The Beatles are – in pop terms – the greatest story ever told. Four lads from Liverpool who rose to the toppermost of the poppermost, the band changed pop culture forever. Yet in the end, it became a story of legal squabbles, in-fighting in the music press, and premature demise. John Lennon’s shocking death sparked global tributes, while the passing of George Harrison – hastened, those close to him contend, by a knife attack in his own home – compounded the trauma.
The past few years, though, has seen this narrative shift a little. Peter Jackson’s Get Back seemed to shine a light on those much-mythologised sessions, showing them to be not quite as bad as memories would have it. And now, against all the odds, a brand new single from The Beatles, featuring John, Paul, George, and Ringo reunited.
It’s beatific, it’s sentimental, and it’s gloriously contagious. Drawn from a home recorded cassette, handed from Yoko Ono to the boys prior to the Anthology sessions, it effortlessly carries those John Lennon melodic inflections. The arrangement is sympathetic but with purpose – Paul’s voice is strong, but content to back, and never over-shadow, his band mate. Ringo’s drumming – so often the subject of misguided scorn – acts in perfect dedication of the song, quietly invention and full of his trademark joy.
George Harrison worked on the initial mid 90s sessions for ‘Now And Then’, and famously thought the end results weren’t up to scratch. With improved technology, the song has more rigor, vigour, and purpose than the earlier sessions – or at least, the results that have leaked online – and it contains an atmosphere that is difficult to shrug off. George’s plangent guitar chords are the bedrock of the thing, backed by a sound-alike slide guitar line penned by Paul, in salute of someone who was his “baby brother”.
As a song, it’s a real pearl. ‘Now And Then’ was plucked from the same cassette that produced ‘Free As A Bird’ and ‘Real Love’ in the 90s, but the song itself feels more considered, rounded, and worked on. It’s almost impossible not to be drawn in – four voices, four exquisite musicians, united once more.
Two questions fans will no doubt wonder is, should it exist? And is this really a Beatles song?
The latter is easy to answer. ‘The Beatles’ mark was placed against any number of songs that didn’t feature all four. Paul McCartney (in)famously recorded ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ on his own, earning the ire of John Lennon and Ringo Starr in the process. Equally, ‘She Said She Said’ features all three minus Paul – who had walked out of the ‘Revolver’ sessions in a (thankfully temporary) huff.
This is a song by John Lennon, largely arranged – it seems – by Paul McCartney, featuring vocals and input from George Harrison and Ringo Starr. If that’s not a Beatles song, then truly what is?
Its purpose, feels rather more straight forward. Paul McCartney has long been protective of the Beatles legacy, and this single feels like a super-human attempt to re-frame the group’s ending. Instead of rancour, unity. Instead of solo competition, studio unity. Instead of losing his friends, finding their voices once more. Maybe it’s the sentimental Beatle-maniac in us, but ‘Now And Then’ feels like something beautiful, something to cherish. Perhaps they had it right all along: “In the end / The love you take /
Is equal to / the love you make…”