In the early 1990s, folk-rocker John Wesley Harding released one of the best B-sides around: “When the Beatles Hit America.” A lengthy narrative about a dreamed-up Fab Four reunion, it envisions both cultural and technological contexts for a new Beatles event — and this is back when only one of them was dead.
In Harding’s epic ballad, the Beatles are going to reunite on stage, all “due to a miracle marketing strategy / beyond the realms of reasonable possibility.” The lyrics realistically dramatize the build-up (securing the film rights, sponsorships, talk show scheduling, etc.) and then inject a bit of scifi to make it happen (the manager of the new Beatles is “made up of cloned parts of Col. Tom Parker and Col. Sanders”). Ringo won’t actually play, though, because he’s been replaced by a more accurate drum machine; he’s “disappointed to find that no one / needs him anymore except for the vibe.” Lennon, meanwhile, is substituted with a life-size cardboard cutout, and then — per today’s news, in a way — he speaks to the press, sounding suspiciously like some old recordings:
John, who was never the quiet one
makes all his press contributions from his old songs --
in tune, in time, and with the backing track behind him
And when they ask him how it’s been in the studio,
he says, “It’s been a hard day’s night”
And no one understands him, but he always was the cryptic one …
Funny stuff, but now prescient. Today marks the release of the Beatles’ latest — and allegedly last — technologically resurrected cast-off, a “new” old song called “Now and Then” that features the two living members and the two dead ones reunited in eerily perfect harmony and time. As a scholar who studies the uncanny properties of media and its inherent constructions of liminal spaces between life and death, well, I have some initial thoughts.
The Beatles were, are, and perhaps always will be the most haunted of pop groups. (Tip of the cap to Joy Division, though.) Even before Lennon’s assassination, the specter of the band’s legacy infused everything the individuals said, recorded, or performed. Once John and then George slipped away, it’s been fascinating to watch how boomer imperialism (to which Paul himself readily and regularly succumbs, when it suits his bank account) refuses to let them rest in anything resembling peace, with ever-increasing technological fidelity aiding the often ghoulish mission to embalm and preserve the players’ every whisper, sneeze, and sigh. A couple of years ago, I wrote about the Get Back documentary in terms of it acting as a séance, calling forth both the living and dead members to once again haunt the drafty spaces of pop culture. This week, here we are again, listening to spectral voices of the dead — this time striking a “new” tune.
The basic backstory: Lennon left behind some unfinished demos, which wife Yoko Ono preserved and gave to the other three Beatles in the early ’90s. Using the technology of the time (a statement that reeks of primitivism, given how fast audio quality tech has progressed), two songs were spiffed up and released as singles, “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love,” in 1995 and 1996, respectively, each one a marketing tool for the two editions of the Anthology CD series. The third, “Now and Then,” written in 1978, suffered from poor recording quality and was dismissed (most colorfully by George). Fast forward to 2020, when Peter Jackson has created impressive software to isolate instruments and voices from muddy mono tracks in order to freshen up the mixes for Get Back. The same app is applied anew to “Now and Then,” pulling Lennon’s voice away from the murky piano part and allowing it to be manipulated as the piece of a new construction.
Manipulated is the key term here. I described the Get Back film as one of the most computed films of all time, “perhaps the first movie many have seen with such dramatic and artistic contributions by an algorithm … to the point that the documentary’s rotoscopic computation of imagery and sound can be seen as the construction of a kind of virtual reality.” The same could be said of the new song (which features an accompanying video assembled by Jackson, natch). Lennon’s vocal is stitched into a patchwork quilt of tracks recorded for the tune back in 1995 — including guitars played by then-alive George, seen doing so in the new video — plus new parts recorded last year by Paul & Ringo, as well as additional strings. They even exhumed a few Beatles classics, digging up “Here, There and Everywhere” and “Eleanor Rigby” and extracting their oohs and ahhs. An explainer on the official video describes this all as a “remarkable story of musical archaeology.” One could just as easily call it pop-cultural grave-robbing or necrophilia.
Make no mistake — these are not pejoratives to me. I view popular culture as a glorious global practice of ongoing, creative cannibalization. Some cynical perspectives on this project are justified, though. These dead horses only get flogged into shape as poster children for the latest package rushed to market (Harding sang it this way: “the whole thing’s been a big insurance scam / to get the reissues selling again”), and sure enough, “Now and Then” is the bellwether of newly remixed versions of the Blue and Red anthologies, out next week.
In addition, as Get Back did, this case makes for a splendid way to discuss the trademark ghostliness of modern media. Jeffrey Sconce wrote about Haunted Media in terms of the medium more than its messaging — radio makes it seem like disembodied voices are in your room, cinema makes it seem like phantoms are dancing in front of you. This is primarily based on the way each medium produces its effect, within what Columbia scholar Noam Elcott calls the “phantasmagoric dispositif.” When you use modern media to convey actually uncanny content, however, its essential haunted qualities become more individually vivid and socially impactful.
Multi-track recording was incredibly uncanny when Les Paul pioneered it, and it remains one of the weirdest communication techniques available that is routinely taken to be routine. (Jacob Smith wrote a great paper detailing how ye olde panics about “backmasking” highlighted this quality.) In “Now and Then,” the audio construction is remarkably seamless and inconspicuous — more fluid than “Free as a Bird,” perhaps not surprisingly (and certainly moreso than the video, which is all kinds of clunky and unsettling, looking like it was edited not with Jackson’s cutting-edge tech but maybe an old Mac Performa). Lennon’s voice is thin — almost too delicate to carry the song — but refreshingly sweet. All in all, if this really is the last recording to carry the name Beatles, it’s no rousing finale (“A Day in the Afterlife,” anyone?) but it is a convincing capstone. As critic Jon Pareles wrote today in The New York Times, “It’s not a grand finale. It’s a wistful postscript.”
Beyond the technical spectacle, though, what does a Frankenstein creation like this actually say to the world? Again, cynicism easily rears its snarl here: it says, “Buy the old albums again!” But as society has begun wrestling with the implications of emerging artificial intelligence — which Jackson’s software has been ubiquitously labeled — and its capacity to increase pop culture’s cannibalism of its own archives exponentially, the unease some are expressing about “Now and Then” has less to do with this band’s legacy and more to do with anyone’s. Will nothing rest anymore? Is everything fair game for exhumation and reconstitution, in digital perpetuity? Can we no longer appreciate cultural achievements without occasionally tarting them up? (Were we ever able to let sleeping catalogs lie, as it were?) A friend of mine texted today, “I can’t even decide if [the song] makes me smile or makes me nauseous. It’s like one of those creepy mourning art pieces made from human hair. ‘Morbid’ is the word that comes to mind.” FWIW, this is from a guy and a horror fan who's already inclined to think about the morbid and the maudlin to an advanced degree. If the Beatles latest Frankenstein creeps him out a little, how remarkably uncanny is the age of AI going to be?
I'm THOMAS CONNER, Ph.D. in Communication (Science Studies) and culture journalist.