Q&A: Are We Hearing the Last of the Beatles?

November 3, 2023 By Alice Berry, aberry@virginia.edu Alice Berry, aberry@virginia.edu

Parlophone released the first Beatles single, “Love Me Do,” in October 1962 on a 45 rpm vinyl record. 

Their last song was released Thursday, with a little help from AI.

More than 50 years after the Beatles stopped making music together, 43 years after the murder of John Lennon and 22 years since George Harrison’s cancer-related death, the band released a new single, “Now and Then.” The song is based on a demo Lennon recorded in the ’70s.

For years, “Now and Then” was incomplete. Technical challenges made it impossible for the band to transform the demo into a finished song, as they did with “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love,” both completed and released by the surviving Beatles members in 1995.

Thanks to technology developed by Peter Jackson, the director of the band’s “Get Back” documentary, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were able to isolate Lennon’s vocals, fill in Harrison’s guitar using previous recordings and record their own parts of “Now and Then.”

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Portrait of Jack Hamilton

Pop culture critic Jack Hamilton, associate professor of American studies and media studies, doesn’t consider the song to be truly AI-generated music because the tool was only used to isolate Lennon’s vocal track from the demo. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

UVA Today talked with the University of Virginia’s pop culture critic Jack Hamilton, associate professor of American studies and media studies, to get his reaction to the track and comment on what it means for one of history’s most famous bands.

Q. What was your first reaction to the song?

A. It’s great! Turns out John Lennon could really write a song. Who knew?

Q. “Now and Then” was recorded in the ’70s. Can you give us some context about where the band stood then?

A. The Beatles broke up in 1970 and mostly spent the 1970s pursuing individual solo careers. This song was originally recorded by John Lennon as a home demo in 1978, so it was never really intended to be a “Beatles” song – we can only assume it was something he was considering working up into a track for a solo album at some point, but then for whatever reason he never finished it. And then of course he was murdered in December of 1980, and “Now and Then” never fully evolved past a demo, until now.

Q. Where would you place it in the Beatles’ discography?

A. I’m not a big ranker-type person, and it’s particularly tough to compare this to other Beatles music just because its circumstances are pretty unusual and sonically, it sounds very much like a piece of music made in the 21st century rather than the 1960s. I think it belongs in its own category.

Q. You’ve previously said that AI music was a fad. Does this use of the technology change your mind?

A. My understanding is that AI was only used as a tool in one part of the mixing process, as a way to isolate Lennon’s vocal track from the piano part that he played on the demo, which they weren’t able to do when they first started working with this song back in the 1990s. So I don’t think it’s really accurate to call this “AI music.”

It’s really just AI being used in one specific auditory cleanup capacity during what we might call “post-production.” The use of AI will definitely make headlines just because it’s a hot topic right now, but it really wasn’t used in either the composition or performance of the song.

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Q. Why would the surviving Beatles decide to release the song now?

A. I think both Paul and Ringo are getting up in years and probably thinking about how to close out the whole Beatles enterprise in an elegant and meaningful way. It’s also very savvy marketing, since it’s being released in conjunction with the remixed and expanded versions of the “Red” and “Blue” greatest hits collections. Not that they need the money!

Q. Do you think this will be the last new piece of Beatles content that fans get?

A. Paul and Ringo are definitely claiming that it will be, although who knows? There are certainly plenty of Lennon demos from this period that Paul and Ringo could reconvene and try to work with.

But what makes this one unusual and special is that they started working on it back in the mid-1990s during the “Anthology” project, when George Harrison was also alive and able to contribute his own parts, which will be heard on the new single. (George died in 2001.) It’s hard to imagine a “new” Beatles recording that emerges after this one that has both George and John on it, and I think for a lot of fans, if it’s not the whole foursome, it’s not really the Beatles.

Q. Do you think other bands might try something similar in the future?

A. Sure! Again, the problem that AI was used to fix in this instance is a pretty specific technical one that has to do with moving a vocal track from one recorded context to a vastly different one. But there’s no reason to think it would never be used in such a capacity again. This specific technology was developed by Peter Jackson’s team when he was working on the “Get Back” documentary, so this isn’t even the first time it’s been used on something Beatles-related.

Q. Can you tell us a few of your favorite Beatles’ songs and why?

A. It’s hard to choose! They’ve certainly got a lot of great ones. I have always been partial to “Ticket to Ride.” It’s such a great vocal performance and there’s just something pretty magical about the way the whole record sounds.

Media Contact

Alice Berry

University News Associate Office of University Communications