Discover more from Alex Segura
The power of nostalgia
On a new Beatles track, a Dick Tracy sneak peek, things I'm working on, where I'm going
Hey! I hope you’re doing well.
So, I had an idea for next week’s post that got derailed by the news that the Beatles had released a “new” and final track - “Now and Then.” I knew it was coming, but I still found myself surprised when I saw the song was out in the world. So, consider this a bonus newsletter!
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Now, I have a handful of lifelong obsessions - if you know much about me, you know the Beatles are one of them.
I don’t mean “oh, I like the Beatles.” Everyone does, right? What’s not to like? No, I mean, deep, in-the-weeds obsession. It started relatively late, in high school, when my friend Karina lent me her cassette copy of the “Red” and “Blue” best-of compilations. Then we were off, and the Beatles have just become part of the fabric of my life. It’s not just the music, though I could go on about that, obviously. I’ve read stacks and stacks of books - from the great to the terrible/libelous. I’ve made three versions of a “lost” album playlist, with detailed reasons for why each song belongs on there. That’s all in addition to basically memorizing their canon, and solo output (I’m forever a McCartney apologist). I think about them a lot. It’s not just the songs, either - but the massive cultural impact. I always mention to people that, to truly understand how important the Beatles were (and, to be fair, I only do that secondhand, since I was born in the 80s), you’d have to merge the critical power/gravitas of a band like Radiohead with the pop sensibilities of something huge, like Madonna, Beyonce, or N*Sync. The perfect mix of daring and mainstream/hugely popular. The closest thing we have to that now is Taylor Swift, and she’s a great example - and it probably explains why I love her music so much, too. You could make a case for Nevermind-era Nirvana, too. Not surprisingly, Cobain was a huge Beatles fan, too.
But I digress.
Even as someone who was in high school when the Beatles Anthology collections hit - meaning I had already experienced a pair of “new” tracks coming out of the ether - I was unprepared for how listening to “Now and Then” would affect me. I turned it on once I saw the news, and thought I’d be numb to it. But once you hear John’s unmistakable voice cut through, it’s magic. I found myself getting unexpectedly emotional. I never thought I’d hear them doing something new, together, and it was kind of magical to get to feel that, 43 year after John Lennon was murdered and over 20 years since George Harrison died.
Now, the backstory of the song is interesting - along with “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love,” the two tracks released on the first two (of three) Anthology compilations, there was a third track which the “Threetles” never could get their heads around: “Now and Then.” This mini-documentary does a better job of explaining it than I do, but suffice to say, the reworked song sat on a shelf - because the producers were unable to capably separate John’s voice from his at-home piano. It was a rough home demo, of course. Fast forward to today, though, and Peter Jackson and his team - the geniuses behind the fantastic Get Back documentary, which expanded and improved on the original Let It Be film - were able to use some proprietary tech to make it work. (SIDENOTE: This is the “AI” people keep pointing to and it’s worth noting no AI sang or played on the track - it’s just a tool that was used to clarify and separate, so YMMV, but wanted to note that!)
So, with the John vocal track isolated, Paul was able to layer on his parts, as was Ringo (the 2023 versions, natch), and they were able to salvage George’s parts from those 90s recording sessions. In effect, they’d created the “last” Beatles song. Pretty amazing, I think.
Now, as for the song itself - I mentioned this to a friend of mine when it came out…your goal with anything like this is to try and not be just a footnote, right? You want it to be appreciated for itself, as a song, minus the backstory. That’s the challenge, and I think the downfall for a song like “Free As A Bird.”
Let me explain why:
With any kind of posthumous “reunion” record, which tries to recapture the essence and energy of a band that people loved, you need to not only evoke what made the band great, but also feel additive. It’s much harder than it sounds. That’s why, in my opinion, “Free As A Bird” fails. Once the novelty of “wow, a new Beatles song!” wears off, you’re left with something that isn’t really Beatles song, but more of a hodge-podge of solo threads stapled together to mimic a Beatles song. Firstly, there are no Beatles songs in the canon like “Free As A Bird,” and I don’t mean that in a good way. Is it neat to hear George, John, and Paul taking turns at the mic? Sure. But would they ever do that in the studio if they were all alive? It’s hard to think they would, so at best it’s a novelty track like “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number).”
For my money, “Real Love” hewed much closer to what a true Beatles song would sound like - something John, Paul, or George came up with and brought to the others to fine-tune and build upon. The demo for “Real Love” was much more complete - and a version even made it onto John’s own solo Anthology project, IIRC - than “Free As A Bird,” and it shows. Whereas with “Bird” needed entire sections added (the “whatever happened to…” pre-chorus/verse), “Real Love” was a complete song that needed to be cleaned up and augmented. And, for my money, George’s guitar riffing on this song is some of his best - adding a sense of menace and oomph that the song would otherwise lack.
So, where does “Now and Then” fall? In the latter category, for sure. It feels like a complete track, not something created in a lab to scratch your nostalgia itch, even if it kind of is that. It’s lacking the guitar power of “Real Love,” and that’s mainly because George’s contribution is an echo - stitched on from an old riff he hadn’t finalized decades before. It relies mostly on John’s vocal, some very Beatles-y strings, and the core piano/bass/drums, with a Paul-as-George slide riff that feels nice but far from memorable. If “Real Love” feels like peak Beatles (in execution more than overall quality), with each member giving their all, “Now and Then” feels much more like the group at the end, working with whatever/whomever was around - a bit workmanlike and polished, but still memorable and loaded with talent. More “Ballad of John and Yoko” than “Baby You’re A Rich Man.” But even when just clocking in and clocking out, the Beatles were amazing.
Is it a great song? No, but it’s certainly not bad - it’s an album track at best. Something you could imagine yourself listening to on the back half of the White Album or perhaps, more fittingly, on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, like “It’s All Too Much” or “Hey, Bulldog!” (both songs I love, but not necessarily essential). An extra, throwaway. But it’s given much more weight by timing, history, and method. Which I think is fine. If the goal was to create something that felt like a fitting coda to the band and not a weird, morbid singalong, mission accomplished.
Honestly, I’m just happy it exists. I’ll always remember that rush of feeling when I first heard it, with my son sitting next to me. And that means a lot.
And, as I get older, I’ve just stopped worrying about “is this cool” or the concept of “guilty pleasures,” and maybe that’s the big message here - it’s nice when things you like remind you of why you like them, and it doesn’t matter what other people think or if it’s critically okay to like something. The Beatles were a huge part of my childhood and young adulthood and beyond (my kids love them, too), and it was nice to experience the wonder of a new song one last time.
It’s definitely something for me to think about as I revise the follow-up to Secret Identity, Alter Ego, which spends a lot of time in that space - where we wonder about nostalgia and its influence on us, and whether we like something because we used to love it, or because the new thing is pretty good in and of itself. Sometimes, it’s a little bit of both.
ESSENTIAL BEATLES READING LIST
If you’re looking for a quick and dirty guide to the best Beatles books - biographies, discographies, you name it - here are some of my favorites, with a quick explainer:
Shout! The Beatles in their Generation: This is a pretty standard biography, shorter than some and only focuses on their time together as a band. But it’s a great primer and the author has written books on Paul and John, too.
Lennon Remembers: A collection of John’s raw, unfiltered interviews with Rolling Stone right after the band brokeup. I often pair this one with John’s Playboy interviews, conducted days before his murder - reading both gives you a sense of where his head was at during two pivotal times of his life. Fascinating stuff, and compelling bookends to his solo career.
Tell Me Why: The Beatles, album by album, song by song…: I remember really liking this book when I was first getting into the band, and while it hasn’t aged all that well (the author is particularly hard on George), I still think it’s a great deep-dive into not only their music as a band, but how they diverged from it in their respective solo careers.
You Never Give Me Your Money: Perhaps my favorite Beatles book, this is a well-researched and comprehensive look at what really broke up the band - spoiler, it wasn’t another person, and definitely not Yoko. Double spoiler: it was money! It’s one of the essential topics that gets short shrift in most major Beatles books, but is so essential. It’s a quick read, too.
This is just a primer. There are a lot of musical deep-dives that are worth your time, plus insider tell-alls and contemporary reappraisals, but for my money, these are the ones that can get you going and keep you engaged. If you do read any of these, or listen to the playlists I link to, let me know what you think!
And, speaking of the playlists, here’s the idea behind it:
A Doll’s House was a potential name for the record that eventually became The Beatles, or, more commonly, “The White Album.” As a kid, I always wondered about what the band would’ve recorded if they’d stayed together post-Abbey Road (which was released before Let It Be, but was actually their last album together…). I tinkered with playlists and formulas for years (no joke), until I landed on a set of rules that informed the playlist(s) I link to above.
Each song had to be recorded before or during 1969-1974. For me, any output after that period was not tied to the source material, or work they did together, for better or worse.
Extra points if the song featured more than one ex-Beatle, or was a demo from the band that eventually became a solo track. Many of these could be found on the Anthology albums, like “Junk” or “Not Guilty.” Ringo’s eponymous album was also a great treasure trove.
No diss tracks, or response tracks - so no “How Do You Sleep?,” “Dear Friend,” or even “Early 1970.”
Lean into beloved album tracks like “Love” or “Tomorrow.”
No super-obvious solo songs or major hits, or you run the risk of it sounding like a best-of. That means no “Imagine,” or “Band on the Run”-like tunes. “My Sweet Lord” is the one exception, but you can mark that down as the single from the record.
The flow of the record had to evoke a “real” Beatles album. Meaning, mostly Paul and John tracks but a decent amount of George (recognizing his growth as a songwriter), and one or two Ringo tracks.
There would be a single and double-record version. This week I created the “deluxe” version, which includes “Free As A Bird,” “Real Love,” and “Now and Then".”
Also worth noting - the album “art” for the playlist was a discarded album cover for “The White Album.”
Give it a listen and see if it passes muster!
UH, ARE YOU WORKING?
Yes! I’m very busy. Buuuut…I don’t have all that much to report - it’s been a bit of a topsy-turvy week, with one of the kids under the weather and home from school, Halloween, and just the usual churn of deadlines. I’m in the weeds in scripting Dick Tracy #2 with Michael Moreci, spending any NaNoWriMo energy on revisions for Alter Ego, reworking the outline for my Daredevil adult crime novel, plus a bunch of unannounced stuff I refuse to label as PROJECT WHATEVER (no offense to those that do, I just don’t have it in me!). But no complaints! But you didn’t come here for vague stuff, right? So how about an EXXXXXCLUSIVE first look at Dick Tracy #1? Sure, why not! Here’s lineart for page one, by our esteemed artist, Geraldo Borges!
Ominous, noir, and haunting, eh? Who could that silhouette belong to?!
Can’t wait to show you guys more. Stay tuned for an announcement or two relating to the book in a few weeks.
In terms of appearances, I’m doing one more con this year! Motor City Comic Con! If you’re in the area, I’d love to see you. I’ll be selling and signing books and comics (including Secret Identity, Araña/Spider-Man 2099: Dark Tomorrow, Edge of Spider-Verse, Marvel Voices: Comunidades, and more!), so please swing by if you’re around. Excited to see old pals Jamal Igle, Sweeney Boo, and more!
I’ll be doing a few smaller things later this month and December, but they’ll all be local. More on that…
I want to do a deep-dive into the books and comics I’m reading and enjoying (new and old), plus suggest a handful of other Substacks/newsletters you might dig!
Until then, have a great weekend.
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