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A Few Thoughts on "Now and Then"
Donning my Beatle Guy hat for a moment
As some of you may know, I am a Serious Beatles Guy. I’m not saying I like them; only twerps don’t like The Beatles. I’m saying that the Fabs are both the reason that I became a creative person, and the Rosetta Stone for all my personal creative work, Bystander very much included. I perceive what I do in the language created by their history, era and songbook.
For fifteen years, I ran Hey Dullblog, the largest Beatles fan community on the internet. By the end, it was practically a daily seminar on How to Be A Creative Person, According to the Beatles; I still toy with the idea of running a class on that, because I think it’s endlessly useful. Eventually changes in said Beatles fan community—and my running out of opinions—made me put the site on hiatus. However today for obvious reasons I have Thoughts.
I know the demo “Now and Then” from this bootleg, a collection of Lennon worktapes from 1976-80. I listened to it endlessly from 2008-2010, while writing a (ultimately unsuccessful) comic noir about John Lennon. Why that book was so unsatisfying to me—why I didn’t even shop it, though I suspect it would’ve sold—is another story, and perhaps an interesting one, but today we are talking about “Now and Then.”
As you can hear, “Now and Then” is a lovely little scrap, but it’s not head and shoulders over all the others Lennon had noodled with during his hiatus. It’s a guilty wistful lyric over simple piano, standard Dakota-era Lennon. “Now and Then” is, however, the third of three demos Yoko gave to the surviving Threetles in the early ’90s, so it’s a bit of unfinished Beatle business, recently completed via the magic of AI.
Though I’m glad to have it, today's release underwhelmed me, for reasons I’ll explain. I liked the Anthology-era Threetles tracks; "Free As A Bird" was the most successful, and “Real Love” no embarrassment, though more essential as history rather than music. Both as a demo and now a finished product, “Now and Then” is the least interesting, the most inert. It is a song which, if you didn’t know the context, you might wonder why anyone cared. You might even agree with George Harrison, who reportedly called “Now and Then” “fucking rubbish.”
But of course anybody who’s listened to Beatles demos—including songs that became classics—knows that most of them sound just as meandering and thin as “Now and Then.” The magic of The Beatles was an alchemy that happened when all four (Ringo very much included) got into the studio together. Four heads—five if you include George Martin—were always better than one. I’m shooting from the hip here, but even songs where only two or three Fabs were present mostly seem to be less good—“I Me Mine,” for example, or “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” Anyway, I firmly reject Lennon's 1970 statement that The Beatles were at any point “me and a backing group, Paul and a backing group...” There are lots of reasons Lennon said that, but as per usual the more loudly he asserts something, the more skeptical you should become. Without Paul & Ringo, “Come Together” is just a summer house for Morris Levy.
To my ears, the posthumous songs work to the degree that the other Beatles feel comfortable and contribute to them, and fail when the surviving Beatles are too reverent and hold back. To me, “Free As A Bird” really sets its hook when Paul and George sing "Whatever happened to..." I get goosepimples, and that's how I tell if something is Beatle Music. Harrison's “Real Love” guitar solo is very nice; but when the song goes back to Lennon's plodding demo, it becomes merely another hymn in the canon. Lynne's production is fine when it gives dynamics, but when it's merely thickening a simple, partially worked out piano demo, it's…not great. And I’m saying this as someone who really likes ELO.
Beatle music has a lot of ideas, tension, contrast. When the survivors are reverent—and there are a million reasons why they would be, from entirely personal to entirely commercial/political—the Lynne-frosted demos sound like exactly what they are: half-formed ideas executed with not-a-real-take energy, adorned with a few excuse-me additions, and slowed by ponderous production. Most of all of the three demos, John needs the other Fabs to kick “Now and Then” in the ass, as they so often did for each other. They needed to give this sincere and delicate notion of a song more ideas, more musicality, more reason for us to listen. I’m afraid two men in their 80s, laboring under the weight of the world’s ears, are simply not that fearless. Even if they are Beatles.
Still and all, I'm happy to have the tune. But had I been consulted :-), I'd've told Paul, “Go quiet—think ‘Julia’—and really make your mark on it. Think how John would’ve treated a song of yours, had the situation been reversed. Give us a little of that ol’ “Getting better/Can't get no worse.’”
Anyway, listen if you haven't & reply with your own 2c.