The Beatles’ Team Talks About Creation, Promotion of ‘Now and Then’

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Was there anyone who didn’t have an opinion — and the strong need to express it — when the Beatles‘ “last single,” “Now and Then,” came out earlier this month? The surviving members’ long-aborning completion of a 1970s John Lennon demo profoundly moved millions of fans, and put off some others, but no one in practically any demographic — not boomers or even Gen-Z-ers and millennials — wanted to hold their tongue about it. And that’s the kind of marketing that money and promotion can’t buy.

Which is not to say that a lot of thought did not go into how to reach the masses with “Now and Then,” or the nearly concurrent release of expanded versions of two famous greatest-hits albums, “1962-66” and “1967-70,” better known as the Red and Blue albums. “Now and Then,” in particular, was able to make its case to the public with the help of two promotional pieces — a music video directed by Peter Jackson that made use of outtake footage from “Hello Goodbye,” and a 12-minute documentary piece, “Now and Then — The Last Beatles Song,” directed by Oliver “Ollie” Murray and produced by Jonathan Clyde and Sophie Hilton.

Clyde is one of the Beatles’ key gatekeepers, as the man who oversees all things film for Apple Corps, working closely with Jeff Jones. Hilton is creative studio director for Universal Music Recordings in the U.K. Murray’s credits as a documentary filmmaker include the episodic “My Life as a Rolling Stone” and a separate feature-length doc on Bill Wyman. The three British collaborators recently stopped by the Variety offices to discuss how they set up the latest wave of Beatlemania… or, in some instances, were just surprised by the turns it took on its own.

How did you plan the rollout for all the releases and promotional pieces? It was very rat-a-tat-tat: The 12-minute documentary about “Now and Then,” the single itself coming out the following day, and Peter Jackson’s music video the day after that… followed by the Red and Blue albums a week later. It was not drawn out.

Clyde: The idea was to make it a very short run. In truth, we started thinking about putting “Now and Then” out at the end of last year, but it seemed crazy, and it would have come out in a vacuum. And then it slipped to April, and then it slipped to June, and we could see where it was headed, which was going to be in November. And then I think the realization was that if we came out too early in announcing that this was coming, and it wasn’t coming for three months, it would just drive people crazy. Because they’d go, “What do you mean, there’s a new Beatles single and I’ve got to wait three months?” So we decided, after a lot of discussion, to just make it a very short run-up. We announced it officially on Oct. 26, along with Red and Blue, so people’s attention span was on it the whole time. And then, as you say, the rollout of the three — the short film on Wednesday, Nov. 1, and then the track itself on Thursday the 2nd, and then Peter’s video on the 3rd — was bang, bang, bang. We didn’t want people to wait too long.

Of course, the people who cared already knew “Now and Then” was coming, because Paul had talked about it back in March. And then we went to Ringo’s birthday celebration, and he was fine talking about it on the red carpet, so it was no longer a super-guarded secret.

Clyde: Well, we were worried that this would leak, and that it would come from Universal, because the increasing circle of trust was becoming outrageous. And then, it was Paul and Ringo who decided to talk about it. But they’re entitled to — it’s their record! I do remember that back in the “Anthology” days, “Free as a Bird” was about to be released, and it was all hush-hush, and George went to a Formula One meeting in Australia with Guy Laliberté, the guy who ran Cirque du Soleil. There was a party afterwards, which was quite a ruckus, and then, at one point George said, “Put this on.” And he got a pressing of “Free as a Bird” and gave it to the DJ, and blew the entire thing. All the news came out of Australia: “Free as a Bird!” Everyone’s going, “What the fuck? George, what are you doing?” [Laughs.] Anyway…

When Paul did first talk about it, of course it set off this kind of firestorm about AI. Was that in any way deliberate? Like, OK, now’s a good time to sort of get that out of the way?

Clyde: I don’t think it was. He found himself saying it because he was led into it by the BBC journalist, who quite rightly asked the question — it was a very pertinent question at the time — “What about AI in music and how does this kind of fit?” And I think he just found himself talking about “Get Back” because of that software that was used, and then he just stumbled, I think, into talking about John’s vocal. But funnily enough, that news didn’t go as wide as I thought it would. I mean, I think in the industry, it did… but it sort of died off. I knew a lot of people who said, “What did Paul say?… I didn t see anything.” We thought, “Great.” So it all just went away very quietly, so when we came back to launch, it didn’t feel like, “Oh yeah, we heard about that.”

So it was not part of some amazing strategy on Paul’s part, to slightly tease the song…

Clyde: It may have been! Who knows? I sense he didn’t mean to necessarily open that box.

Hilton: But then that’s what Ollie’s film does so well is explain how it happened. And what that (the so-called “AI” tech) actually means here, with Peter’s technology and the separation of the vocal from the piano itself.

Since the song was done last year, did you feel like you had the luxury of a lot of time to figure out things like the documentary and music video?

Clyde: Well, because we were supposed to be releasing it a lot earlier this year, it became a bit of a scramble. But it was Sophie who introduced me to Ollie, and we had a Zoom call when I was in New Zealand in late February. Back then, we were still looking at April, and I was like, “Oh, crikey, how are we going to get this done?” We discussed the idea that it’d be good to have them tell this story in their own words… and the idea of possibly not seeing them. So, you interview Paul and Ringo and Sean, and they don’t necessarily need to be on camera, which also made getting the interviews done much quicker than if you’d had to set up film shoots for all of them. Those interviews were done in March, and then Ollie was able to really start to build the story from there.

We’d normally expect Beatles product to come out toward the end of the year, so why was it originally going to be spring? Was there a reason?

Clyde: I think with Paul and Ringo, we got the impression they’d like to see it out sooner than later. You know, they are now two guys in their eighties, and they like things to happen quickly. But not quickly and badly. You know what I mean? Also, we were aware there was a Stones release coming around, and what we didn’t want to do is go very close to their release and it become just a lazy media going “Oh, it’s the Beatles versus the Stones again.” You know, I think we’ve gone way past that era (of perceived competition) now, but it certainly made sense to keep a separation between the two releases. [In the end, the Stones’ album, “Hackney Diamonds,” got delayed, too, and came out two weeks before “Now and Then.”]

Was the new single always going to be tied to a release of the Red and Blue albums, or did that idea come later?

Clyde: That took a lot of discussion. There was another idea which didn’t bite in the end, but it made sense to celebrate Red and Blue. After all, whole generations of people were introduced to the Beatles through the Red and Blue, and it is the 50th anniversary this year. So it suddenly became a way… The single had to have a home apart from being a single. So that’s why it sort of made sense to do Red and Blue and add “Now and Then” to Blue. So now it’s got a home beyond being a single.

For people who were around and aware in the ‘60s, the Red and Blue packages that came out in 1973 were kind of incidental, but then for some people who were coming to Beatles consciousness a little later, those can feel as important as any of the original studio albums, almost.

Clyde: Oh, absolutely. Loads of people. I mean, Peter Jackson, the way he discovered the Beatles was Red and Blue; he often refers to it. But, yes, I was around for the original albums, so I was never interested in Red and Blue.

Giles Martin, when we interviewed him, also mentioned, as you did, that there had been a different idea for a hits package, just sort of based around a playlist based on sheer popularity. He mentioned that, whether it was Red and Blue or the “#1s” project, there had never really been any sort of perfect Beatles compilation.

Clyde: We did look at doing a new compilation, called “Now and Then,” Everyone made various lists and everything. And you end up looking at Red and Blue and you realize, well, actually, there’s so many on Red and Blue — why don’t we just celebrate Red and Blue and add more tracks that were never on them? I mean, “I Saw Her Standing There” wasn’t on Red, which is astonishing nowadays, because it’s become such an anthem, and you’d probably take it as one of the greatest of those early tracks. So it was adding tracks like that that didn’t make the Red and the Blue at the time… and adding George Harrison tracks to Red, because there weren’t any.

Have you heard any of the mixes? If you listen to “I Saw Her Standing There” and play it against the 2009 remaster, it’s just light years. “I Saw Her Standing There” is a very wall of sound-type recording, originally, and then it had the faux stereo version from 2009. This, having all the separation, all the de-mixing was done on the various splits, on the stems, you actually hear the clarity of everything. The handclaps suddenly become massive, and the reverb on the guitars, and suddenly there’s a clarity to all of it. So, the new mixes, particularly of the early stuff, which we haven’t really gone back to… Obviously we’ve done a lot of the later remixes, from “Pepper “onwards, but this was going back further back in time, and “I Saw Her standing There” and “Twist and Shout” sound unbelievable. But they sound the same, just bigger, and you can hear all the instruments.

Is it fair to say, if people can wait enough years, that everything will come out with Giles remixes?

Clyde: [Laughs.] Well, once we started this, we sort of started something… and it does work. I mean, there might be some old crusties who say, well, they shouldn’t mess with it, it’s the way it was supposed to be… Well, if anyone can decide to change things up, it’s the Beatles themselves. They liked to experiment. But I think the “Revolver” album was the first de-mixed remix record. And now, you know, a lot of the Red mixes are particularly interesting, and I think valid…

With the the documentary, Jonathan mentioned having Paul and Ringo interviewed off-camera, and Ollie, that seems to be a trademark in some of your films, like the Bill Wyman documentary, where you had him off-camera for that. Is that just your thing, or did you feel was there a special reason to have this in voiceover?

Murray: It is my thing. But it is because you just get way better, more relaxed interviews, especially with people that have done it all so many times. Someone like Bill, if you say, “Oh, we’re going to bring out a camera all the time,” they just won’t do it. Or they’ll push it off, and they think that you’re going to turn up with eight people in their home and break something. So, if it’s just me turning up with a backpack — or Jonathan turning up, just for a chat [doing the interviews for the “Now and Then” documentary] — you just get better stuff. I think 95 percent of what Paul and you discussed was great, usable material. Sometimes you want to see them. But not for this one, especially when you have all that archive, and it was a proper story.

Clyde: And we needed Sean, really, to set the context of where John was at at the time when he wrote the demo. It felt like we needed his voice to help us with that, and he spoke so well, I thought — very, very movingly.

Murray: It was interesting, because he said to you he remembers more about that (part of his very young childhood) than his teenage years. That footage is some of my favorite footage.

Hilton: Probably only a page’s worth of Paul’s and Sean’s transcripts got used, but the transcripts were each probably around six, seven pages long, and everything in them was fascinating. I listened to them over and over and each time they still made me feel emotional, hearing them talking like that.

Clyde: Short films are really hard. When you’ve got 100 minutes, you can have a baggy scene here and there and kind of get away with it, whereas with this it was important to be laser-focused with each story beat, but mainly keep all this heart that was in the interviews.

Murray: I think we said it was going to be 3-5 minutes, originally. I wasn’t bullshitting when I was going, “Oh yeah, we’ll do that.” But then as it got longer and longer…

Clyde: I was aware that when “Now and Then” comes out, Paul and Ringo are going to get inundated with people wanting to interview them, understandably: “How the hell did this thing come to be?” And I thought, well, if we could make a film and they could tell it in their own words, that’s going to take the onus off them to have to do any interviews. That was really as much my thinking, from wearing my Apple hat, as it was about promotion. Universal understandably were thinking, “It’s going to be a 5-6-minute EPK and we can chop it up and slice it.” But then to tell the story, there was no way to do it less than what it turned up as, as 12 minutes. Then, everyone was going, “Oh, this is fantastic. And now, we’re going to chop this up.” I said, “No, you’re not chopping anything up.” So we’ve not allowed the short film to be diced and sliced for social media. There were television stations around the world that said, “We can’t show this. This is a very inconvenient length, Can’t we just cut it down to three minutes?” Nope. They all came on board in the end, and all went, “Actually, this is a big moment. We’ll show the whole thing.”

With Peter Jackson’s music video, at what point in the process did that idea come about, either to get him, or to take the approach of doing a mixture of different eras of footage and blending them together?

Clyde: We came to him quite late in the day. We had another idea that kind of didn’t work out, with someone else. We didn’t just want to go back to Peter automatically, and he was a bit busy with other things. And as you’ve probably read, short form is not his forte. He’d been asked to do music videos before and he’d always turned them down. But this was almost like a proposal he couldn’t refuse, he felt. But he was very nervous about it. “I don’t know how to do the form of music video!” This conversation started when I was in New Zealand in February of earlier this year. And we did find some footage we thought we didn’t have of them recording “Now and Then,” and it was just on another tape that was not marked up that way. So that was an absolute breakthrough, that we had some footage from 1994 of the three of them working.

Peter was very aware that the song is so laden with sentimentality, in a good way, and reflective about “Now and then I miss you.” And he knew that so much would be read into the lyrics in terms of possibly who John was referring to. I mean, was he referring to the Beatles? Was he referring to something else altogether? Was he referring to Yoko? No one really knew. But we knew the way it would be interpreted. And so he was very aware you could make an overly sentimental, even mawkish, video to that lyric. So his idea was to start the video one way, where you really feel the emotion of this, and then try and take a left turn and have some fun with it. Because the Beatles really never took themselves that seriously and quite liked subverting things. And so that’s what he did — and then brought it back [to the emotional] at the end.

But there were some outtakes from the “Hello Goodbye” video shoot. They made three versions of “Hello Goodbye,” the video: One was a straight one, then a semi-straight one, and then a sort of crazy one. There were lots of trims and outtakes, and so that’s where that footage came from that he was able to play with and have fun with.

Hilton: The YouTube comments are off the scale, whether they’re core fans or whether they’re not — there’s a lot of young people in there. They can still be core fans if they’re 19; it doesn’t mean they’re not. Lots of people talk about the goofing around, and they say how amazing it is to see them like that. And then also a lot of people are talking about how poignant the ending is. To Jonathan’s point, the fact that you have the emotional opening, then you have the goofing around and then you go back to them getting younger, and then when they bow and they fade — that’s a huge statement.

Clyde: It’s almost like every year the Beatles totally changed up. So I can’t imagine what it’s like, if [as a young person] you don’t know anything about that, and you’re watching that video for the first time. It’s like multiple bands. Because they almost were, weren’t they? No matter how successful (an album or era) was, they would just burn it down and start again. So someone (fresh to the phenomenon) watching that for sure must just wonder, eight different versions of the Beatles?  … It’s really something in the alchemy of all of that and the way that it’s back around. Everyone was saying it’s like the Twilight Zone, with new Beatles music on BBC “Radio 2 with Scott Mills.”

Hilton: And “Hottest Record in the World” on Radio 1 as well, which the demographic is so young for in the U.K. It’s the power of who they were and who they are right now.

You all are undoubtedly having to think with these pieces about separate audiences, from the fanatics that are older to the people who really need a lot of explaining — although it’s not like you can give the Beatles’ entire backstory in a 12-minute doc.

Clyde: I think one can get too caught up in trying to market to certain markets with the Beatles. I mean, at Universal — and I’m not referring to Sophie… For years at EMI [the Beatles’ pre-Universal home], they were always doing focus groups: “How do we reach the kids?” And the truth is, the kids get reached because they discover it themselves. If you try to market to them, they can see it coming a mile off. And it was interesting, with “Get Back,” which we thought would certainly be of massive interest to any Beatle fans, and people of a certain era. What we hadn’t figured was how that series went amongst 20- and 30-year-olds. Even people that weren’t that interested in the Beatles became obsessed by it. That surprised us, And I suppose it was presented in a way that they could relate to — like a reality show set in 1969. The Beatles in the Big Brother house!

Hilton: They looked very cool, too.

Clyde: They did look very contemporary. So we hadn’t figured that. That wasn’t a marketing ploy. That was something that just happened naturally, which was thrilling — to get my kids, who are in their twenties and early thirties, saying, “All my friends are talking about is ‘Get Back’…” I think, Oh God, how incredible. And the way this leads on… “Now and Then” popped up quite unexpectedly because of the technology. Paul sent the tape to Peter, and the way this has happened… I don’t think there was any master plan to reach the young people. It was just: We’ve made this; that’s the title of the song; these are the lyrics. It sounds quite contemporary; it’s not recorded trying to make it sound too Beatles of a certain era. It has a momentum about it and it’s just driven this into areas and all sorts of people you’d never necessarily reach if you were targeting them.

Hilton: I’ve never worked anything that didn’t feel like a music release. Everything I’ve worked in my 20 years has been a music release. Obviously the music first, but then it’s cultural. And it’s impacted people globally in such an emotional way. That’s why Disney+, Apple TV, HBO, PBS, BBC1 and 27 broadcasters in 24 countries came on board at the same time, which we’ve never had

Murray: I think that Paul’s authentic passion to keep creating, and to embrace technology, has been super-important. Because there were lots of people that when it popped up were ready to have a dig at it. All they really heard was “AI,” which has got this big negative cloud over it, “and the Beatles,” before they engaged with what was coming. So there is just something about the authenticity of it that disarmed a lot of people that were ready with their negativity. One of my biggest fears was that the pendulum had swung to this negative place where technology can only mean bad things. And if this has moved it back a little bit to the center position where this is musical archaeology — it’s not a bot making new tracks up from scratch. It’s a really well-used tool.

I feel like I’ve seen like 560 different opinions and sub-opinions just in my feed since “Now and Then” came out, about the song, about the music video… and even people saying, “Oh, I felt this way about it one day, and then the next day I felt different about it” or “I felt different about it when I saw the video.” People are really mulling it over. Some people have like a very defensive sort of reaction, and some people are very moved the moment they hear it.

Clyde: When I heard it for the first time, it was pre- Peter really getting to work on the the vocal properly. And it didn’t sound like John’s voice! I couldn’t identify it as John. Then, of course, what Peter’s achieved now (with the vocal_, the clarity is extraordinary. It just shouts John Lennon to me. But it is a very personal thing. Everyone has their own personal relationship with the Beatles, so everyone took it very personally, this record. I’ve read some of the more uncertain reviews, and I’ve read some great reviews. The L.A. Times gave it a bit of a drubbing, which I thought was quite interesting. And then there was another review that said, “Well, it’s not as good as what they were producing in the ‘60s.” For God’s sake, you know, what do you expect? We should be so lucky to have a new song by John Lennon, finished off by Paul and Ringo, that George has actually played on. We should be so lucky! So don’t take it all too seriously.

Murray: I think when you put it into context as the final Beatles song in the catalogue, it’s just sort of perfect — the themes. Some people in interviews were saying, “Oh, where do you rank it with…?” It’s in its own little pocket. The full stop  in the catalog.

Clyde: I can understand why people compared it with “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” and had that discussion, and some people said, “I prefer it to both ‘Free as a Bird’ and ‘Real Love,’”  and some people say, “Well, actually I prefer ‘Free as a Bird.’” It’s all valid. It’s all valid discussion.

Hilton: I remember having the discussion: “Are we calling it ‘the last Beatles song’? Is that a marketing line, and are we using it?” And then Jonathan interviewed Paul, and Paul said “This is probably the last Beatles song,” I remember, and then everyone going, fine. If he said it, then that is what it is. He did use the word “probably,” though.

Clyde: “Probably” — he always says that.  He leaves the door open. I did say to him, “Is this really the last?” He gave me an old-fashioned look (of skepticism), like, “Well, what else is there? What else have we got?” As something with John and George…  I think it’s the last one.

Giles said in our interview, “I think he just misses John and he wants to work on a song with him. It’s just as simple as that.” Which was a very simple way of putting something that has a lot attached to it.

Clyde: He explained that, in a vocal booth, having John in his ears, it was exactly like it would have been (when they worked together in the ’60s). He wouldn’t see him, he would hear him. So that really was going all the way back to that experience. I feel like that alone is a reason for it to exist, just for Paul to be able to do that. Everything else is subjective.

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