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Now and Then: The Use of AI on the ‘Final’ Beatles' Song

As a self-professed luddite, I’m staunchly anti-AI. I steer well-clear of Chat GPT, which I’m pretty certain will be considered the beginning of the death of original thought in 100 years time. Aside from the ‘share password’ feature on iPhones which is an undeniable gift to mankind, I fear what the further advancement of artificial intelligence means for our creativity as a species. So, as you can probably glean, if you’d asked me a couple of months ago, I would have stood fervidly against the use of AI in music. And yet, to my own surprise, I’m beginning to veer in the opposite direction.

Whilst vocal cloning is still terrifying and ought to be limited by stringent regulations, other recent developments in music through AI seem largely positive. I was mesmerised by a recent trip to ABBA Voyage, the virtual concert residency of ABBA at a purpose-built venue in London, which perfectly captures the essence of the supergroup and allows fans of all generations to experience a distinctly ‘real’ version of ABBA. I am also a great advocate for Spotify’s personalised recommendations through Daylists and Mixes created by deep-learning algorithms, which suggest songs you may enjoy based on your listening habits.

Most exciting of all, however, is the upcoming release of ‘Now and Then’: the “final” Beatles song. Created using the same AI technology used on Peter Jackson’s documentary Get Back, Lennon and Harrison are included through isolating their performances from cassette recordings. Backing vocals from the original recordings of ‘Here, There and Everywhere’, ‘Eleanor Rigby’, and ‘Because’ have also been worked into the new song. The song was written and first sung by John Lennon in the late 1970s at his home in New York. Yoko Ono gave the cassette to Paul McCartney in 1994, which was labelled “For Paul”. George Harrison recorded his part in 1995, when the surviving members attempted to revive ‘Now and Then’ but it remained unfinished. In 2021, McCartney told The New Yorker that the song was never recorded as Harrison declared it “f***ing rubbish”.

McCartney created quite the stir when he told BBC Radio 4 in June that the track had been created through the use of AI, with many expressing concerns that Lennon’s voice had been artificially generated. To quell the confusion and hysteria, McCartney later clarified that “nothing has been artificially or synthetically created. It’s all real, and we all play on it. We cleaned up some existing recordings — a process which has gone on for years.” The software has simply been used to extricate Lennon’s vocals and separate them from his piano.

Some would perhaps argue that this release, similarly to ABBA Voyage, is the unnecessary dragging out of a band that has long been gone. Whilst I agree there is often merit in letting things run their natural course and refraining from milking things for all they’re worth, in my view, ‘Now and Then’ is an entirely different venture. Given Lennon and Harrison’s untimely deaths, it is a privilege to hear all four of them sing together again. It’s also a particularly exciting opportunity for younger fans. As The Beatles popularity has never significantly waned, some of their biggest are now young adults, many of whom began listening to the band long after it lost two of its members. Through the use of AI, many get to witness the release of a new Beatles song with all four members for the first time. Unlike the 1990s Anthology singles, which sound little different to demos and although Lennon’s voice is included, he feels notably vacant because of the quality of his voice in contrast to McCartney’s. Starr stated that this track was “the closest we’ll ever come to having him back in the room, so it was very emotional for all of us. It was like John was there, you know. It’s far out.” For McCartney, this is his “tribute to George”, adding a new slide-guitar “in George’s Style”.

So, despite my reservations about unnecessary technological advancement, AI has helped breathe new life into old demos and create a final collaborative track (due 2nd November at 2pm) by the Fab Four and for that I’m grateful.

Illustration by Ruby Pitman

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