What will be the “last” Beatles song, Now and Then, was released Thursday, thanks to artificial intelligence, which was used to extricate John Lennon’s vocals from a cassette he had written and recorded as a demo two years prior to his murder in 1980.
“We were able to take John’s voice and get it pure through this AI … so that then we could mix the record as you would normally do,” Paul McCartney said in an interview with the BBC this past June when the release of the song was first announced. Added in are a new drum section by Ringo Starr, the other surviving member of the group, bass, piano and guitar by McCartney, and an old guitar recording by George Harrison, who passed away in 2001.
The initial announcement rocked the world of pop music. Fifty-three years after McCartney publicly declared that he was leaving the group, the band can still generate huge buzz with a new song.
Like many teenagers who grew up in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, I amassed a decent record collection. By the time I was 13 in the fall of 1969, most Saturdays my friends and I took a bus (by ourselves) to downtown Winnipeg. Our first stop was Opus 69, a record store, to buy the latest 45 RPM single, or if I had acquired sufficient allowance funds, a 33 1/3 RPM long play album (LP). Often, 45s cost less than a dollar and LPs for the Beatles, Rod Stewart, Jimi Hendrix and other artists could be found for around five dollars, even less.
At some point, many of my records got destroyed when my family home’s basement was flooded. But fortunately, I was able to save about 10 Beatles records, including a favourite, Collection of Beatles Oldies but Goldies, a LP on the Parlophone label that I had received as a bar-mitzvah present in February of 1969. Yet when my old hi-fi stereo eventually broke in the mid-1980s and I started listening to cassettes, eight-track tapes and CDs, these prized Beatles records ended up in a box at the back of my closet. Little did I know that decades later, I would dust them off, be given a new record player as a gift, and share the exhilaration of listening to the Beatles on vinyl with my four-year-old grandson, Kole.
During the past two years, Kole’s transformation into a super Beatles fan has been remarkable and immensely enjoyable to watch. (I must add that I have another grandson, Kole’s younger first cousin, named McCartney – his name chosen because, yes, my son and daughter-in-law are big Beatles fans.) One day, Kole wandered into my office and was fascinated by an old Beatles poster I have on my wall. To satisfy his curiosity, his grandmother, Angie, and I showed him the YouTube video of the Beatles singing She Loves You. That did it. After that, he was as hooked as I had been in February of 1964 when I first saw the group perform on TV on The Ed Sullivan Show. He soon started listening to my old records and those belonging to his other grandparents, and with his parents’ support started his own record collection.
I had not stepped into a record store in decades, but vinyl has clearly made a comeback. In 2022, New York music and digital trends writer Steven John noted that 2020 marked “the first year in more than a generation” that vinyl record sales eclipsed CD sales. “The reasons for this are twofold,” he writes, “CD sales have dropped dramatically in recent years, while sales of vinyl records are actually up … And while you might think it’s nostalgic boomers or Gen Xers behind the renaissance of records, in fact surveys show its millennial consumers driving the rising trend in vinyl sales.”
Likewise, a few months ago, Mike Rothwell, the owner of Alleycats Music & Art in Orillia, Ont., told Sawyer Bogdan of Global News that “streaming can’t replace the experience of buying a physical record, putting it in a bag and driving home with that, and excitedly opening it up at home, pulling the vinyl out of the sleeve, and putting on the turntable. That’s something that, you know, will always be there.”
This is exactly what Kole does after he visits a store and acquires a new Beatles record (though his mom or dad or grandparents are the ones paying for it and driving him home). He has to listen to the new record immediately and does so while he carefully and critically inspects the cover art and the liner notes.
Nostalgia has a steep price. Those Beatles albums I bought for $4.50 at Opus 69 in 1970 are now called “vintage” and range from $35 to as high as $100. The new Beatles vinyl records (as well as those by many other artists) now being produced are usually priced at under $40.
Kole’s love of Beatles’ music led him to further embrace the group. As his parents, Mia and Geoff, would permit, Kole began watching the many other YouTube videos of the Beatles performing, studying Beatles magazines and albums, emulating the group’s members with his toy guitar and drums and memorizing lyrics. I know of no other four year old who can perform Hey Jude and Revolution with near perfection. Ask Kole what album a particular song was on and he can almost always tell you. It is uncanny. I never listened to Magical Mystery Tour or the White Album all that much, but Kole knows both back and forth. Last Halloween, Kole and his parents and younger sister, Erica, dressed up as the Beatles from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.
One day, Kole started singing Your Mother Should Know from Magical Mystery Tour. I was intrigued. The song sounded somewhat familiar to me, but I had long ago forgotten about it. He quickly filled me in. On another occasion, Angie had taken Kole to the playground and he was hanging from a monkey bar pretending, as it turned out, he was about to fall. “Help, Baba, Help,” he pleaded with Angie to save him. As she was about to grab him, he broke into, “Help me if you can, I’m feeling down …” with a wry smile on his face, and sang the rest of the song.
Of course, for Kole the Beatles still exist in 1969. He thinks George Harrison is married to Pattie Boyd and McCartney is dating Jane Asher or married to Linda Eastman; it changes. Needless to say, he has no idea that Lennon and Harrison have passed away (nor does he know of the terrible tragedy of Lennon’s death) and we don’t plan to tell him anytime soon. When he hears the new AI generated Beatles song, he will no doubt figure it is a new song the whole group recently produced.
Recently, Kole saw a photo of McCartney with grey hair looking the 81-year-old musical genius and grandfather he is. He was puzzled for a moment and pondered what to him was an incongruity. But then he shrugged it off, before launching into another rousing rendition of I am the Walrus followed by Let it Be.
Allan Levine is a historian and doting Zaida. His most recent book is Details Are Unprintable: Wayne Lonergan and the Sensational Café Society Murder.