More than 60 years after the Beatles dropped their debut single, the English rock band has released its final song.
“Now and Then,” which came out on Thursday, is based on an old demo recorded by John Lennon. All these years later, the track features the deceased band member’s vocals, thanks to machine learning technology that isolated Lennon’s performance from the 1970s tape.
“It was the closest we’ll ever come to having him back in the room, so it was very emotional for all of us,” drummer Ringo Starr says in a statement on the band’s website.
The new single closes out a trio of songs that the Beatles released after their last album, Let It Be, which came out in 1970. All three are based on demos that Lennon recorded with a boombox and piano at his Upper West Side home in New York City, before he was murdered just outside of it on December 8, 1980.
In 1994, Yoko Ono, Lennon’s widow, gave a cassette tape with the three demos to the surviving members of the Beatles. Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Starr added their own contributions to the tracks, and two of them—“Real Love” and “Free As A Bird”—were soon released as singles.
But “Now and Then” proved more difficult to work with. In the original recording, Lennon had the TV on in the background, and a hissing sound diminished the quality, writes NPR’s Stephen Thompson. The vocals and piano had been recorded to the same track, and they needed to be separated in order to be heard clearly on the final version.
“Every time we wanted a little bit more of John’s voice, this piano came through and clouded the picture,” McCartney says in a short documentary film accompanying the release of the new song. “And in those days, of course, we didn’t have the technology to do the separation.”
The musicians decided to shelve the song for the time being. Then, when Harrison died of lung cancer in 2001, at the age of 58, it “took the wind out of our sails,” McCartney says in the film.
But in 2021, Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings film series, released the documentary series The Beatles: Get Back, about the rock band, which relied on artificial intelligence to isolate sound from old videos. The film is made largely from footage recorded while the Beatles were working on Let It Be in 1969. The audio had primarily been recorded with a single mono microphone, making it impossible for listeners to pick out the voices of the band members over the sounds of amplifiers, drums and other noises, Jackson explained in an interview with Collider last year.
So, Jackson’s team developed a machine learning technology that could distinguish the different instruments and voices from each other. Named MAL, it “allows us to take any soundtrack and split all the different components into separate tracks,” Jackson says in the new short film.
The tech was used to separate Lennon’s vocal and piano parts from the “Now and Then” demo. “There it was, John’s voice, crystal clear,” McCartney says in the film.
It remains unclear whether artificial intelligence will be used more widely in the music industry. Earlier this year, a song using A.I. to simulate the artists Drake and The Weekend was released on—then removed from—streaming services and captured attention on social media. To some, it highlighted the way that A.I., when unregulated, could learn from and repurpose the copyrighted content of music producers, the New York Times’ Joe Coscarelli wrote in April.
But the Beatles track stands out from that incident, because MAL simply cleaned up a recording of old vocals rather than generating new ones. “We’re actually messing around with state-of-the-art technology, which is something the Beatles would’ve been very interested in,” McCartney says in the film.
McCartney and Starr worked on finishing the song last year and released it as a double A-side single along with “Love Me Do,” the band’s very first track, from 1962.
The final version of “Now and Then” features all four Beatles—including Lennon’s vocals, electric and acoustic guitar recorded by Harrison in 1995, a new drum part from Starr, and bass, guitar and piano from McCartney. The two living band members recorded backing vocals, and McCartney added a slide guitar solo played in Harrison’s style.
A string arrangement for the new track was composed by McCartney, Ben Foster and Giles Martin, the son of the Beatles’ former producer George Martin, who wrote orchestral parts that were hallmarks of the band’s sound. The song includes backing vocals from the original recordings of “Here, There and Everywhere,” “Eleanor Rigby” and “Because.”
“We all play on it, it’s a genuine Beatles recording,” McCartney says in the statement. “In 2023, to still be working on Beatles music and about to release a new song the public haven’t heard, I think it’s an exciting thing.”