Beatles’ ‘Now and Then’: How Paul McCartney’s White Whale Became Their Last Song

© Apple Corps Ltd
© Apple Corps Ltd

It’s often hard to fathom, but Paul McCartney is a mere mortal, just like the rest of us. Even with all the breathtaking highs of a life lived almost completely in the spotlight for 60-plus years, he’s also sustained crushing lows. He lost his mother to breast cancer as a teenager, as well as his first wife, Linda, in 1998. One of his oldest friends, his Beatles bandmate George Harrison, also succumbed to cancer in 2001, and, of course, John Lennon was assassinated in 1980. Through it all, it seems to have been music that has kept the almost preternaturally optimistic McCartney going.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that the new Beatles song being released this week—the “last Beatles song,” as the press keeps reminding us—comes from a plaintive Lennon home demo, and is a McCartney production tour de force in which he and Ringo Starr pay homage to Lennon and Harrison, while wrapping an elegant bow on the band’s legacy.

It’s been a long and winding road, to say the least, for the song, which is titled “Now and Then” and was recorded circa 1979 in Lennon’s New York City apartment. In 1994 and ’95, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr convened with producer Jeff Lynne to tackle four songs that Yoko Ono had included on a cassette she first offered to Harrison and then passed on to McCartney on the night he inducted Lennon into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

The Beatles during a photo session in Twickenham in 1969
Bruce McBroom / © Apple Corps Ltd.

Two of the songs on the cassette, “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love,” became worldwide events in the mid-’90s when they were released as part of the band’s Anthology docuseries. A third song, “Grow Old With Me,” which had already been released on Lennon and Ono’s Milk and Honey album four years after Lennon’s death, was quickly jettisoned. The fourth song on Ono’s tape—called “Now and Then,” and the only known version of the song by Lennon, who was known to do multiple takes when trying to perfect his home recordings—was also abandoned.

“There was one other song that we listened to, and I think we may have played on it once—or they may have played once through it—but it was never done or finished or anything like that,” Lynne told me in 2013. “I don’t think we'll ever hear the extra one.”

But for years, that song haunted McCartney.

In 1997, during promotion for his then-new album Flaming Pie, McCartney recalled to Q Magazine, “It didn’t have a very good title, it needed a bit of reworking, but it had a beautiful verse and it had John singing it. George didn’t like it. The Beatles being a democracy, we didn’t do it.”

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“I asked George, ‘What happened to the third song?’” Mark Cunningham, who was the technical musical consultant to the Beatles’ longtime press officer, Derek Taylor, recalled recently. “And he was very critical. He was a real downer about it and said, ‘I wasn’t really interested.’ He said, ‘Apart from the quality, which was worse than the other two, I didn’t think it was much of a song.’ He made it clear he’d definitely called time on the whole thing. He said he didn’t want to end up just being John Lennon’s backing band.”

Still, McCartney brought it up repeatedly in interviews over the years—notably in the Martin Scorsese-directed Harrison documentary Living in the Material World, and in the 2012 doc Mr. Blue Sky: The Story of Jeff Lynne & ELO, in which he said, “I’m going to nick in with Jeff and do it. Finish it, one of these days.

With Harrison’s death in 2001, and the last of the band’s cynics gone, it was perhaps inevitable that McCartney would return to the song.

In retrospect, considering the subject matter and arc of the songs, “Free As a Bird,” “Real Love,” and “Now and Then”—the song that’s haunted McCartney and that will finally hit streaming services tomorrow—are a perfect, final Beatles EP of sorts. While that may not make immediate sense, especially to more casual fans, a new short film called Now and Then: The Last Beatles Song gives vital context to the track.

The 12-minute short film (which you can watch above) from director Oliver Murray tells the circuitous tale of this final farewell from the Beatles, from the recording of Lennon’s home demo to the “Threetles” sessions in 1994 and ’95 to McCartney—with help from Starr, co-producer Giles Martin, orchestrator Ben Foster, and filmmaker Peter Jackson—finishing the job in 2022.

“I think all the best music documentaries, they’re not really about music,” says Murray, whose film premiered Wednesday afternoon on the Beatles’ YouTube channel, BBC, Disney+, Apple TV+, and MAX. “They use music to Trojan-horse something else. So I like the idea that, if you watch this for the first time, the way it’s all teed up is that you go along on a journey with John’s tape. The tape moves geographically and through time, and John is therefore the character that is emerging out of it.”

It’s a clever conceit, and Now and Then: The Last Beatles Song hits all the right notes by putting viewers in the time and place and frame of mind to truly understand how significant the release of “Now and Then” is to all involved—and to fans themselves.

“It was incredibly touching to hear them working together after all the years my dad had been gone,” Sean Lennon says in the film. “It’s the last song that my dad and Paul and George and Ringo will get to make together.”

“All of those memories come flooding back,” McCartney adds in the short film. “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?”

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That’s one of the things that the film really drives home: While early rumors and fan theories about “Now and Then” suggested it was created nefariously using AI, McCartney makes clear in the film, “We’ve all played on it, so it is a genuine Beatle recording.”

“People think it was just bots making a fake Beatles record,” Murray recalls in disbelief of the early reports about “Now and Then.” “So it was important to us to have a moment in the film where you hear John’s voice—just his voice—after it was cleaned up by Peter Jackson and his head of machine learning, Emile de la Rey, and it sounds just like it should. Because even once his voice was separated and cleaned up and rebuilt, they placed him in a room, using the sound of the kind of microphone John would have used, really making sure that they got an authentic 1970s sound off of that tape.”

The film—perhaps even more of a tearjerker than “Now and Then” itself, or certainly Jackson’s accompanying music video, which is sure to draw a few jeers upon its release on Friday—reminded me of a memory Lynne recounted in our 2013 interview.

“The experience of walking in the room with George, and then being with the three of them, in the same room for the first time in years and years, that was an indescribable experience. Then sitting down with the three Beatles and listening to all this wonderful chat about the old days and stuff, that was so marvelous to hear these stories from their mouths. The real thing. That was one of the most amazing things, to get involved and be in this little club with the Beatles.”

Now—53 years after the band’s split, 43 years after Lennon’s death, and 28 years after the Anthology reunion sessions Lynne had recalled—with Now and Then: The Last Beatles Song, we all get to be part of that “little club”; flies on the wall for the decades-long making of the Beatles’ last recording together.

“I do feel like it’s a big thing, and I will allow myself to think it’s a big deal, because I’m very proud of what we’ve done,” Murray says as we wrap up. “I think it’s an important story. That word gets bandied around way too much, but if the last Beatles record isn’t an important milestone in the history of modern music, then I don’t really know what is.”

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