AI can make every Beatles fan’s dreams come true, but should it?

It is a notion that may seem inherently disturbing to some fans: a cherished group who broke up 53 years ago, with only two members still living, being resurrected by the power of technology

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Paul McCartney has announced the Beatles will be back, with one final song, completed with the assistance of artificial intelligence. It is a notion that may seem inherently disturbing to some fans: a cherished group who broke up 53 years ago, with only two members still living, being resurrected by the power of technology. It’s Chat, Paul, Bard and Ringo, the refabricated Four (& a ½).

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Yet before we get too dystopian about Beatle Bots and visions of Lucy In The SkyNet with Rhinestones, it is worth taking a closer look at what is actually happening.

The song is Now and Then, originally recorded on cassette as a rough piano demo by John Lennon in 1978, two years before his murder. It is a very lo fidelity recording, with background hiss, featuring Lennon playing a ploddingly sombre piano part and singing a sweetly melancholy melody in a soft falsetto, drifting into vague mumbles to fill out unfinished lyrics. The tone is of loving apology, and it include the immortal couplets: “If you have to go / Nda-da-doo doo doo” and “I wanna de ne dunna dee / I du duh return to me.”

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A cassette was later passed to McCartney by Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, with John’s handwritten note stating simply “For Paul”. It lends a touching aspect to a song which could be interpreted as addressing the relationship between the two old collaborators: “Now and then I miss you / Now and then I want you to return to me”.

The three surviving Beatles already made a pass at turning it into a new Beatles song for the Anthology project in 1995. According to producer Jeff Lynne, they spent a day creating a “backing track, a rough go that we really didn’t finish.” McCartney later claimed that Harrison had declared the song “rubbish”, leading them to abandon it.

Since the death of Harrison in 2001, that “democratic” power base has shifted. “That one’s still lingering about,” McCartney noted in 2012, who promised to “finish it, one of these days.”

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Well, the day has arrived, because the technology has improved. AI has become a handy but often misused term for all kinds of advances in computer programming. McCartney has not fed Lennon’s lyrics into ChatGPT to fill out the blanks, nor has he employed a vocal emulator to create a facsimile of Lennon’s voice, both of which would be possible now.

McCartney has actually used technology developed for Peter Jackson’s 2021 Get Back documentary, where computers were trained to recognise Beatle voices and separate them from background noises and other instruments to create “clean” audio. Isolating and beefing up Lennon’s vocal means that the original demo could be brought up to contemporary studio standards, with McCartney himself finishing off the song. Harrison, despite his reported views will also feature, with parts recorded in 1995.

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Yet, as Jeff Goldblum’s worried scientist said in Jurassic Park: “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” There is growing controversy about fake pop created using AI emulators of existing stars such as Drake, Rihanna and Kanye West.

As it stands, copyright laws make it difficult to monetise AI when it is imitating living artists. Entirely AI generated pop, on the other hand, could soon be flooding streaming sites as a kind of AI muzak, offering cheaply licensed alternatives to human content. And there are concerns about rights holders for deceased legacy stars licensing AI cloned voices. We already have remixed albums of stars from Elvis Presley to Billie Holiday, with new contemporary or orchestral backings. Could we soon be facing entirely new music purportedly by Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse or even The Beatles, without the involvement of their last surviving members, McCartney and Ringo Starr?

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Would the late George Harrison have signed off on this, as his estate must have done? What would John Lennon make of such an informal, work-in-progress vocal being blasted out across the whole world as a grace note to his stellar career?

McCartney himself acknowledged reservations about the use of AI in music. “It’s kind of scary but exciting, because it’s the future. We’ll just have to see where that leads.” But we are already standing at the precipice of something that will almost certainly change pop music forever.

In the meantime, Beatles fans have one last chance to hear the four members of a beloved group adding a new song to their incredible canon. A sad ballad of loyalty and reconciliation, it could provide a sweet coda to the Beatles story. Let’s be honest, every Beatle fan wants to hear it. McCartney has called it “the final Beatles record.” But is it really? Or another step towards an AI pop future in which careers never end but keep proliferating in ever more adulterated computer generation iterations. Perhaps it really is time for the Beatles to just let it be.

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