“Now and Then” – The Beatles
A story that’s been shared among the media over the last 30 years tells of the last meeting between Paul McCartney and John Lennon. As McCartney was saying goodbye to his songwriting partner at Lennon’s apartment in New York City, Lennon patted him on the shoulder and said, “Think about me every now and then, old friend.”
Almost 45 years later, with two Beatles gone and the other two in their 80s, “Now and Then” becomes the last Beatles single.
I listened to “Now and Then” four times yesterday. It is not the greatest Beatles song ever recorded, but it may be the most important, for Paul McCartney finally gets to say goodbye to his old songwriting partner and exorcise the demons of the past.
A fractured history
For the 10 years between the Beatles’ breakup and John Lennon’s untimely death, the Lennon/McCartney relationship was at times strained. It manifest itself in several jabs at each other in songs, and at times became confrontational in court documents and open letters in newspapers and magazines.
There were glimmers of hope. While Lennon was on his “Lost Weekend” away from Yoko Ono in 1974, he and McCartney jammed together and there was talk of Lennon joining McCartney in New Orleans to record Wings’ “Venus and Mars” album. The two watched “Saturday Night Live” together at ‘Lennon’s New York apartment in April 1976 when Lorne Michaels offered the Beatles $3,000 to appear on the show. They almost went down to the studio to do it but demurred at the last moment.
The hope of a reunion died with Lennon’s murder in 1980. But demos of Lennon playing three rarely-heard songs surfaced in the mid-1990s, giving the Threetles a chance to reunite with Lennon. “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” were satisfying if not perfect quality, and gave me the chance to look forward to hearing a Beatles single for the first time. The recording of the third one, “Now and Then,” was shelved because there was an incessant hum throughout the tape that could not be removed.
But the tune haunted McCartney, who may have remembered Lennon’s last words to him, and he mentioned his desire to finish it several times in interviews; I myself conjectured about it back in 2018.
Fast forward to 2023. Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson was able to use AI technology to recognize and separate the voice of Lennon from the muffled piano and hum that overwhelmed the recording. The result was a crystal-clear track of John Lennon singing.
Reshaping a diamond in the rough
Lennon’s demo — just him and a piano — is a dirge, depressing and aimless. But the nuggets that McCartney recognized have been raised to the surface; he created a bassline that gives the song a new dimension, and Ringo Starr’s precision drumming adds a bit of pace. George Harrison had added a guitar track back in 1994, so he is on the track, and producer Giles Martin (son of Beatles producer George Martin) has spliced harmonies from “Because,” “Here, There and Everywhere” and “Eleanor Rigby” to fill in the absent three-part vocals that made the Beatles sound so distinct. Strings add an extra punch during the chorus — another Beatles trick — and McCartney pays homage to Harrison with a slide guitar solo.
But despite the song being a true collaboration among all four members, this is really a song about the heart of the group: Lennon and McCartney. McCartney sings with his old friend and partner during the chorus: “Now and then, I miss you” as the song moves to a minor key, making the moment even more poignant. McCartney, at 81, is singing with a forever middle-aged Lennon. He aged while Lennon did not, and he, along with all of us, has had to live with the question, “What if?”
It’s unclear who Lennon was singing about; it may have been Yoko Ono, but one hopes it was McCartney. There’s no doubt that McCartney is saying things to Lennon that he’s been thinking about for the past 40+ years.
“Now and Then” is a perfect curtain call for a band that reshaped popular music. While there will be Super Deluxe editions and re-remixed versions of their albums for decades to come, this is the last new Beatles single. Period. Paul McCartney wouldn’t have it any other way.