Michael Webb/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The Beatles on stage at the London Palladium during a performance in 1963.
Editor’s note: Jere Hester is a journalist and the author of Raising a Beatle Baby. He is Director of Editorial Projects and Partnerships at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. The opinions in this comment are his own. For more opinion pieces, visit CNN.
Who is the fifth Beatle?
John Smock/Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY
The debate over who deserves the made-up title has raged among Fab Four fans for six decades, with frontrunners ranging from the group’s producer, Sir George Martin, to their manager, Brian Epstein, to hapless early band member Stuart Sutcliffe.
But now there’s a contender for 21st-century glory: artificial intelligence.
Sir Paul McCartney’s revelation on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ program that AI-assisted manipulations of John Lennon’s vocals helped complete ‘the last Beatles record’ promises to spark another heated debate – one about the technology which threatens to mess up the music just as much as “I Want”. To Hold Your Hand did it all those years ago.
Some may hear prescient hints of Lennon singing “Nothing is real” on Strawberry Fields Forever. But to pick up another line from the classic, there’s no need to get hung up on it — in fact, McCartney’s announcement is cause for celebration.
The Beatles will give us another recording to cherish while also returning to where they once belonged: leading the latest music revolution with their apparent swan song.
McCartney didn’t go into detail, but gave no indication that the AI created anything out of thin air. Film director Peter Jackson, who used AI technology to recover vast amounts of muddy footage for the epic 2021 documentary The Beatles: Get Back, this time, according to McCartney, “managed to free John’s voice from a flimsy piece of cassette tape “.
As the BBC notes, the ‘new’ Beatles song due for release later this year is likely ‘Now and Then’. The ballad was among the homemade Lennon demos given to McCartney by Yoko Ono, Lennon’s widow. But unlike “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” – songs the band was able to complete and release in 1995 and 1996 – the Beatles stopped work on “Now and Then” and never released it.
The band faced some criticism when they released two songs years after Lennon’s assassination in 1980. But they simply followed their longstanding practice: they used the latest technology to push the boundaries of creativity.
In their early days, the Beatles sometimes had double track chants. Just before they quit touring in 1966, they turned the recording studio into a veritable mad scientist’s music laboratory — running vocals (“Rain”) and guitar lines (“I’m Only Sleeping”) backwards to achieve the landmark 1967″ sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album with trippy loops and other innovations that changed the course of popular music.
Abbey Road, the last album the Beatles recorded, featured some of the earliest uses of the Moog synthesizer in rock – including Here Comes the Sun, which registered its billionth stream on Spotify last month.
The group’s enthusiasm for technology and experimentation is an integral part of the songs, which to new ears sound as fresh as they were when they were released decades ago.
Still, it’s unsettling to see “AI” in a headline with “The Beatles” — especially given fears that the rapidly evolving technology is far more disruptive than the music.
But in the right hands – in this case, the hands of Jackson and McCartney – AI can be a tool that works magic.
McCartney is also smart about staying ahead of the competition, as the internet is quickly filling up with machine-created songs that feature the synthesized voices of the Beatles and other top artists. Some of the digital inventions are disturbingly mechanical, while others are uncannily fascinating. And the technology keeps getting better.
McCartney and Ringo Starr have proven careful stewards of the group’s work, supporting Jackson’s documentary and album remixes that offer new insights into the Beatles’ creative process.
Let’s hope the surviving Beatles, Ono and George Harrison’s widow Olivia, will make it clear to their younger loved ones that they want to preserve the band’s legacy. Let’s also hope they leave room for future technological advances that are as unimaginable to us today as AI for four working-class boys born in 1940s Liverpool.
Meanwhile, those of us living in 2023 will soon be lucky enough to hear the Beatles get together for one last hooray – with a little help from a friend named AI.