The Home Key #14: Now and Then


Rick Moody

If you’ve been reading The Home Key during the three years of its existence, you might note that this is the third time now, in these three years, that a group of us (Adam Braver, Marc Woodworth, and myself) have taken up together, in a roundtable format, an online discussion concerning The Beatles. We first disputed overthe Revolver re-release, and then we disputed over the release of Peter Jackson’s film Get Back. And now we have gathered together again to discuss the “new” Beatles song entitled “Now and Then.”A lot of ink has already been spilled on this subject, but as in theearlier cases, my preference is for a lengthy period of consideration, irrespective of the date on the calendar. So here you get us thinking about what the song might be like in the weeks ahead of its release, and then some more consideration in the weeks after. I hope you enjoy it! And let it be said: each time we three havegathered, we have wondered aloud if there can possibly be a future in which there is more Beatles music for us to discuss. And yet it appears that the remixes and remasters and, apparently, the new releases, are somewhat limitless. “Carnival of Light,” anyone? We can only be grateful to The Beatles for continuing to give us this extended opportunity to discuss. Meanwhile, our bios are roughly the same as last time: Adam is a novelist and teaches at Roger Williams University and is associate director of the New York State Summer Writers Institute; Marc is a poet and musician and is the managing editor of Salmagundi, the magazine that charitably gives us this space for our colloquium, and I’m a novelist and a professor of the practice at Tufts University. Maybe we’ll see you again later in the year when Paul releases his “underdubbed” version of Band on the Run.

–Rick Moody

RM: You both, I’m writing here to get going our thread about the “last” Beatles song, which will be upon us soon.

Initially, I really felt like we should start by talking about Dolly Parton’s recently released (on Rockstar) version of “Let It Be,” which is herewith. I revere Dolly Parton as much as the next thinking music listener, of course, but I admit I was a bit skeptical about this recording. I was skeptical specifically (particularly) because of Paul’s being involved (and Ringo, though I confess I don’t know exactly what Ringo did–it doesn’t sound like his drumming). There is sort of too much to lose with this song. The song itself is too important even to allow Dolly Parton to do a close, respectful reading of it. 

This is a Beatles recording, according to the post-Lennon definition, however, if only because all of the living Beatles are on it. And the arrangement is pretty faithful. It sounds like the Let It Be version, more or less. Dolly Parton does, in fact, know more about gospel music than Paul McCartney does, perhaps, has lived in and around gospel music, and therefore somehow just when you think you are impervious to Dolly Parton’s “Let It Be,” there’s this surge of gospel-oriented thinking in her version that confounds one’s suspicions. To some degree, at least. Suddenly, Dolly Parton finds a way to cause this song to feel new and ardent, which doesn’t happen elsewhere on Rockstar, on, e.g., “Free Bird.” (By the way if you want to see a pretty astounding gospel reading of a revered rock song, I stumbled on this last week and found it completely powerful and moving.

When we were talking about Get Back a couple of years ago, and about the super deluxe version of Let It Be, we discussed what else there could possibly be to say for people who were interested in The Beatles. And here we are! Not only was there the Revolver re-release, but now there is, on the immediate horizon, a “new” Beatles single, and this song, too, with both the living Beatles on it.

So: I thought we could start by talking about what we think of The Beatles’ output of material since the time of John Lennon’s murder, and what we expect from the “new” song forthcoming. I consider the “new” output to consist of the two songs from the Anthology, viz., “Free As a Bird,” and “Real Love,” perhaps (arguably), George Harrison’s “All Those Years Ago,” and maybe Ringo Starr’s “Grow Old With Me,” a song by John that also includes Paul on bass, and a bit of a string arrangement from “Here Comes the Sun,” in order to involve or imply George (or so it is said). These portional bits of Beatle essence are like the shreds of a papyrus that we can project onto, it seems to me. 

And while you’re thinking about that, consider “Sweet Sounds of Heaven,” by the Rolling Stones, released almost simultaneously with the new single by The Beatles? To compete? Just like, say, sixty years ago? There’s something very moving about this song to me. In a way this song is remarkably strong for a band whose lead singer is in his eighties.

What do you think? 

AB: I have tried to accept the two notable post break-up Beatles songs over the years. Although I periodically still listen to “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” (by now with every nuance and note internalized), it has not been easy. The debate I have with myself about both songs has nothing to do with one of the chief criticisms I remember hearing when they first came out – the distaste for building a fully realized song off a homespun, private cassette of the deceased. I am okay with that. Although novel when each song first was released, such techniques now seem a part of the recording landscape. (Think of all those “pandemic” albums sold to us with stories of musicians locked down in their own spaces and making music with their bandmates across the country. Or those Playing for Change videos, such as with “The Weight,” in which global musicians join in on a song at different points–noting Ringo as one of the many percussionists on that one.) In other words, the 1995 head-shaking of the remaining Beatles building those two songs off a cassette from another time, now, from a technological perspective, seems quaint. 

I also recall cries of underlying motive. A P.R. move for the Anthology episodes. A cynical attempt for it to be injected into the contemporary conversation. But I am willing to believe that the process was meaningful for the so-called Threatles. An honest attempt to reconnect. I mean, look at those moments in the Anthology video with all three playing music at Friar Park. George and Paul on acoustics and ukuleles, Ringo on drums and thighs. Pure joy and pleasure in its simplest form.

And perhaps that is where, I confess, lies my struggle with those two “new” Beatles recordings, as fine as they may be as songs (though it’s hard to imagine that either would have been considered important): the loss of the organic. Even as thrilling as both recordings still can be to hear, I am always aware of the construction, the deliberate layering, the paradox of the Jeff Lynne Beatles influence inverted and now influencing the sound of The Beatles, all with the sense of a willful eye on history. I guess I have never been able to accept either fully as a Beatles song, as I have never felt the creative give and take, the spark, the pushing of each other into innovation that made (and perhaps sustains) their music as their music. Such conscious deliberation is no match for the joyous noodling inside Friar Park, where we witness them naturally fall straight into a sound that is so innately familiar to us, and, most importantly, to the three of them.

All that said, I believe Paul, George, and Ringo were honest in making those songs. And when engaged in further argument with myself, I also make the case that there is joy in those recordings–the same as witnessed in those moments in Friar Park–a joy in the ability to have this opportunity to be together again, and to commune with John musically in the only way they knew, something worthy and important on a public and private level. What it comes down to, I think, is really wanting to not only like or love the songs, but to find them meaningful. A final word on an unfinished story. I suppose I do find them meaningful on their own terms. Not perfect. Not really The Beatles. But just enough of The Beatles to still send a chill up my spine. And though I have an idea of what may come with this new song, expectations prepared and measured, the truth is that I am so excited.

MW: The release of the Beatles Anthology felt like a major event in the mid-nineties when many of us anticipated the release of those two songs with eagerness, even a little desperation – desperate for more Beatles’ music and, in the case of the documentary, more of their history and the simple company on screen of the living Beatles who narrate the story. It was a time before we could easily bring up online almost any Beatles-related image, video, song or alternative version. I never questioned then on ‘moral’ or aesthetic terms the collaboration between the living Beatles and a demo from John, dead fifteen years before. I think Adam is right to note that some found the recording and release of those songs to be mercenary and in dubious taste. I think he’s right, too, in suggesting there’s no organic feel to the project and there’s more joy and genuine pleasure in the footage of George, Paul and Ringo getting together for the documentary; however wary they seem at times, they are clearly pleased to revisit their past together and make some music again with one another.   

I wanted very much to like those songs when they came out and I suspended a good deal of disbelief to do so. Still, they never really ‘stuck’ for me and remain more interesting as an attempt to ‘reunite’ the band than as music on its own terms. Part of the problem stems for me from the fact that key features of the recordings are so palpably post-Beatles. John’s late 70s piano-based mode is much in evidence on “Real Love” which has some lovely melodic moments but feels closer to the sentimental side of what appeared on Double Fantasy. I often really like George’s slide work on his post-Beatles songs and although he played a little slide in The Beatles, its use as a very controlled vehicle for a hook jumps out on both “Real Love” and “Free as a Bird.” It’s a signature sound that feels off in the context of The Beatles, however artificial that context here might be. That said, I like Paul’s lead vocal on “Free as a Bird” and hearing it ‘against’ the rough and searching Lennon lead vocal is a welcome reprise of their singular voices working together. And the harmonies in “Free as a Bird” carry that inimitable sound that brings The Beatles alive for a moment or two – the suggestion of the complex and beautiful blending of voices that we hear on late Beatles’ songs like “Because.”  

The fact that I push back against the post-Beatles features on these songs interests me. Why would I expect or want these collaborations to stick to who they were and how they sounded before they broke up? These recordings more directly reflect what they might have sounded like if they recorded together in, say, the late seventies when John recorded the demos, or in the mid-nineties when Anthology came out. But I remember wishing then that the demos on which these recordings were based were lost songs from any period before the break-up. That might have proved even more artificial and less organic but far more exciting. It seems likely that the original demo of the song behind the forthcoming AI-enhanced recording is a Lennon composition from 1978, the same period of the demos for “Real Love” and “Free as a Bird.” The title “Now and Then” alone suggests–as do the titles of the two Anthology songs–the casualness of Lennon’s writing in that period when he was content to conjure with clichés rather than pushing toward something more original. So, I’m less concerned about the potential issues around AI than I am about the likelihood that the song which emerges will be no more than minor and a disappointment.

RM: There’s a piece in The Guardian from yesterday or the day before that is sort of part of the advance press push for “Now and Then,” and it’s of some interest.

Likewise, yesterday, I heard a sort of audio equivalent thereof, on The Beatles channel on SiriusXM, in which all the production techniques of the recording were rehearsed by the announcer (Meg Griffin), including what for me was the alarming news: that Paul on “Now and Then,” does a slide guitar solo “in the style of George Harrison.” As a tribute! People keep saying it! As a tribute! Despite all of this information being of interest to me, as a Beatles fan, I also feel some de trop from it all. I feel the mechanisms of capital in their disagreeable motion, reminding me that I’m definitely going to like this song. The stories keep changing. Initially, I read that everyone thought “Now and Then” was a good title (which it seems to be to me), and then Paul remarked elsewhere that they thought the title didn’t work and needed changing. And/or: George plays acoustic and electric on the finished track, or George is only singing. And/or the backing vocals are all taken from other tracks (like “Because”). In a way my need for publicity is no longer a need, at all. I am surfeited by the publicity. Remember, George’s early pronouncement about the “Now and Then” demo was that it was “fucking rubbish,” according to Paul, but now Olivia and Dhani say that he would have loved to play on it, etc. Monetization of the catalogue is at stake!

Perhaps it’s inevitable that I can’t help but compare the “Now and Then” saga, now, to machinery orbiting around Hackney Diamonds, the Stones album, which is now available for all of us to hear in full. And the first day I listened to the whole (a week ago), I had such joy for the fact that it existed, these old guys still making rock and roll. But by now I have started to feel some exhaustion–which Adam and I discussed a little bit yesterday. Oh, it really does sound like a Mick Jagger solo album on many tracks. Oh, it’s pretty poppy. Oh, Keith is being mixed down because of the arthritis, etc. Adam and I agreed that the last three songs are strong. And: I can’t help noticing that “Sweet Sounds of Heaven,” which more than holds up, for its out-of-control dueting and its amazing Stevie Wonder horn chart, has quotations from the 23rd psalm embedded in it. There’s both a notable “valley” and a notable “shadow,” lots and lots of heaven, and of course lots of a Gospel-oriented God the Father, and a spectacular autobiographical conclusion: “Let the old still believe that they’re young.”

What is there in all of this rehabilitation of the classic rock dinosaurs, but a premonition of imminent non-being? Maybe even more than a premonition. Especially in this Beatles song, wherein the singer was, alas, murdered on the street forty-some years ago, and the lead guitar player died of cancer twenty years ago, and on the Stones record, the drummer who died two years ago plays on two tracks. “Now and Then” indeed. Is our anticipation not a transparent wish that we have not relinquished then?

Back when Adam first sent his reply to my first communication, above, I was thinking about how much I wanted, for the purposes of the discussion, to try to rehabilitate “Free as a Bird.” Nobody likes it, I don’t think, not the way I like it. The first thing one thinks is: boy, that demo vocal sure sounds bad. But I think a different thing, too, which is that the first couplet is amazing: free as a bird/is the next best thing to be. That is a very indelible line, to me, because if being free as a bird isn’t the best thing, what is the best thing? It’s like the “couldn’t get no worse” formulation that John added onto “Getting Better.” What is the best thing of all if it’s not being free? We know from the Lennon late demos from the Dakota that many seem to have some kind of apologetic/domestic component that may or may not be part of longstanding remorse about the “Lost Weekend” time when John was apart from Yoko. They might also be compensatory for the fact that he was continuing to involve himself with May Pang after he was back in the Dakota with Yoko. You might think that domestic responsibility, or some very complicated version of this responsibility, is the thing that is better than being free, that the domestic/responsible life is an unfreedom that pays off in some other transcendent way. Maybe. There are other possibilities. For example, one possibility is that “Free As a Bird” indicates that the “freedom” of a solo career is less rewarding than a being in the collaborative space of the band. I feel this, in the finished song, every time George’s slide guitar bursts into view, every time I hear those two snare snaps that open the song, but even more in Paul’s additive lines “Whatever happened to/the life that we once knew?” A frankly retrospective and frankly metafictional act of narration that is also about the coming-into-being of the song “Free as a Bird” itself. As an event. But maybe “Free as a Bird” is also about the impending non-being of the boomers, The Beatles audience. And yet, whenever I think I know this song, “Free as a Bird,” and have a tidy container for it, a bon mot, a critical perspective, then that second ending comes around. And I can’t think of this second ending without watching the video again, because the video is, in fact, better than the song.

The video won a Grammy! The bird’s-eye cam video. Remember it? Which bird is this bird who is the observer in the video, you might ask? I was at a Halloween reading last night (the night before I wrote these lines), so today I thought of the bird cam as the raven of Poe (someone at the reading brought a toy “comfort raven” to the reading), but it’s also a bird that can narrate everything, all the times at once, all the ages of the Fab Four. What kind of bird is so omniscient? What kind of bird can see all the times at once? What angel of death? What frail bird-like emanation of the holy spirit? What personage of the great beyond? That big long ending chord in the song, in the second ending of the song, with George sawing away on his uke, with John’s mumbled vocal from beyond the grave, the white sky of heavenly light, through which the personage of the great beyond flies in the video, is that not the space of the bird who is more free than the freedom of the refrain?

Maybe we are waiting for an engagement of this kind, a thing we can think about profitably, a thorough engagement, in “Now and Then,” the sweet sound of music itself, the purpose of music, the freedom that is better than regular old freedom? All of this, it bears reminding, is happening at such an awful time. The awfulness of the moment is overwhelming in every way, with such potential to get markedly worse, which reminds us that some of the genius of the studio-period Beatles was that they were producing in the midst of the Cold War, in the midst of the awful Southeast Asian portion thereof, and the heightened feeling of some of that music had to do with the unsettling context. And here we are again. War is over if you want it.

Now, did anyone watch the “Now and Then” doc?

MW: It piqued my interest to hear the song … the tempo and melancholy make it more promising to me than the Anthology songs. Easy to read parts of the doc as a preemptive apologia for the project but it also conveys Ringo and Paul’s authentic pleasure in playing together and finishing the song. Impossible to know if that’s true pleasure or the dividend of a well-crafted piece of film. Enough longing can make us believe almost anything. But the nostalgia worked into the film serves to disarm but not overwhelm us. I’m eager to hear the strings and if they sound inspired/Martinesque or cloying. John’s voice and melody more promising than I’d imagined.

AB: I did watch it, albeit not with a close eye. It did do its job in making me look forward to hearing the new song even more, and also in a way that seemed intended to preempt assumptions based on the two Anthology songs. In other words, I suppose it left me a little more open to this being a different experience. Still, expectations are tempered (even though I am very, very open and hopeful for an incredible and moving experience). My other thought, and this has more to do with me than with the video or the song itself, is that I find myself very put off by “The Last Beatles Song” marketing. The mix of sentimentality and coercion in that tagline-turned-narrative leaves me a bit cold, as though we can’t be trusted to take in the song on its own merits, value, and artistry. Again, while that likely is my bullshit shield instinctively rising, and certainly a function of the marketing department doing its job (and very well, I might add, as nearly every article I have read has adopted that narrative framework), I am, and will be, reminding myself to just hear the song as the song, and to go from there.


Interregnum in which the participants go away to listen to the song.


RM: I thought the first thing I would do before writing to you two again was to listen to a bunch of the post-Lost Weekend Lennon songs and see how they stood up. In order to see what I thought about “Now and Then” in the context of the other compositions. There’s a pretty good link on YouTube that collects all the Lennon songs on Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey without the Yoko songs. (And there are many Yoko songs I like, so I went in this direction not out of disapprobation, but simply to save time. My vote for the best Lennon song of the late seventies, in truth, is “Walking On Thin Ice,” by Yoko Ono.) The link to the Lennon halves of those albums is here

My feeling is that these songs, despite some nice arrangements on DF, are, as Marc noted above, pretty bland. They feel tamed, in many cases, and not because of the arrangements (a common charge against them). I really love “Watching the Wheels,” and, to some extent, I really like “Woman,” and “(Just Like) Starting Over,” and maybe, on occasion, I like “Beautiful Boy.” Sometimes. But then there are a bunch that don’t really mean very much to me at all. I really tried to like them when the record came out. (I was in college, and primed for a John Lennon release.) Like “Cleanup Time,” or “I’m Losing You.” But I failed to find them lasting.

Milk and Honey is even a little more problematic. I confess that I don’t know that I have listened through this record in its entirety. Maybe once or twice back when it first came out. I think the Lennon songs feel pretty demo-ish, or the arrangements seem barely aestheticized. “Borrowed Time” feels uncomfortably reggae-like. “Grow Old With Me,” even in the Lennon version, feels a chorus away from being totally effective, and never quite there. No matter which Beatle is singing it! The chorus is just “God bless our love?” Really? Is it possible this is the same lyricist who wrote “Across the Universe?”

Really, if you look closely, the problems extend back before Lennon’s layoff years, to Walls and Bridges Because if you discount “#9 Dream” and “Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” both of which are pretty excellent (indeed “#9” might be my next favorite John Lennon solo song after “Imagine”) the album grinds to a halt pretty fast. (And I bought it right when it came out!) And if you’re willing to concede that point, then Mind Games is a heavy lift too. I probably don’t have to lean into this point too hard. As a Beatles geek in the early seventies, I nonetheless confess Mind Games is a record I never paid much attention to. I have tried to like it as an adult, thinking that there is something on there, must be, besides the title track. There must be.

There really are two great Lennon solo albums, or that is my theory here, Plastic Ono Band and Imagine. And there are leftovers from his Beatles period on both albums, I think. And Beatles players on both!

So: the great songs by John Lennon from the time when he sat at the piano to play “Now and Then” were pretty far behind him. Except for four or five songs, he hadn’t consistently written memorable songs for six or seven years. “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” did not indelibly make a case otherwise. I heard “Real Love” a couple of days ago, on the radio, and I definitely liked things about it. I like the chorus. I like George’s parts on it a lot. And as I said before I like the lyrical contradictions at the heart of “Free as a Bird.” A lot! But it’s just not as good as, well, anything from the sixties.

In this week of thinking about “Now and Then” I really haven’t been able to shake the feeling that it truly comes from the half-hearted period of Lennon’s writing. It just isn’t that interesting as a song. The thing that I sort of can’t forgive about “Grow Old With Me,” e.g., is there on the surface with “Now and Then.” And: the thing that I like about “Free as a Bird,” that it feels desperate even when it tries to soar, is also there in “Now and Then.” “Now and Then” is about memory, and about forgetting, and it’s desperate and despairing all at the same time. Not really as celebratory as it appears to be. Is it just another love song for Yoko? Like all those songs on Milk and Honey? If it’s that it’s a pretty dark rendition of that, because it kind of says maybe we were good together, and maybe we weren’t, and maybe I’ll remember and maybe I won’t. Oh, and by the way, without you I’m nothing.

So the lyrical contradictions are there, like on “Free as a Bird,” and if this entire body of work, from Mind Games onward, is about not knowing about domestic bliss, not being sure about it, it’s fifty years later, and he sure still sounds pretty ambivalent to me. Haunted, even.

That’s the thing I keep coming back to. That there’s something really ambivalent and haunted about “Now and Then,” grudging, uncertain. The biographical reading is dopey, of course, just an armchair analyst’s take on the whole thing, oh it’s just trying to keep Yoko happy! Dopey! Because maybe it is about Paul. You know? Or maybe it is about The Beatles? I sort of think it’s bigger than any biographical reading, or more abstract than this kind of reading, like maybe it’s about music itself, or about inspiration, or about art-making, in addition to being about all that other stuff, the biographical stuff.

Or maybe it’s about May Pang? Apparently they were still together, occasionally, into 1977.

MW: Your sense, Rick, of “Now and Then” coming from Lennon’s weakest songwriting period was exactly what caused my pre-emptive dismissal of the new project. And certainly the lyrics here aren’t going to revise our sense of his songwriting at that time. In fact, you might be giving the lyrics too much credit as an expression of a complex relationship because of their contradictions. I find myself wondering if the words are not perhaps just the “whatever comes out of your mouth” place-holders songwriters demo just to remember a melody. Are the complexity and contradiction of the lyrics expressing a psychological or emotional reality? Or is it just lyric-making on-the-go to get an idea down? The “I want you to be there for me” idea is a pop commonplace that feels roughly grafted onto the phrase “now and then” which serves to undercut the urgency of the need for the other one to ‘be there.’ The combination of the two phrases may not be doing much more than yoking two clichés that don’t quite make sense together – “be there for me” … “now and then.” More evidence of the looseness of the lyrics here: “now and then / I want you … / Always to return to me” (emphasis mine). So once in a while I always want you to return to me? Given that human need, especially in relationship, is often unaccountably complex and contradictory maybe the inconsistencies here give onto reality but, if they do, those realities are coming through without any palpable writerly control on Lennon’s part.

AB: I have to say I kind of love “Now and Then.” It took a few listens, of which my initial reactions greatly fluctuated from thrilling to blah to everything betwixt-and-between. But I have come around. Aside from the late-Lennon lyrical concerns articulated so well by both of you, it is a melody that is impossible to shed, along with an arrangement that is sophisticated at many key moments, familiar yet fresh, and thankfully does not rely on aural complexities to overcompensate for the incompleteness of the demo, or of its audio quality. 

Strange to say, but this sounds like a Beatles song to me – at least a mash-up of what would have been “1980/90s meets 2023” Beatles. Unlike its two predecessors, the song does not seem to be trying to convince us that this is The Beatles, using all the tricks and tropes of old. It is willing to dispense with nostalgia to be what it is in the now. In other words, “Now and Then” comes across as much more organic than “Free as a Bird” or “Real Love.” After listening to the demo, which does wander after a point, I really credit Paul for how he worked with the structure to turn a nascent demo into a song – not a patchwork homage. Perhaps that is the core of its organic-ness. Understanding the distance of time, of lives lived and lost, and of technology, you can sense a Lennon & McCartney composition in “Now and Then,” and even how this might have exemplified their creative partnership had it continued. No longer facing each other on the edges of twin beds with mirrored acoustic guitars, one now imagines them emailing demos or fragments to each other, each moving parts around, excising sections, adding or deleting lyrics, calling out each other’s worst tendencies, and ultimately continuing to bring out the best in both of them. 

I’m embarrassed to say that at my age I still do many of the same things I did when I was twelve. I even wear the same footwear. But for this conversation, one such activity was to take the bootlegged recording of the Threatles (from the Anthology session) and construct an album that also included the three “new” songs (each which I imagined to be John’s contributions). Curiously, it works really well– enough so that had it been presented as a new Beatles album (admittedly odd), I think it would have come across as completely satisfying, if not exciting. So maybe I see “Now and Then” not as the last Beatles song, but rather as the final piece of their 1995 album. For that, I can pretty much say I love listening to “Now and Then.” Perhaps it’s a little sentimental or sappy for my taste, but I am taken by it, fully accepting it as a perfectly accomplished Beatles song. Maybe not a masterpiece by any stretch, but one that makes me feel good, permanently entered into my musical DNA with ease and meaning and place.

RM: Well, Adam, yes, your enthusiasm is excellent. One thing I really love, yes, is the string arrangement. I have heard some people carping about the strings, but a really good string arrangement in pop music is very rare now (too expensive, when you can just use your synthesizer). But in contrast to the dearth of good string arrangements, we have this arrangement on “Now and Then,” which really does recall “Eleanor Rigby” or “Yesterday,” which is to say George Martin. There are very rhythmical viola and cello parts here, like the four-on-the-floor flavored rhythm that Martin likewise wrote for “Eleanor Rigby.” So these strings are not florid (like with the Spector arrangements on Let It Be), but rather somber and stately.

I really like the chorus Paul made. It makes the song for me. Because I think John’s melody is insubstantial, there’s a sense of rushing toward the chorus (or the middle eight, depending on how you think about it structurally), and the going from minor to major. Interestingly, I think Paul’s singing (and I think Ringo is on there too) exhibits some of his slightly wobbling contemporary qualities, the weaker high end that afflicts him now (and which I generally think is very moving), but it’s barely a flavor. The chorus surges into a major key, and it is stirring when it does. The “always to be there for me” line does sound exactly like The Beatles, I think, and I can almost put my finger on which song, something quite early (on The Red Album, let’s say), but it’s more a manifestation, perhaps, of exactly what Paul McCartney’s melody-writing vocabulary is like.

The guitar solo is such an interesting point for me. You both have heard me go on about George, the secret weapon of so many Beatles songs. And I was incredibly suspicious about the “slide guitar solo in the style of George Harrison,” as mentioned earlier. Paul is a fine soloist, c.f. “Taxman.” But his imitating George sounded, well, not totally plausible. To his credit, he didn’t really try. It sounds nothing like George! Those beautifully composed moments that I associate with George (like I recently watched the little microtonal thing George does by himself on “I’ve Got a Feeling,” right after the bridge, my God), not on display here. Strictly speaking, Paul is just playing a slide guitar.

But I’ve come to think it’s a really lovely and beautifully composed solo, and: it’s a guitar solo. Nobody’s song, these days, has a guitar solo on it, and surely not one like this, where the strings double the guitar melody, and later where the counterpoint between the guitar and the strings is so lovely –and this extends to the end section, that really great strings-and-guitar canon-like motion toward the final chord. I think Paul made a really fine guitar solo in the style of Paul McCartney.

And the last thing I’ll say is I love the backing vox in the bridge section too. I’m guessing they did lift them from “Because” and then just transposed to where they needed them to go. (Wait, I’ll check.) “Now and Then” is in Am (verses) and G major (chorus), and “Because” is in: Db major! Wow! I guess it’s really true that Yoko played “Moonlight Sonata” backward to get the chord sequence for “Because,” because guess what key it’s in! Db major! So in order to get the Am from Db major, you’d have to transpose up four half-steps (or down seven?), plus you’d have to avoid the flat key in the middle. I wonder if that’s how they did it, separating lines, to give it that unearthly wall of sound quality it has. (Which of course “Because” kind of has too.) Nowadays there’s a lot of filling in around backing vox, and pitch correcting and so on. Not hard to do. But here done with flair and with one eye on how splendid Beatles harmonies have always been.

MW: I lost track of what day “Now and Then” was to be released and only realized it was already out while I was making soup. I summoned the song up via Alexa through the Amazon Echo in the kitchen. It wasn’t lost on me that I was using AI to play a song that initially garnered a lot of headlines for being the product of AI. I had planned instead to listen through the good speakers and the old-school stereo as if it were still 1968 or 1979 or 1995. In retrospect, I’m happy that I called it up without any ceremony via the technology of the moment by saying “Alexa: play The Beatles’ ‘Now and Then.’” I didn’t even stop cutting onions while I did. That all-too-familiar bot voice confirmed my request with no more emphasis than if I’d asked to hear “Try That in a Small Town.” I had no great expectations and no ‘last Beatles song’ hype in my head as I listened. After the song ended, I asked for it again. I did that a dozen times until the soup was done. 

I came away thinking that the two remaining Beatles are much better at having been Beatles than they were thirty years ago. So much so that they’re able to be The Beatles again in a way they weren’t back then. I don’t mean they’ve returned to a musical reality that is Beatles-like as much as they’ve come into the possession of being The Beatles – having been The Beatles – in a way that lends a certain rich spirit to what could have been an entirely dispiriting project. Comfortable with their legacy and (at least in the public expression of their private consciousness) Ringo and Paul seem to have settled the question of who they all were to one another. Has Paul smoothed over the rough spots of the relationships with John and George to make peace with the past? Perhaps. Have both he and Ringo simply kept on keeping on in the knowledge they are fundamentally musicians, even if very famous ones? Recently Paul tried to convince Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee of Rush to go back on tour despite the loss of Neil Peart –‘It’s what we do.’ This argument for going back to work seems like the articulation of his guiding principle. And touring, along with making more songs, whether they gain acclaim or get washed out, is what he and Ringo, too, seem to understand they were put on earth to do.  

“Now and Then” sounds much more organic than the 1995 collaborations for all the artifice and spin leading up to its release. The song strikes me as viable on its own, distinct from the way it was marketed and the claims being made for its importance as The Final Song. It sounds really good. And it doesn’t need the tagline or the story of how it came to be in order to work or engage our interest as listeners. I had to overcome something to like “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love.” I didn’t feel required to do that listening to “Now and Then.” It’s not overwritten with an earnest but all-too-present attempt to conjure a Beatles sensibility in the way that the 1995 tracks were. With “Now and Then” you don’t have to work past the production to get to the song and perhaps find there’s not much of a song there apart from the production.

For all the fullness here, though, “Now and Then” doesn’t overreach or become self-conscious. Yes, the strings are a production in themselves but they lend the right color to this song without compromising it. Paul gave in to George Martin’s suggestion of strings for “Eleanor Rigby” only when the producer agreed to one condition: “no vibrato, as much as possible, no vibrato.” McCartney wanted the strings to ‘bite’ instead of swell and weep with Mantovani sentimentality. There’s something of that wish realized in this orchestration, a bite and clarity that works against what could have been a ruinous lushness, especially given the song’s subject and the way it was poised as a finale. And there’s more here that makes the song affecting rather than cloying and sentimental. With its unfussy, workmanlike feel, Ringo’s simple beat entering at the apt moment amidst minor key melancholy is thrilling in its familiarity. It reminded me of his arrival on “If I Fell,” a song from a Beatles moment that wasn’t a touchstone for the 1995 recordings. Here Ringo’s playing is simply right for this song rather than a ploy to remind us of an earlier Beatles’ mood, even if it does that too. There’s no attempt to wrap his playing in nostalgic gauze or force it to emit the aura of sanctified rock–just that beautiful transparency of a drummer drumming the right way at the right moment.The turning, seven-note descent on bass and strings leading into the chorus is immediately pleasing and familiar, too. That riff may carry the memory of “I Am the Walrus” or the more grown-up AOR sound of Abbey Road, but most of all it builds energy toward the chorus in a way that’s memorable and deeply satisfying. Similar to how Ringo’s drumming conveys his economy and sense of occasion, this little run of notes carries Paul’s defining enthusiasm, the energy he’s always brought with his bass to carry and propel a song. It’s a defining truth of his character conveyed through his primary instrument and preserved by the current recording technology which does nothing to flatten or automate it. It seems too pat to claim that the two remaining Beatles have refined themselves down to their essence at this stage in their lives but they’ve completed a very human record in which we recognize the DNA of these musicians we’ve long loved.  This song won’t change our idea of what The Beatles did or who they were but “Now and Then” is the opposite of what many–including me–feared it might be and I feel lucky we have it. More than that, I was really moved listening to it.

AB: It’s interesting, thinking about Paul’s vocals throughout the song. I also really love how they are present and lend such a sense of familiarity to the sound. Subtle but essential, much in the way that Marc notes how Ringo’s drums enter the song. I suspect it must have been very tempting to mix Paul’s voice up, as though to reinforce the idea of “here they are: singing together again!” – instead, we get a mix that is a Beatles mix, a reminder of the transcendence of the individuals for the collective that, ironically, becomes its own singular voice. Even in the “Get Back” film, during the music-making moments, we all felt the joy of witnessing (and feeling) the divine and miraculous each time Paul and John sang together. The way their eyes met with joyful smiles, something that clearly still astounded and moved them. Kind of astonishing (and reassuring), given what we were to understand was happening personally between all of the lads. 

Yes, in “Now and Then” there is a sense of the weary in Paul’s voice, in that lower register that now is the main refuge for the power in his vocals. But it is so fitting for this song; well, not for the song, in and of itself, but for this recording that really is The Beatles of “now” not “then.” I would have been disappointed if McCartney’s voice had been engineered in a way that shaved off decades and then had been raised in the mix. It is the subtle touch of honoring Paul’s current register, among other smart and subtle choices (such as the strings, which you both note), that takes this from a mythical curiosity into something much more truthful. 

In a way, I feel a little pity for this song, in how one recording becomes the focal point for assessing and adjudicating the relevance and longevity of the post-Beatles Beatles. A lot of weight and focus on every element, measuring the musical choices, the reasoning, the miracle of the then vs. the mortality of the now. I am not so starry-eyed to think that Paul and Ringo (and for his early role, George) didn’t understand the attention and scrutiny that “Now and Then” would bring. And even if it was not meant to solidify their legacy, surely there was an awareness that it could impact it.

Of course, the marketing team also invited this level of scrutiny, with the idea, no doubt, that either they already knew the answer, or at the very least could preordain it.  But I do wonder if that isn’t anti-Beatles, a band that, especially during its mid-to-late career, wrote and recorded music in the ways that called and excited them, less with a focused eye on sales and charts. (That they could achieve both is nothing short of amazing.) 

For Paul and Ringo, especially, it must have been intense to find the balance between legacy, the notion of honoring John, and the pure and simple pleasure of making music. But on the other hand, isn’t this always what they have done, equal to their genius as writers and musicians? The almost incredible fortitude since their early twenties to be the musical and cultural channelers for their times and the subsequent generations, to have been wrecked by it, to have struggled to diminish it, to have tried to throw it away, to have made sense of it, reconciled with it, taken it back, consciously preserved it, and now, with Paul and Ringo in their eighties, to simply be it again. 

And here we are in 2024: this lovely song, wearied and familiar, lyrically simple with the wistfulness of middle-age looking backward. Perhaps not quite a period on a career, but also something more than a footnote. Maybe an ellipsis?

Legacy. Creating. Friendship and memory. The curious sense that we and so many other generations are somehow equal partners in this. 

It is all boiled down to a single song. If only we had a whole album.