It is arguably the most moving moment in Glastonbury history: at the 2022 festival, Paul McCartney plays footage of John Lennon performing “I’ve Got a Feeling” from the Let It Be film and duets with his late bandmate’s vocals, isolated from the original tapes by Get Back director Peter Jackson. “I know it’s virtual but come on,” McCartney says, not a dry eye in the field. “It’s John. We’re back together.”
Now the same cutting-edge sound separation tech has been applied to the grainy demo tape of the last remaining Beatles song, “Now and Then”. One of four tracks Lennon recorded at home in 1977, the song was gifted to the remaining Beatles by Yoko Ono in 1994 to complete their retrospective Anthology project. This particular song, however, was rejected as a possible third new single after two days of tinkering due to its unworkable, hum-drenched sonics. “F***ing rubbish” was George Harrison’s considered verdict.
If only Harrison could hear it now. With McCartney counting in his austere piano and Harrison’s acoustic backing from 1995, there is a stately, reflective tone to this mid-paced, gently psychedelic ballad. John is here in the room, bright and clear and miraculously alive. After Lennon had sounded so muffled and urn-interred on Anthology singles “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love”, here is an emotional resurrection treated with the respect and reverence it deserves. McCartney gives Lennon’s vocals space and prominence, blending his own voice sensitively into that wondrous brotherly harmony we thought we’d never hear afresh again. The lyrics – while reading like a typical holding-pattern Lennon love song until greater inspiration stuck – resonate now after 40 years of loss. “Now and then I miss you,” the pair sing, as if nose to nose at the microphone again. “Now and then I want you to be there for me, always to return to me.”
Harrison’s subtle guitar riffs, and a new McCartney slide solo that honours his work in the field, fittingly haunt the song – and the whole thing rises to a chorus capturing the chant-along chug of the band at their psychedelic peak. The patchwork performed by McCartney and his co-producer Giles Martin is imperceptibly smart. Backing vocals repurposed from “Here, There and Everywhere”, “Because” and “Eleanor Rigby” reconstruct the harmonious Beatles chorale, while a lush string arrangement – the sort of thing McCartney used to baulk at when Phil Spector draped them all over Let it Be –papers over any cracks. “Good one,” Ringo Starr mutters as these historic four minutes swell to a close, rounding off the world’s greatest rock’n’roll canon with a typically cheeky bar of Balkan intrigue.
To compare something elaborately reconstructed from an immutable blueprint to the sheer magnificence of the best pop group ever firing off in their prime would be wrong-headed in the extreme. Of course, without the full band experimenting and innovating in a room together, “Now and Then” is no “A Day in the Life”, “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “Tomorrow Never Knows”. But that’s not its point.
Its point is to provide the rock’n’roll era cultural closure. To deliver, after the disappointments of 1995, a worthy epilogue for (and I will fight you) the best band of all time. To give the generations who missed out a tiny taste of the thrill felt by the teenage Beatlemaniacs of 1964 at hearing a brand! new! Beatles song. And in bringing Lennon so vibrantly back to us, to right, just a little, pop’s most tragic wrong. In that sense – sorry Swifties, hard luck Elton, in your face U2’s Sphere – “Now and Then” is the musical event of the year and one of the greatest tear-jerkers in history. Now do “Real Love” again.
‘Now and Then’ is available to listen to now
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