The Meaning Behind the Very Last New Beatles Song Ever, “Now and Then”

On November 2, 2023, The Beatles released the single, “Now and Then,” their first new music since “Real Love” appeared on their Anthology 2 compilation in 1996. The core of the song—three distinct verses and a chorus written and sung by John Lennon on a 1977 demo—is not new at all. However, much of the released version of the song does contain entirely new recorded material. Paul McCartney added piano, bass, vocals, and a George Harrison-esque slide guitar solo, Ringo Starr provided the song with a drum part, and McCartney and co-producer Giles Martin (son of Beatles producer George Martin) created a string arrangement.

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In 1995, the remaining Beatles began work on a finished version of the song that was intended to join “Real Love” and “Free as a Bird” (from the same demo cassette that “Now and Then” was on) on their Anthology project. At that stage, Harrison added electric and acoustic guitar parts, which are included in the final 2023 version. Even though McCartney and Starr were the lone surviving Beatles when much of the song was put together, “Now and Then” has the feel of a true collaborative effort with a coherent sound.

The Meaning Behind the Lyrics

The message conveyed in “Now and Then” is not quite as coherent, and the unfinished nature of the original recording is partially responsible. The lyrics were written almost entirely by Lennon. The first verse is clearly about Lennon’s deep love and appreciation for someone, though it’s less clear who the intended target of the message is.

I know it’s true
It’s all because of you
And if I make it through
It’s all because of you

In the second verse, we get a hint of there being some trouble in the relationship, as Lennon sings, And now and then / If we must start again. However, the details of Lennon’s intent literally get muddled in the remainder of the verse. He sings, “Well, we will know for sure,” but then the words in the verse’s final line are impossible to decipher on the demo. After Lennon starts the line with “That I,” McCartney has to finish the sentence with his own vocal and lyric, “will love you.” Lennon’s insecurity in the relationship is underscored in the third verse, though, which ends with the lines And if you go away / I know you’ll never stay.

Taken as a whole, the song appears to be a love song in which Lennon is trying to patch up a difficult relationship. He could have written it about McCartney, Yoko Ono, or someone else entirely. Because Lennon sings “Now and then I miss you” in the chorus, it’s tempting to think he’s directing the song at McCartney.

The released version of the song omits a pre-chorus that fleshes out the situation a bit more. It begins with the following lyrics before transitioning into some ad-libbed syllables:

I don’t want to lose you, oh no no no
Lose you or abuse you, oh no no no, sweet darling
But if you have to go away
If you have to go

Especially given that Lennon was performing these lyrics eight years after leaving the Beatles, it can likely be ruled out that the song was written about his friendship and musical partnership with McCartney.

[RELATED: The Beatles’ “Now and Then” Video Offers Fans a Poignant Farewell to the Fab Four]

How “Now and Then” Was Completed

If not for Harrison, “Now and Then” could have been released 27 years earlier. After sprucing up Lennon’s demo for “Free as a Bird,” McCartney, Harrison, and Starr briefly worked on “Now and Then,” but quickly abandoned it when Harrison expressed his dislike of the song. McCartney discussed his interest in finishing “Now and Then” in numerous interviews over the years, but it wasn’t until 2022 that doing so became a realistic possibility.

The sound quality of Lennon’s demo had been an insurmountable obstacle to finishing the song, partly because the recording included background noise from a television. When Peter Jackson directed and produced The Beatles: Get Back documentary, which was released in 2021, he and his team used AI technology to isolate individual sounds and instruments within the original recordings. Subsequently, Jackson used that technology to separate Lennon’s vocals from the piano and background noise in his demo, opening up the possibility for McCartney, Starr, and Martin to finally turn the song into a version worthy of an official release.

Release Details

“Now and Then” debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Digital Song Sales chart based on just a single day of sales. It also entered Billboard’s Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart at No. 11 and their Rock & Alternative Airplay chart at No. 37.

The day before the official release of “Now and Then,” the Beatles’ YouTube channel premiered a 12-minute documentary on the making of the song, which included audio footage of commentary from George Harrison and Sean Lennon. One day after the song’s release, an official music video for “Now and Then” was premiered. Directed by Jackson, the video intersperses contemporary footage of McCartney and Starr performing the song with archival images and footage of each of The Beatles, some of which had previously never been made public.

Conclusion

Upon its release, “Now and Then” was promoted as “the last Beatles song.” Given that it was the last song from the 1977 demo to get released, it very well could be the last time a new Beatles song is officially introduced to the public. If so, it’s an intriguing way to close out the legendary band’s discography.

There is still something magical about hearing all four members on the same recording, even though they weren’t all in the same room together (or even in the same century). Even if Lennon’s lyrics weren’t about his relationship with McCartney, they evoke memories of the duo’s better days as friends, bandmates, and the greatest songwriting partnership in popular music history.

Photo by Vinnie Zuffante/Getty Images

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