, the original recording could be worked on anew.

Ringo contributed freshly-recorded drums.  In homage to George, Paul came up with a slide part played on a lap steel guitar.  He and Ringo blended their voices into the chorus.  With Giles Martin, Paul also added a string arrangement, and one last subtle touch:  backing vocals from the original recordings of Here, There and Everywhere and Because.

All this work reflected The Beatles’ shared fascination with technology, and how to put it to musical uses.  “There’s him in his apartment in New York City, banging away at his piano doing a little demo, and now we’ve restored it so it’s a crystal clear, beautiful vocal,” says Paul.  “How much would John have liked that!  He would have loved it.”

Now and Then is certainly a proper Beatles song, because, you know — it’s the last song that my dad and Paul and George and Ringo will get to make together,” says Sean Ono Lennon.  “It’s like a time capsule, and it all feels very meant to be.”

Audio track – Now and Then:

Music video – Now and Then:

(includes previously never-seen archival footage from the 1960s of the Beatles goofing off)

Now and Then clock by Chris Giffin
Now and Then clock by Chris Giffin

There was one final bit of happenstance, eventually reflected in the image used on the song’s accompanying cover art.  It’s a clock featuring the words “Now and Then”, created by American artist Chris Giffin, bought by George Harrison in 1997 from a shop in Providence, Rhode Island, and kept for years at the home he shared with his wife Olivia.

She recently decided to have a closer look at it.  “I put it on the mantelpiece,” she says.  “Then the phone rang.  It’s Paul, and he begins to remind me of this third song with Real Love and Free as a Bird. I said, ‘I remember it.  He said, ‘It’s called Now and Then.’  I’m standing there with the phone in one hand, looking at the clock that said Now and Then.  I was sort of dumbfounded.  I said, ‘I think this is George saying it’s OK.'”

— John Harris, 2023; Now and Then liner notes

John Lennon and Paul McCartney together in 1974“Think about me every now and then, old friend.”

— Last words of John Lennon to Paul McCartney