Money can’t buy you love, but in 2023, what it can buy you is AI-assisted time travel. Now in his eighties, Paul McCartney increasingly resembles one of those lost characters in a 1960s Alain Resnais or Chris Marker film, repeatedly thrown back into the past to re-experience a traumatic event; or perhaps the protagonist of J.G. Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition, constantly re-enacting the assassinations of famous people so that they might ‘make sense’. As a piece of music, the ‘new’ ‘last’ ‘Beatles’ single, ‘Now and Then’, is of very little interest, but as a phenomenon, it is highly symptomatic. McCartney’s project of going back in time to the 1960s and 1970s and using advanced software to scrub the historical fact of the Beatles’ shabby, acrimonious end and replace it with a series of warm, friendly fakes is proof of another of Ballard’s claims – that the science-fictional future, when it arrives, will turn out to be boring.
The Beatles achieved something close to perfection from 1963 to 1969, gradually expanding out of entertainingly scrappy R&B into grand psychedelic vistas, then into strange, personal and oblique miniatures. They achieved this while maintaining a level of global popularity that is hard to imagine today. In a ridiculous American TV series from 1965 and a wonderful film, Yellow Submarine (1968), they appeared as cartoon characters, as instantly recognisable as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. But in 1970, the year they split up, they spoiled the picture. Their final album, Let It Be, consisted mostly of bad songs, recorded for a ‘back to basics’ project which they had abandoned a year earlier, releasing the far superior Abbey Road (1969) instead. Let It Be’s defects were partially covered up by Phil Spector’s syrupy orchestrations; and its release was timed to coincide with a documentary of the same name in which the group showed their ‘real selves’: neither the hardscrabble British New Wave class warriors of their first film, A Hard Day’s Night (1964), nor the dreamy utopian wanderers of Yellow Submarine, but four morose rich men who had come to strongly dislike each other. The four then spent several years in court in an unseemly battle over the Beatles’ posthumous finances. The group’s fame endured, and their reputation grew – their status as ‘the greatest band of all time’ cemented by widespread imitation (especially in the Britpop movement of the mid-1990s). But that last moment of acrimony and litigation would always mar the fairytale. John Lennon and Paul McCartney agreed to stop insulting each other in public in the mid-1970s, but their friendship, let alone their collaboration, had not been resumed at the time of Lennon’s murder in 1980.
For years, McCartney appeared to have left all this behind and moved on; after all, it was he who had called time on the group in the first place, having tried gamely to keep it together in its last years when Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr had all lost interest. McCartney personally announced the Beatles’ breakup in 1970, and launched the slinging of insults in song between the ex-members a year later. But in the mid-1990s, he told his side of the story in Many Years From Now, a book of bitter interviews with Barry Miles, in which he argued against the accepted history in which Lennon and Harrison were the ‘experimental’, ‘avant-garde’ Beatles, stressing his love for Stockhausen, Albert Ayler and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Lennon’s cultural conservatism, and his own authorship of some of the group’s more extreme work. Around the same time, he and the other two surviving Beatles accepted Yoko Ono’s offer that they record with Lennon from beyond the grave. She had handed McCartney a tape of three unreleased home demos – ‘Free As a Bird’, ‘Real Love’, and ‘Now and Then’. The songs were recorded, with the assistance of otherwise forgotten ELO frontman Jeff Lynne as producer (George Martin, wisely, refused to work on them) and digital editing technologies. Each was to be placed as the first track on one of the three volumes of Anthology (1995-6), a series of compiled outtakes and unreleased songs. The last song, ‘Now and Then’, was never completed, in McCartney’s account because Harrison declared it to be ‘fucking rubbish’.
The two songs that were released sold well, though they are hardly remembered as classics. They are badly produced, but the main problem is that they are poor songs in the first place – dreary and predictable, of a piece with the forgettable songs of domestic contentment on Lennon and Ono’s 1980 joint album Double Fantasy. The group left these Frankensteinian tracks off their 2000 best-of collection and until recently it seemed that they had been quietly forgotten. McCartney focused his efforts on other means of making the story end happily. The sad denouement that was Let It Be was re-recorded on his insistence in 2003 as Let It Be…Naked, with Phil Spector’s kitsch embellishments removed, digital editing deployed and new passages inserted to hide how badly the songs were played, though none of this could salvage drivel like ‘Dig It’, or mitigate the solemn, religiose pomposity of the title song. Only McCartney’s ‘Two of Us’ ranks alongside the group’s best work, but at least now the album was less ostentatiously grotesque. The miserable Let It Be film, meanwhile, was taken out of circulation, and in 2021 was superseded by Peter Jackson’s vast Get Back, in which the moments when the group snipe at each other are swamped with over 400 minutes of footage of them behaving pleasantly, if seeming visibly bored (the most notable thing in this strange, challengingly uneventful film is its proof that George Harrison was by then writing by far the best songs, such as ‘Isn’t It A Pity’, rejected in favour of tossed-off dross like McCartney’s ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ or Lennon’s ‘Dig a Pony’, which the quartet would then have to work on for hours). Again, the film used new technologies including ‘MAL’, an AI devised by Jackson to isolate and amplify moments where the group’s conversations were inaudible on the original film strips.
AI was used extensively, and to impressive effect, on ‘Now and Then’, too, which was belatedly released last month. In the earlier two collages, especially the awful ‘Free as a Bird’, the joins were obvious, with Lennon’s vocal audibly coming from a different decade. Now, the joins have been smoothed over by machines with loving grace, and Lennon’s voice – or rather, the voice of Lennon and ‘Lennon’ the AI-avatar – comes through pure and clear. As a song, ‘Now and Then’ is generic late Lennon, one of many ponderous piano ballads. Its weary verses do have a certain poignancy, but the chorus was evidently an afterthought, now bloated into overemphasis by a pompous string arrangement. The result, despite a lovely, subtle backbeat from Starr, sounds a little like Coldplay, a terrible end for a group who once had the daring to try and emulate Little Richard, Ravi Shankar and Stockhausen all at once. The song is much more mediocre than most of what you’ll find in recent McCartney albums like New (2013) or McCartney III (2020). His grandiloquent attempt to time travel into Lennon’s late 70s apartment to erase the pain of their breakup perhaps involves a certain self-deprecation, preferring to rummage in his former partner’s depleted vaults rather than make use of his own songwriting talents. No ‘new’ Beatles song has been or, apparently, could be written by McCartney.
So what is McCartney trying to find in his cybernetic journeys into the past, and why is it that anyone might care? One answer could be found in the changes in the way music is consumed and understood in the 21st century. The last two decades have seen the near-total eclipse of what the more theoretically inclined British music press critics used to call ‘Rockism’ – that is, the belief in rock music as the bearer of authentic personal or political truth, best recorded in the raw, through guitar, bass, drums and the human voice, unmediated by studio trickery, synthesisers or artifice. By the late 1960s Lennon (and Harrison) were Rockists extraordinaire. Lennon especially was committed to a very ’68 combination of intense self-examination – one could call it, without too much unfairness, narcissism – and political agitation. His post-Beatles songs were all about something – about his mother’s death and his father’s abandonment, about the British working class’s continued oppression under consumer capitalism, about war being unjustifiable, about imagining the anarcho-communist future, and about McCartney being a fraud. They were melodically predictable and musically unimaginative compared to McCartney’s solo work, but they were invigorating, and in tune with the zeitgeist.
McCartney, by contrast, was never a ‘Rockist’, and had no commitment to any particular genre, hopping cheerfully between retro Tin Pan Alley schmaltz, Motown, orchestral pop, and, on songs like ‘She’s a Woman’ or ‘Helter Skelter’, the Beatles’ most aggressive proto-punk (or rather, proto-‘No wave’) rock. All of these were pure sensation, with surprising melodies and unusual sounds. Even others’ songs, like Harrison’s one-note moan ‘Taxman’, were made strange and thrilling by McCartney’s bizarre basslines and splenetic guitar solos. He had little interest in self-expression – his most moving and apparently sincere ballad, ‘Yesterday’, was a melody that came to him in a dream, and its refrain was for a time ‘Scrambled eggs/Oh my baby how I love your legs’, until he came up with something more appropriate. This was true of his solo albums, too, especially McCartney (1970), Ram (1971), and McCartney II (1980), which were quiet, casual, inventive, stylistically promiscuous, often silly and sometimes breathtakingly beautiful.
Apart, the two former bandmembers obviously suffered from each other’s absence – Lennon no longer countering McCartney’s lapses into kitsch, McCartney unable to rein in Lennon’s tendency towards self-importance – but Lennon’s albums have aged far worse. After two decent albums in 1970-71 – one, Plastic Ono Band, raw and noisy, the other, Imagine, giving the same sentiments the full Spector treatment for entryist purposes – diminishing returns set in. Lennon’s solo albums could be dreadful and political (the patronising, musically sludgy agitprop of 1972’s Some Time in New York City) or dreadful and apolitical (the Elton John-level soft rock of Mind Games from 1973), and it’s hard in either case to imagine many people listening today. Even his life partner’s once-ridiculed music has endured better. By the unplanned end, Double Fantasy, his happy, honest but dull homilies about doing the washing up and changing nappies in the Dakota Building were outclassed by Ono’s snappy, curt and very New York pop-punk answer songs. The best of her records, like the Can-esque trance-rock of 1971’s Fly or the astonishing disco melodrama of ‘Walking on Thin Ice’, are far more interesting than most of what Lennon recorded in the last decade of his life. McCartney’s solo albums from the 70s and 80s, by contrast, though desperately unfashionable until the 1990s, are now accepted as classics.
The rise of McCartney’s reputation at the expense of Lennon’s over the last few decades has something to do with the way popular music has become a less crucial part of youth culture. People still listen to music, it still changes and develops, but it is no longer the main vehicle for social comment or subcultural identity, far less important than social media; perhaps on the same level as clothing. Gone is the idea that pop music could ‘say’ something, that it could be a means of commenting on society, or an integral element of an oppositional counter-culture. McCartney’s solo work now seems unexpectedly prescient, anticipating modern listening habits. McCartney, Ram, Band on the Run or McCartney II all deliver the immediate dopamine hit and the restlessness with genre that you can find on Spotify playlists; they are albums already ‘On Shuffle’. In the last of the several editions of the standard book on the Beatles, Revolution in the Head – Ian McDonald’s unusual fusion of musicology and deep cultural pessimism – the question arises as to whether the vacuity of most Beatles lyrics would render them incomprehensible to future generations. The reverse has happened – nowadays who listens to music for the words?
What has also virtually disappeared from pop music is ‘politics’. The Beatles’ politics were complicated, to be sure. Each of them owed almost everything to the welfare state. Starr’s upbringing was rough, and a spell of childhood illness saw his life saved by the new National Health Service, which sent him to a sanatorium, an unimaginable thing for a working-class child before 1948. McCartney and Harrison grew up in good suburban council houses, and their families – sons and daughters of Irish migrants – were in skilled, stable work during a period of full employment (Lennon’s father, a Liverpool-Irish sailor, was a ne’er do well, but he was raised by his middle-class aunt in a large semi). Lennon and Harrison went to Liverpool College of Art, and McCartney sat in on lectures, later recalling attending a talk on Le Corbusier.
One could easily make a New Spirit of Capitalism argument about these four working-class boys turned millionaires as proto-Thatcherites; take Harrison’s ‘Taxman’, the most exciting right-wing pop record ever made, for one piece of evidence. In Hunter Davies’s 1968 authorised group biography, written without the benefit of hindsight, everyone (except the notably more guarded McCartney) complains about the Labour governments’ taxation policies, which funded council houses, free tuition at art colleges and free healthcare, and without which three of the Beatles would probably have been queuing up to load timber at the docks and the other would have been dead. In one passage, Starr, after describing the amphitheatre he had built in his Surrey back-garden, objects to funding buses and calls for the privatisation of the railways. And yet, the group were usually identified with the left – ‘up the workers and all that’, as McCartney quips in A Hard Day’s Night – and were public opponents of the war on Vietnam as early as 1966. In the 70s, Lennon explicitly identified with Marxism for a time, with musically unimpressive results – perhaps except for the crunching ‘Power to the People’, which, as they say today, ‘slaps’, and was well used by Bernie Sanders as the theme song for his two presidential campaigns. Lennon later claimed he had only written it to impress Tariq Ali.
The ‘new’ ‘Beatles’ songs have been devoid both of the interesting if generally failed political content of Lennon’s solo work, and the musical invention of McCartney. They are the worst of all worlds, leaden plods saying little more than that Lennon in the late 70s didn’t have much to say anymore. That was likely why he wasn’t saying it publicly, declining to release the songs in his lifetime. Yet, tellingly, ‘Now and Then’ has far outsold an actual new album of actual new songs by the actually living Rolling Stones, who were sixty years ago the Beatles’ nearest competitors. The song is also bundled with ‘new’, remixed editions of two 1970s best-of compilations, the latest in the apparently interminable process by which existing songs are repackaged, remastered and reissued (though one of McCartney’s own claims to radicalism, the famously unheard-since-1967 AMM-inspired improvisational piece ‘Carnival of Light’, recorded by the Beatles for a ‘happening’ at the Camden Roundhouse, remains unreleased, against his repeated wishes, apparently blocked by Lennon and Harrison’s widows). Peter Jackson has promised – perhaps the word should be threatened – to use ‘MAL’ to uncover more ‘new’ ‘Beatles’ songs from Lennon’s discarded tape archive. Some of these could perhaps be created completely anew, without the need for the Dakota home demos hoarded by Ono. Indeed, ‘Now and Then’ already sounds like what the ‘stochastic parrots’ (in computer linguist Emily Bender’s phrase) of contemporary AI technology would create if asked to make a Beatles song – which would of course sound like ‘Hey Jude’ or ‘Let it Be’ rather than, say, ‘Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey’.
Nostalgia can be spun out of the flimsiest of mid-20th-century golden age cultural phenomena – Cliff Richard, whom Lennon and McCartney loathed, is currently on tour – but, unfortunately, the Beatles really were special. It isn’t all a hoax; there has never been anything quite like the sheer speed and promiscuity and drama of those six years of actual Beatles music. They proved that working-class people from ordinary places could create, in the 2.5 minute slots of the lowest of low art, work that is bottomless in its complexity and richness. There are entire worlds in A Hard Day’s Night, Revolver, Sgt Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour or the White Album, evanescent spaces in which rhythm and blues, Victoriana, cheap chanson, electronic avant-gardism and Indian classical traditions are all mixed up and transfigured in the studio by people who, as the Get Back film revealed, could not even read music. Theirs was a world in which everything was getting better, with new possibilities, new ways of hearing and seeing opening up every minute.
McCartney once explained that ‘Too Many People’, the diss track aimed at Lennon – the opening shot in their public feud – was provoked not by the fact that his former partner’s solo songs were political as such, but by the fact they were hectoring, telling people what to do and what not to do. For McCartney, the Beatles’ songs were political because they were affirmative, outlining in microcosm a new world of love, togetherness, communality, possibility. In his self-justifying 1997 book with Barry Miles, McCartney described this genuinely utopian strain:
I always find it very fortunate that most of our songs were to do with peace and love, and encourage people to do better and have a better life. When you come to do these songs in places like the stadium in Santiago, where all the dissidents were rounded up, I’m very glad to have these songs because they’re such symbols of optimism and hopefulness.
As it becomes harder and harder to believe in this hope, or in the possibility that four working-class people in Britain could ever have been given the opportunity to evoke it so vividly, the elderly and unimaginably rich McCartney has had to create a series of counterfeits, now with the assistance of cybernetic lifeforms.
Read on: Alan Beckett, ‘Stones’, NLR I/47.