Perhaps it’s fitting it happened this way.
The Beatles and The Stones: Inextricably linked through the swinging 1960s.
Twin titans of the English artistic renaissance and the British Invasion.
For all their success though, The Stones were always a step behind, never quite a match for The Beatles’ all encompassing critical and commercial success.
So having seized their moment in releasing their first album of original material in 18 years, they find themselves blown out the water by an announcement five days later:
To back up all the hoopla with
a #1 single – 54 years after they last topped the charts with The Ballad Of John And Yoko – …is stunning.
Their timing was lousy on a personal level. Only last month I wrote about the fact that their first #1 was wiped from official records leaving them with ‘only’ 17 instead of 18. Now they really are at 18. Should have been 19, then.
Setting aside any suggestion that Paul was just waiting for the right moment to make me a liar – and actually, the timing was perfect.
Had Now And Then come out as planned at the time of Anthology, along with Free As A Bird and Real Love, there’s a risk it would have been swallowed up as part of an elongated marketing campaign.
And also tarred with the same air of slight disappointment with the performance of those songs. I like Free As A Bird. But the Jeff Lynne production does feel that it’s an ELO pastiche of a Beatles track. It had such a big build up I was shocked when it only entered the UK charts at #2 behind Michael Jackson’s Earth Song before fading away.
Real Love fared worse: any excitement of a new Beatles track diluted by the failure of Free As A Bird to perform to expectations. By not being able to work it into a satisfactory condition for release in the 90s it allowed Now And Then to come out as a standalone item.
No distractions from an accompanying TV retrospective and albums.
With only Paul and Ringo remaining. And their age meaning that we can’t be sure whether each release is their last. The lyrics and tone of John’s demo provide added poignancy.
The combination of Get Back and an audience held captive by Covid lockdowns added to interest in the band and fueled the appetite for more.
So was it worth it? It’s a song that each person can bring their own answer to and attach their own meaning. For me to answer that, I’ll go back to the start.
I was too late for the original incarnation.
When I was born in 1976, John had swapped music for family.
Paul was singing Silly Love Songs.
George’s solo career was in a trough.
And Ringo’s Rotogravure pretty much signaled the end of his chart presence.
Maybe its a good thing I have no memory of John’s death: it wouldn’t be a good place to start.
The first time I remember encountering them was Yellow Submarine. The wonders of the Internet tell me it was shown on TV; Friday 3rd September 1982. Perhaps time has played tricks with my memory but I’m certain this is when I first saw it.
It made a big impression. The animation was way beyond what I was used to on children’s TV, the humour, the sadness of Jeremy Hilary Boob accompanied by Nowhere Man.
Then there were the songs. I was the perfect age for Ringo singing Yellow Submarine. But the others were just as enthralling, especially the likes of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds with its mesmerising visuals.
And with that I was a fan. I’ve devoured the albums, films, books and podcasts.
Although the early days were fun, for me: it’s from Rubber Soul onwards when things got really interesting. Eleanor Rigby is my high point.
The fact that it’s only three years on from the simplicity and primacy of; “She loves you yeah yeah yeah” is staggering. To have come so far musically and lyrically in such a short period: Its perfection, pure and simple.
Given the pathos in the story of Eleanor and Father Mackenzie, perhaps its not surprising I’m predisposed to the melancholy of Now And Then. When I first heard Paul talk about it I was wary:
That it could never live up to expectations. That they would get carried away with the technology and overreach.
That it wouldn’t be The Beatles.
Reading how they used the vocal harmonies from Because and Eleanor Rigby added to a sense of foreboding that they were trying to be too clever. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.
On the day of release I was away with the family on a long weekend. I wasn’t so obsessed that I stopped everything at 2PM to listen. I even forgot about it until we got back to our hotel late in the afternoon and gave it a first listen.
And now, a week on from that and having listened multiple times?
I liked it immediately.
It wasn’t a head turning, heart stopping revelation. It isn’t a new entry into my top 10 favourite Beatles songs. But it’s good. An 8 out of 10.
There was relief that they hadn’t messed it up, that it hadn’t just been empty hype.
Mostly though, there was satisfaction and a sense of joy at hearing John anew, with the others backing him up.
Having been concerned that the use of those harmonies would be just a gimmick: that they would get in the way of the actual song I have to admit that I didn’t even notice them on first listen.
I was too busy concentrating on John’s voice. Going back to it, I can’t deny it is a gimmick but they support the song rather than intruding on it.
Similarly, I wondered whether Paul would have gone too far in inserting himself into it. I’m a big fan of Paul, particularly latter period 21st Century Paul but I wasn’t sure he would be able to restrain himself when it came to a new Beatles song.
Again, I needn’t have worried. There’s no added bridge like Free As A Bird.
John’s vocals are front and centre with Paul backing him up in all the right places.
Just like their heyday.
Given the nature of the song the orchestration could easily have descended into mawkish sentimentality but it hits the right spot. It gives an added dimension and isn’t just there for the sake of it
I know there are some that would have preferred something more upbeat and celebratory as the Beatles final statement. But Now And Then is what they had to work with, and for me it makes sense. Paul and Ringo’s age means their story really is coming to an end. There’s no high concept to the lyrics, perhaps due to coming from a demo there is a fragmentary feel to them but that simplicity works in its favour.
While the message is clear in emphasising that he couldn’t do it alone, it allows the listener to bring their own interpretation to who he’s referring to.
His mother? All make sense.
The obvious for Beatles fans is to project that it’s Paul.
I don’t hold any opinion on who John is referring to: that’s for him only. I do like the idea that having been the object of so much opprobrium down the years, that the outpouring of joy being expressed by fans is for a song about Yoko. It seems karmically restorative.
I like the beauty that in whatever form of art, the observer can ascribe their own meaning giving it a sense of purpose specific to only them.
It means all things to all people.tnocs.com contributing author JJ live at leeds
Even to the contrarians offering a negative reaction – some of them even before it was released – I get it. If I wasn’t a Beatles fan then the hype surrounding Now And Then would have felt overdone.
Back to timing: And it turns out it is ideal for me at this stage of life.
I wouldn’t have appreciated the message as much in the 90s. With more life behind me, a wife and daughter and down to one parent and one grandparent the simple sentiment that ‘now and then I miss you’ carries weight.
Whilst the song is everything I could have wanted, the video is a misstep.
I heard Paul commenting that Peter Jackson told him he didn’t know how to make a music video. I’m with him there.
What I felt they really did get right with Free As A Bird was the video.
The weaving together of their legacy, mixing archive footage with a treasure trove of Easter eggs for fans to deduce what song was being referenced was superb.
It’s an obvious move for Peter Jackson to go for a mix of past and present. But whereas the technology worked on the song, it detracts from the video.
It looked clumsy to me the way past John and George appear alongside present Paul and Ringo.
The only time I felt the effect worked was when their equipment was being moved from around them as they play.
And while it’s normally a pleasure to see John in his cheeky chappy mode, having him playing the fool conducting the orchestra completely jars with the tone of the song.
And yet: in the end… it comes good:
Just like the song, they nailed the landing.
As we get to the close, the individual photos of the four spin back through time regressing to childhood. Cut to a TV studio where they bow and fade away and their name in lights does likewise.
That got me.
90s me wouldn’t have understood. But when life has taught you that all things must pass: that was emotional.
For all that Peter Jackson has said that with the technology they could do more (though he did specify that he hadn’t discussed it with Paul), that for me is how to go out.
Could there be more to come? There’s Carnival of Light.
Paul has mentioned the possibility of releasing it.
14 minutes of avant garde noise to make even Revolution #9 seem square isn’t going to storm the charts. That would be for completists only.
For me, Now And Then isn’t a perfect song. But it’s the perfect ending. No more ‘new’ songs are needed.
You’ve done enough lads. That one last trip for old times’ sake has been an unexpected pleasure.
But like the song says: time to let it be.
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