For the last couple of years, there’s been a bit of a minor panic about the possibilities of what AI can do, specifically in creative fields, like music, art and film.
The fear is that corporations, being the completely money-hungry entities that they are, would eventually leverage AI to generate all new content “in the style” of artists, musicians or film stars who have long since passed.
It’s certainly possible. If you search around on YouTube now, you can already find cases where people have produced cover songs sung by AI versions of artists, like the Beatles singing Beach Boys songs. I found one of Johnny Cash singing “I’m a Barbie Girl” to the tune of “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Today, though, the world is being introduced to a song that’s not meant to be a cash grab (well, maybe just a bit of a self-promoting cash grab), but an example of where AI can actually help save a song that would have otherwise never been completed.
Now And Then, released today by the Beatles, is promoted as the “last” new Beatles song, with contributions from all four members of the band.
Considering two of them have been gone for decades (John in 1980, George in 2001), that’s pretty remarkable.
They’ve even produced a video explaining how this happened.
Basically, in the 90s, while the surviving three members of the bad were working on their Anthology collections, Yoko provided them with 3-4 audio recordings of songs that John had never released. The band liked them enough that they decided to actually produce new Beatles songs, using John’s demos as the core.
So, with the Anthology albums, they produced two new songs: Free as a Bird, and Real Love. Now and Then was meant to be the third song, but at the time, technology wouldn’t allow them to extract John’s vocals from the original cassette recording. The band did some initial work on the song, even recording parts (including George on guitar), but they ultimately scrapped it.
But, then, a few years ago, Peter Jackson started working on the Get Back documentary, pouring through the old Beatles video recordings of the Let It Be sessions. While working on that project, Jackson hired sound engineers to develop an AI that would help them isolate the Beatles’ vocals and music from the videos so they could remix them in high definition.
As a result, the band now had an AI programmed to recognize all of the Beatles voices. So, Paul, who has always wanted to finish Now and Then, had them run the demo of Now and Then through their system.
Finally, they had a clean vocal of John. Luckily, they had also kept the sessions from the 90s, so they still had George’s guitar tracks. With Paul and Ringo, they put together what is effectively the last Beatles song with all four members contributing to the song.
And, so, we now have a new Beatles song that’s, depending on where you count, at least 28 years in the making? (If you count from John’s demo in 1978, we’re talking over 40 years)
So, how is it?
It’s good. It’s scary good. With Free as a Bird, I think they weren’t able to get a truly clean version of John’s vocal from the original. So, they tweaked it and made it a bit ethereal. The net effect, intentionally or not, adds a wispy quality to his voice on the song, almost feeling like John is providing his voice from the afterlife. Which, technically, he kind of was.
But, in Now and Then, John’s vocals are front and center. They fade in a couple of places, but there’s no ghostly feel like on the Anthology tracks. It almost sounds like John was in the room singing with his bandmates, which is scary and trippy in its own right.
Interestingly, Paul’s backing vocals are mixed back a bit, which makes sense considering you have the 81-year-old McCartney singing alongside the 38-year-old voice of John. It sucks, but age is catching up with the “forever young” Beatle. Still, Paul’s allowing his old friend to have the spotlight.
Ringo adds the perfect drum parts, as always, and Paul contributes a lot: re-styling John’s piano track, adding bass, and playing a slide guitar solo in George’s style.
I think the only disappointing aspect of the song is that George’s lead guitar bits get washed out in favor of the strings. I really wish they had swapped those two, or at least kept the strings to the chorus and the middle sections of the song.
Still, it’s unmistakably Beatles.
As much as Paul has wanted to finish the song, there is a bit of shameless self-promotion here. The group is re-releasing a new version of the “Red” and “Blue” albums – popular collections of their greatest hits. Although Now and Then can be purchased separately, it’s also on one of the collections.
Still, as the last Beatles song, it’s a nice way to finish.
At least, until, years from now, our AI overlords start generating completely “new” music from the band.