In the Sixties, the rivalry between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones — even if it was more of a hype battle dreamt up by their respective publicity departments — meant that whenever one band released an album or single, the other was never too far behind. Sometimes, they even explicitly referenced their competitor’s work; the Stones’s 1967 album Their Satanic Majesties Request was “inspired” by the Beatles’s LP Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released earlier that year. Yet after the Beatles split up in 1970, the rivalry seemed to be at an end, and the deaths of John Lennon in 1980 and George Harrison in 2001 apparently put paid to any possibility of the Liverpudlian band continuing in any form.
Oh, how wrong we were. It might be mere coincidence that the release of a new Beatles single, “Now and Then,” comes a few weeks after the Stones released their first album of new material since 2005, Hackney Diamonds, to critical acclaim, or it might be a subtle riposte on the part of the surviving members of the band — Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. Yet here we are, more than half a century after the Beatles came to an end, in a musical landscape unrecognizable from when the Fab Four last functioned, and what will presumably be their last-ever song has now emerged onto the world’s streaming services.
Is it any good? Well, sort of. The song is a John Lennon demo from the late Seventies that the remaining members of the band tried and failed to do something with in the mid-Nineties, around the time of the Beatles Anthology project that saw another couple of “lost” Beatles songs, “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” released to polite disinterest. George Harrison apparently described “Now and Then” as “fucking rubbish” at the time, and it was canned, but McCartney has continually talked in interviews of his hopes that the song could be resurrected, and now its time has come. Advances in technology over the past thirty years have meant that Lennon’s vocal now sounds altogether crisper and clearer than it done on the earlier tracks, although there is something slightly strange about hearing the thirty-something Lennon’s voice juxtaposed with the octogenarian McCartney, whose once appreciably tuneful tones have coarsened somewhat with age.
Musically, thanks to skillful production by George Martin’s son and a sumptuous string arrangement, it’s a pleasure to listen to, not least because McCartney’s guitar solo just over halfway through pays clear homage to Harrison’s finest hours. It may not have much of a tune, and certainly can’t be compared to any of the Beatles’s greatest work, but it’s still a more appealing effort than any number of imitators who have come since. And, lyrically, there is an undeniable emotional punch from hearing Lennon sing on the chorus “Now and then I miss you / Now and then I want you to be there for me.” Trite and saccharine? Perhaps, but it’s also affecting, with the strings paying due homage to everything from “Eleanor Rigby” to “I Am The Walrus” and giving it a stately gravitas.
It’s unlikely that “Now and Then” is going to be remembered with the fondness that the band’s major songs still attract. The suspicion also lingers that McCartney has actually produced more interesting work on his own solo albums over the past decades, not least on his excellent and underrated 2005 Chaos and Creation in the Backyard. Yet just as the best songs on Hackney Diamonds could actually suggest to those not even born in the Stones’s heyday that they remain a musical force to be reckoned with, so “Now and Then” is a valuable reminder that — in their heyday — the Beatles really were capable of genius which no act has ever come close to equaling, let alone surpassing. Let it be? Not quite yet — and let’s be grateful for that.