While John Lennon died more than 40 years ago, his voice lives on. Now, with the help of artificial intelligence, the late singer-songwriter’s voice will be part of “the last Beatles record,” as Paul McCartney tells BBC Radio 4’s Martha Kearney.
McCartney didn’t reveal the name of the song, but BBC News’ Mark Savage speculates it will be “Now and Then,” a song Lennon composed in 1978, two years before his murder. Lennon included the song on a cassette tape he had labeled “For Paul,” which Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, later gave to McCartney. Lennon had recorded the song (and a handful of others) using a boombox and a piano inside his apartment, per BBC News.
The Beatles released two of the cassette’s songs—“Free as a Bird” and “Real Love”—in the mid-1990s, with help from producer Jeff Lynne. And though the band had once tried to record a version of “Now and Then,” they eventually gave up on their efforts.
McCartney, now 80, has spoken publicly about wanting to release “Now and Then”—and thanks to advances in A.I., he may finally get his wish. The musician says he was first inspired to try using A.I. to extract Lennon’s voice from an old recording while watching Peter Jackson’s 2021 documentary series, Get Back.
While making the show, dialogue editor Emile de la Rey used A.I. to separate the band members’ voices from background noise. The same technology helped “take John’s voice and get it pure” from an old demo, McCartney tells BBC Radio 4. That voice-only audio then allowed producers to mix the song as they normally would.
“We just finished it up and it’ll be released this year,” he says.
McCartney has used A.I. to resurrect his bandmate’s voice before. The same technology gave him the opportunity to sing a duet with Lennon’s voice during his most recent tour.
Still, even though he’s excited about the technology, he’s slightly skeptical of its power. “It’s kind of scary but exciting, because it’s the future,” he says. “We’ll just have to see where that leads.”
The process McCartney described is likely “source separation,” as Holly Herndon, a multidisciplinary artist who has used A.I. in her music, tells the Associated Press’ Sylvia Hui and Maria Sherman. The technique “allows you to extract a voice from a recording, isolating it so that you might accompany it with new instrumentation,” she says. A deepfake voice, in contrast, is “an entirely new vocal line spawned from a machine learning model trained on old vocal lines.”
“While [a deepfake] does not appear to be happening in this example, it is now possible to spawn infinite new media from analyzing older material, which is a similar process, in spirit, to this song,” she adds.
McCartney went on the radio show to help promote the upcoming “Eyes of the Storm” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, which opens on June 28. The show will feature more than 250 previously unseen photographs McCartney snapped with his 35-millimeter camera in 1963 and 1964, as the Beatles’ popularity began to skyrocket.
The collection of photos offers a “uniquely personal perspective on what it was like to be a Beatle at the start of Beatlemania,” according to the museum’s website. “At a time when so many camera lenses were on the band, it is Paul McCartney’s which tells the truest story of a band creating cultural history—in one of its most exciting chapters.”
McCartney has also released a book of the photographs called 1964: Eyes of the Storm. He hadn’t seen the photos in decades—and had assumed they were lost—when an archivist rediscovered them.
“Most of them I don’t remember taking because it was a whirlwind,” he tells NPR’s Steve Inskeep.
The Beatles’ story begins in 1957, when Lennon and McCartney first began playing together in Liverpool; George Harrison and Ringo Starr would each join the band in the years that followed. In the early 1960s, the four mop-haired musicians enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame on both sides of the Atlantic—also known as Beatlemania.
Harrison died in 2001, leaving McCartney and Starr as the last two remaining members of the band. As Starr said during a 2021 appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” they still talk regularly via FaceTime and see each other when they can.
McCartney still tours frequently—and throughout his long career, he’s always been eager to experiment with new technologies, says Holly Tessler, a Beatles scholar at the University of Liverpool, to the New York Times’ Derrick Bryson Taylor.
“I think he’s just curious to see what it can do,” she says. “I mean, it gives us some insight into his mind and what his creative priorities are, that given how much of the music industry is at his fingertips, that what he chooses to do is finish a demo with John Lennon.”
Editor’s note, June 20, 2023: This story has been updated to clarify that Harrison and Starr joined the Beatles individually, not as a pair, after McCartney and Lennon formed the band.