The story behind Now and Then: The Beatles' brilliant new track

The Beatles (handout)
The Beatles (handout)

It was 1994 in New York and Paul McCartney was about to go on stage to induct his erstwhile partner John Lennon into the pantheon of The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Fourteen years after Lennon’s assassination in the same city, the event signified a growing détente between McCartney and Lennon's widow Yoko Ono, the woman many blamed for splitting them up in the first place.

Backstage, Ono passed him a cassette tape bearing a hand-written label from Lennon that read “For Paul”. Inside were three home recording of unreleased Lennon songs and a potential answer to one of the great ‘What If’s’ for any music fan.

What if the Beatles had got back together and made music again? As luck would have it, the remaining Beatles (The Three-tles) were already secretly back in contact, collaborating on their mammoth Anthology TV documentary project. A typically reluctant George Harrison was persuaded that it was worth one more go.

The latest in recording technology was used to enhance Lennon’s faint voice and to try and reduce the background noise of New York traffic on the tape. The Beatles then did that magical thing they always did to each other’s songs. They made them a lot better.

Free As A Bird and Real Love were released over the next two years to a mixed reception. Some critics deemed the use of the deceased Lennon’s voice to be macabre and gimmicky, while others lamented the absence and gentler touch of the so-called Fifth Beatle, producer George Martin. To many fans, the songs remain a celebrated curiosity. Fab, but not quite classics.

Work started on the third track, Now and Then, but Harrison wasn’t happy. “F***ing rubbish,” was his specific verdict. McCartney was more enthusiastic: “I’m going to nick it and finish it one of these days”.

Twenty-eight years later and the 80-year-old McCartney stunned the audience at Glastonbury with a virtual duet of I’ve Got A Feeling, a song from 1969, with a 28-year-old Lennon. Quantum shifts in AI technology pioneered by Lord of The Rings director Peter Jackson had enabled engineers to isolate and capture Lennon’s voice to the highest definition.

So with the technology now in place, McCartney and Ringo Starr, the remaining Beatles (The Two-tles) and George Martin’s son Giles followed through on McCartney’s promise to release Now and Then. And it is brilliant.

But why have they done this?

The Beatles have always been synonymous with technology and innovation. After all, the record and electronics company they established was aptly named Apple, itself the subject of a 10-year litigation.

They performed All You Need is Love in the world’s first live TV event; they were always going to be among the first to showcase AI’s creative potential. Doubters of voice manipulation should remember how Lennon’s vocals on Strawberry Fields Forever were stretched and altered in order to deliver its ethereal and timeless impact.

Second, there is no bigger Beatles fan than McCartney himself.

After their bitter separation, he did his best to run away from his greatest achievement, refusing to perform Beatles songs and almost maniacally accumulating a level of solo success to rival it.


Choosing which of Lennon and McCartney was the better songwriter is the ultimate in splitting hairs; but Lennon’s tragic and premature death established his legend early and often obscured the reality of McCartney’s superior versatility and musicianship.

It is remarkable that it’s taken so long for McCartney to be so comfortable with his own legacy, but he’s now clearly revelling in his former Beatles identity.

In the past few years alone he has continued to show extraordinary generosity to fans – the three hour concerts; the Get Back TV series; two new albums; a new podcast; a book and now this.

From All of Us To You: Thank You Paul.

Now and Then is out now - listen on Spotify. It's followed by a full release on November 3; preorder/pre-save Now And Then/Love Me Do double A-side single here. The Beatles’ 1962-1966 (The Red Album) and 1967-1970 (The Blue Album) Collections expanded, mixed in stereo & Dolby Atmos for 2023 edition is released on November 10