An eerie new offering from the band is hardly fresh
Sixty-one years and four weeks since The Beatles released their first song, “Love Me Do”, they released their last. “Now and Then”, unveiled to the rapture of misty-eyed boomers at the end of last week, is a mournful, second-tier ballad originally sketched out by John Lennon on the piano in his Manhattan apartment, only a few years before he was shot dead outside the same building in 1980.
An AI-powered audio tool, developed by the director Peter Jackson while working on the 2021 Beatles documentary Get Back, has now exhumed Lennon’s quavering vocal from the distorted tape to which it was committed. It’s combined with modern contributions from Paul and Ringo; 1995 guitar work from George Harrison, who died of cancer in 2001; and harmonies from 1960s Beatles tunes like “Because” and “Eleanor Rigby”. This is less a song than a séance, calling forth the warbling and jangling of the dead.
The video, directed by Jackson, is worse. Footage ranging from the early days of the band until the present is spliced into an ahistorical patchwork. At one point, Lennon gazes pensively at a sunset, which is replaced by four young Beatles clutching straw hats, and then by a modern-day Paul swaying in the sky next to his microphone. Studio performance clips feature Beatles in Sergeant Pepper outfits, plucked out of clips from decades earlier, not quite playing in time. As today’s Paul sits at a mixing board, yesterday’s Paul dances at his shoulder. Today’s Ringo plays drums next to his historical self. The Fab Four have become the Four Phantoms.
The impulse behind this is understandable. According to Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George Martin, “Paul just misses John and he wants to work on a song with him. It’s just as simple as that.” It’s a nice sentiment, albeit one that must be taken with the fact that “Now and Then” is being used as an excuse to reissue The Beatles’ greatest hits albums, 1962-1966 and 1967-1970. To paraphrase the late critic Mark Fisher, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of Beatles re-releases.
Fisher, who wrote extensively and perceptively about cultural stagnation, would have seen “Now and Then” coming. Modern life is being haunted by more than a few rock-and-roll Scousers. Musicians old enough for free bus passes are still headlining festivals. Both in the UK and in America, the top-grossing films of recent years are almost entirely prequels, sequels, spinoffs, reboots, or additions to a “cinematic universe”. This is up from only a quarter in the years before 2000.
There is, fundamentally, no cultural break between 20-somethings like me and 50-somethings like my parents. We listen to much of the same music — New Order’s “Blue Monday” had my entire immediate family dancing raucously at my sister’s 21st — and watch the same films. There’s broad agreement on fundamental issues like climate change and minority rights. Generational conflicts, for instance over trans rights, are more about how liberal values are put into practice than about the values themselves.
It means that the economic gulf between us, regarding housing in particular, is harder to articulate. In the Fifties and Sixties, adults had to invent a new word, “teenager”, to describe their children, so alien did they find youth culture. Kids today raid their parents’ wardrobes and music collections. How can you understand how materially different your child’s life will be to your own if, on a cultural level, you’re so simpatico? We need new stories. We need new music that shocks and offends our elders. We don’t need a new Beatles song.