Graham Reid | | 5 min read
For many years, rolling into decades even, whenever Paul McCartney was talking up another of his largely indifferent new solo albums he'd drop in the possibility that the lost Beatles' track Carnival of Light might perhaps get released.
“You never know, you know,” became the refrain with a wink.
Carnival of Light is the Holy Grail for Beatle fanatics, but the inconvenient fact is that the few who've heard it have been utterly dismissive: it was just a knockabout 14 minute jam by the Beatles in early 1967 – probably more than a little stoned – to be played at a psychedelic event in London.
Charitably described as “avant-garde”, it seems destined never to be released, largely because no one other than McCartney – who could produce it as evidence of his progressive tendencies into musique concrete a year or so before Lennon – thought it worthy of the Beatles' name.
Carnival of Light disappeared from the conversational radar when the first Anthology collection came along in 1995, because now there was another talking point: a new Beatles' song Free As a Bird.
Yoko Ono had given McCartney some of Lennon's late Seventies home demos and among them was the incomplete Free As a Bird which McCartney took to Harrison and Starr.
With studio enhancement, Harrison's distinctive slide guitar, the addition of McCartney's rather wistfully nostalgic central section -- “Whatever happened to the life that we once knew? Can we really live without each other? Where did we lose the touch that seemed to mean so much? It always made me feel so . . .” – it polished up as a more than halfway decent Beatles' song.
Although it rarely makes it into anyone's top 100.
As a teaser for the Anthology series – and accompanied by a classy video clip – it drew attention to that first instalment of Beatle treasures for aficionados.
For Anthology 2 in 1996 the same trick didn't work quite so well because Lennon's Real Love demo – which had floated about in a slightly different version on the 1988 Imagine soundtrack – was a very slight piece.
By the time the third and final instalment of the Anthology series rolled out the proposed “new” song from Lennon demos – either Grow Old With Me which was dropped because had appeared on Lennon's posthumous Milk and Honey in '84, or Now And Then -- had been shelved.
Harrison in particular felt Now And Then was an unworthy piece of little musical or lyrical consequence. The demo which was on You Tube would confirm his assessment, although you can hear the elements of a decent song in there just needing to be chivvied out (although the clip of that has been quickly deleted).
The Threetles had done some work on it in '95 – Harrison just playing acoustic guitar – but the song, which Harrison was increasingly dismissive as time went on (he called it “fucking rubbish,” according to McCartney later), went unfinished and unreleased.
And -- as with the Free as a Bird and Real Love teasers for the first two Anthology collections – there is a commercial imperative: the much expanded reissue of the '73 compilations The Beatles: 1963-66 (known as the Red Album because of the red frame around the cover photo) and The Beatles: 1967-1970 (the Blue Album).
Now And Then will be included on the Blue Album which, like the Red Album, includes a number of other songs (Harrison much better represented) and the former double vinyl albums now become triple sets.
And what of Now And Then?
Current AI developed during Peter Jackson's making of the Get Back film from the original Let It Be film footage, has allowed Lennon's voice to be isolated in way previously impossible.
It's said Harrison's objection in the late Nineties was that the quality of the Lennon recording was so bad you couldn't hear the vocals properly.
His widow Olivia says had he been around George would have happily worked on Now And Then given the technological improvements. Perhaps.
That said, some may see it as gilding the lily and perhaps even a bit dishonest for McCartney to contribute a slide guitar part in the Harrison style on a song his late bandmate hadn't wanted to be a part of.
It adds a cachet Harrison might have objected to, although McCartney describes it as a tribute to George.
Lyrically, Now And Then is another of Lennon's sentimental late period apology/love/gratitude songs to Yoko.
In another forum I'd cruelly likened it, in its raw version, to that scene in the Rutles where Dirk McQuickly (McCartney) sits at the piano writing vacuous, unfinished and cliched love songs for his unimpressed and indifferent new wife (played by Bianca Jagger) .
However the raw material polishes up unexpectedly well and again we must salute McCartney's considerable nouse and understanding of what this final legacy project means to him and Beatle fans. And Ringo's drumming is neatly understated with just a couple of his singular, signature fills.
There are beautiful moments as when Lennon announces “I will love you” before the song rises into what passes for a middle passage like a Badfinger ballad. The “I miss you” there is just heartbreaking.
Perhaps it feels like a superior late-period solo Lennon song than a Beatles track, but it's a beautiful song either way in its simplicity, eloquence and heartfelt emotion.
It certainly doesn't disgrace the Beatles remarkable catalogue and – billed as the final Beatles' single -- sits comfortably in the posthumous lineage of Free As a Bird and Real Love, better than the latter which plods and on a par with the former (which might also now benefit from an AI upgrade?).
Now And Then is a far better full stop on the Beatles remarkable – and remarkably short recording career, just seven years which have become lifetimes – than Real Love.
Backed with a version of their 1962 debut single Love Me Do, theNow And Then single (in 7'' and 12'' iterations) closes the circle in a more than satisfactory way.
And we never need hear about Carnival of Light again.
For your amusement here is some wag's version of how it might have been played on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. Skip to one minute in if you want to avoid "fake Ed Sullivan" doing his intro.
And, if you are curious here's another recent treatment of the song by a group called Apple Jam who were sharp enough to get in first and it sounds even more like how Badfinger might have done it.