Ranking the 3 New Beatles Songs Released After John Lennon’s Death

In January 1994, Yoko Ono handed over to Paul McCartney a cassette tape with demos that John Lennon made before he died. The tape was labeled in John’s handwriting: “For Paul.” One of these songs, “Grow Old with Me,” had already been released on the posthumous Lennon release Milk and Honey

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The other three were eventually turned into “new” Beatles songs by the remaining members of the group. “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” arrived as part of the Anthology project in 1995. “Now and Then” was released in 2023 and billed as the last Beatles song. We’re ready to stir up the hornets’ nest of the Beatles fan community (which pretty much makes up most of the world, right?) by ranking these songs. See if you agree, or want to fistfight.

3. “Free as a Bird

The first of the “Threetles” songs to be released had plenty working against it. First, the weight of expectations meant that it would have needed to be impeccable not to have been a letdown. There were also the technical issues of turning the tinny demo into something resembling a polished studio record, issues that could have been largely overcome by the technological advances made by the time “Now and Then” was released.

But the main issue is that “Free as a Bird” isn’t much of a song at all, more a sketch. What McCartney, Harrison, and Starr added couldn’t quite mask that. The newly-written bridge doesn’t have much connection at all to the main part, and, even with all the efforts of producer Jeff Lynne to clean things up, Lennon still sounded as if he were being beamed in from some foreign star. It made the whole thing vaguely eerie.

Speaking of Lynne, he had proven in the past that he could pull off a perfect homage to the classic Beatles sound when he collaborated with Harrison on “When We Was Fab.” Unfortunately, “Free as a Bird,” McCartney’s and Harrison’s vocals aside, never quite feels like a Fab Four track. The best part is the coda, a dreamy, whimsical little bit of improvisation that recalls classic tracks like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Hello Goodbye.”

2. “Real Love

The main issue with The Beatles’ version of “Real Love” is that it had to go up against Lennon’s various demos of the song, which are plenty haunting on their own. Again, Lennon does subtle things here that immeasurably deepen what’s otherwise a pretty straightforward love song. Consider the moments when he sings No need to be alone and No need to be afraid. The slightly urgent twist in the melody suggests the narrator may have been alone and afraid in the past, and thus it makes it all the more of an imperative to focus on the love he’s found.

[RELATED: 6 Songs You Didn’t Know John Lennon and Paul McCartney Wrote for Other Artists]

The Beatles’ version ends up skewing a bit ‘90s adult contemporary, which isn’t bad in itself, but also can’t quite match the intimacy of what Lennon did on his own. Still, there are nice touches throughout. The harmonies are quite pretty, filling in the thinness of Lennon’s demo vocal in all the appropriate places. And Harrison’s solo is just right, as so many of his Beatles solos are. Listen to how it not only stands on its own, but also acts as a perfect modulation into the final verse. Of all three of these songs, this is the one that feels most like a group effort, where all four men are integral to the whole.

1. ”Now and Then

Pound for pound, from a pure songwriting standpoint, “Now and Then” is the best of the three songs Lennon left behind. It’s brimming with poignancy, as it comes from the perspective of someone who is alternately missing someone no longer around and feeling gratitude for that person’s contributions to their life. Whether Lennon meant it as a message to his old songwriting partner is impossible to say, but reading it that way certainly brings even more weight to the track. 

You can quibble about the way it was done, but it’s hard to argue against the lovely end result. Yes, there are parts of the original demo that were left out, but their absence doesn’t harm what’s left behind, which is a tight ballad that sounds like it would have fit in circa ’67 around the Sgt. Pepper’s era. Granted, it’s a bummer that George Harrison’s contributions here are minimal, but McCartney’s slide part is a nice tribute.

There’s one surprising little chord change in “Now and Then” that typifies Lennon’s innate genius. It comes in the chorus, between the lines Now and then and I miss you. This makes it sound as if the narrator is a bit tentative about making this admission, as if he fears such sentiment might not be reciprocated if he puts it out there. It’s a beautiful moment of vulnerability in a song that’s nothing short of miraculous in how it movingly brings this band back together, the laws of life and death be damned.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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