The Beatles made waves earlier this year when Paul McCartney revealed to the BBC that he and Ringo Starr had employed help from artificial intelligence to finish a long-shelved John Lennon song called "Now And Then."
A.I. being the incendiary issue that it is many people erroneously concluded that McCartney and Starr commanded a robot of sorts to finish writing and singing one of John's final songs in time for the long-awaited Red & Blue Anthology release November 10.
In truth, while the A.I. contribution to "Now And Then" was essential to the song's completion and eventual release today (Nov. 2), it's contribution was not a creative one. Instead, the groundbreaking technology was used to sort out a glaring audio engineering issue that plagued the surviving Beatles' hopes for the single, going back to the mid-1990s.
"Let's be clear: this is not A.I. creating John's voice ... it didn't create any part of John's voice, no computer created any part of the song, the only thing the computer did was isolate John's voice from the piano and from the TV that [could be heard] on the track," explains Q104.3 New York's Ken Dashow explains on his latest Beatles Revolution podcast. "What it does is it just can define the sound of what a piano note is versus a human [voice]. That's the best use of this; not creating John's voice, but separating it so it's clean [for the final mix]."
"Now And Then" was written by John Lennon sometime in the late-'70s at his apartment with Yoko Ono at the Dakota in New York City. The only recording of the song prior to the Beatles' finished version is a one-track cassette tape featuring John singing the song and playing piano.
Circa 1994, Ono passed the tape along to the surviving Beatles, McCartney, Starr and George Harrison, suggesting they try to complete some of her late-husband's final works. The three Beatles worked on the song for several days, recording various sections before George pulled the plug concluding, according to his widow Olivia Harrison, "it was not possible to finish the track to a high enough standard," because of the quality of the demo.
The breakthrough that paved the way for the song to be mixed and mastered to a degree that it would stand up to the rest of the Beatles' catalog was thanks to filmmaker Peter Jackson's The Beatles: Get Back documentary series.
In order to mix sound for the documentary so that the Beatles' conversations were audible above the racket of electrics guitars, keyboards and drums, Jackson's team developed an A.I. that could extract human voices and other elements from noisy one-track recordings. These extractions gave sound engineers the flexibility to create loud and clear final mixes from otherwise noisy, unusable recordings.
Following the success of Get Back, McCartney reached out to Jackson again, asking if he would attempt the same digital clean-up process on "Now And Then." Jackson (who was not yet sick of the Beatles after years of work on Get Back) agreed and returned the song to McCartney and Starr in a state where it could finally be completed.
“There it was, John’s voice, crystal clear. It’s quite emotional," McCartney said in a statement. "And we all play on it, it’s a genuine Beatles recording. 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.”
John and Yoko's son Sean Ono Lennon agreed, adding that it was "incredible touching to hear them working together after all the years that Dad had been gone. It's the last song my dad, Paul, George and Ringo go to make together. It's like a time capsule and all feels very meant to be."
Listen to "Now And Then" via the player at the top of this page or all Thursday on iHeartRadio's classic rock format stations.