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AI has brought back music’s woolly mammoth: The story behind The Beatles final song

‘‘I know it’s true, it’s all because of you’’, starts the Beatles latest, and last, single. Arriving in our feeds this month, I personally found their new track, ‘Now and Then’, in my new releases feed excitedly disconcerting, accompanied by the thought of ‘no this is not just another demo!’ A new Beatles track is as if you discovered a dodo in a zoo, a concept that you thought was long extinct, but now exists right in front of your very eyes.

Now, the annoying question that might then accompany any thought you have about their new track ‘Now and Then’ is (and this is certainly not as morbid as it might sound), ‘I thought half the Beatles were dead, so how can they release a new single’. As it happens, it turns out that the opening lyrics of ‘Now and Then’ convey more of a literal metaphor than you might think. According to the Beatles latest short documentary on the track, ‘Now and Then’ ‘’languished in a cupboard for many years’’. Originally brought to the attention of the three remaining Beatles almost thirty years ago, by the figure many see as a key catalyst to the breakup of the group, John’s wife Yoko Ono, ‘Now and Then’ existed as one of John Lennon’s last sufficient recordings. McCartney, Harrison, and Starr attempted to release it as part of the ‘Free Bird anthology’ (1994) – meant to be the last recording of the Beatles- but were unable to isolate John’s vocals due to the technology not existing at the time.

In many ways, ‘Now and Then’ had been consigned to a hidden history, existing from then on as a shadow of what it might have been, lost as many were after Lennon’s tragic death – or so we thought. In the aftermath of the Beatle’s ‘Get Back‘ Documentary (possible one of the most ambitious and artistically profound documentaries of all time), it emerged that director Peter Jackson could isolate instruments and voices from the legendary 1970 recordings. Jackson created a new technology that using ai could take a sound recording and split it into all the different components based on ‘‘machine learning’’. Like the first flashlight on an ancient tomb, ‘Now and Then’ became alive once more, less like a mummy and more like the grand send-off that one of music’s greatest acts deserved. In a more poetic form, the world has caught up with the Beatles ingenuity, and was able to give something back as an ode to a group that has contributed so much to the soul of western culture.

‘’And there he was, John’s voice: crystal clear’’- Paul McCartney

(Credit: The Beatles Vevo)

It is difficult to believe that a body of music could be a more fitting tribute to the two passed away Beatles. Bringing one of John’s late recordings alive, when one can speculate that it might have been released by him if not for his sudden and untimely end, is a tribute brought to fruition in an innovative way from a man that demanded innovation. The Beatles music was at the technological precipice of music when at their peak, and the use of ai in such a way makes a compelling argument that it is at the music technological precipice once again. George Harrison’s death in 2001 (described movingly by McCartney as ‘’taking the wind from their sails’’), led to a stunning guitar solo within the track, fittingly mirroring George’s iconic guitar style, and I’d argue capturing the very brilliance within his place in the band. A common narrative around George’s place in The Beatles is that he was the band’s soloist, fuelled through his independent songwriting nature. ‘Now and Then’ really conveys his essence, both within the independent aspect of a solo and the way in which it uplifts the track, a tribute to the way in which Harrison’s unique brilliance was instrumental in their success; sometimes alone, but very much a valued member.

‘Now and Then’– is a song about the way in which our relationships with each other (and our favourite music acts) fluctuate over time, perhaps the most thematically resonant and fitting tribute that one can conceive for any band. But is this the end for The Beatles? Paul remarks that this is ‘’probably’’ the last Beatles song- but the word ‘’probably’’ provides little closure to fans, leaving a certain fluidity for future projects. Amidst the inevitability of ai’s progress, who’s to say that more music might be dredged from The Beatles catacombs. Perhaps one day we’ll be able to bring forth The Beatles music solely through artificial intelligence, with the absence of all band members contribution in its entirety. Naturally though, such a notion brings about its own ethical dilemmas, and merits a much wider discussion on the importance of artistic integrity within the age of ai.

As a member of their incomprehensibly large fanbase, one cannot help but feel a certain amount of ambivalence on the conclusion of The Beatles phenomenon. On the one hand, ‘Now and Then’ is a more than fitting conclusion, and their existing discography will last in the collective consciousness as long as the human heartbeat reverberates. But is this really the end of ‘the long and winding road’– or are there a few bends up ahead?

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