Recorded back then, a top 10 hit now: The Beatles’ “Now and Then” has returned the music legends to the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100, debuting at No. 7 on this week’s chart. Billed as the final Beatles song, “Now and Then” was first recorded as a demo by John Lennon in 1977, and was completed decades later by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, with George Harrison’s guitar parts also incorporated into the final track.
With the No. 7 debut, “Now and Then” becomes The Beatles’ 35th top 10 hit, and their first in 27 years. What does the future hold for “Now and Then” as viewed within the context of the band’s catalog? And will more classic artists try to revive older demos with newer technology? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.
1. On a scale of 1-10 – 1 being crushed, 10 being elated – how excited should Beatles fans be about a No. 7 Hot 100 debut for “Now and Then,” considering the fanfare surrounding the release of the “final Beatles song”?
Eric Renner Brown: A 7? A 3? I’m not sure. It’s like that Don Draper “I don’t think of you at all” meme from Mad Men – I doubt fans are as invested in The Beatles’ performance on the chart as pop stans are for their favorites, and for executives, the part of the equation where chart position indicates current popularity or aids future success isn’t relevant here. It’s The Beatles! I doubt Hot 100 position matters much to them or their fans.
Gil Kaufman: 5 – Have to give it a neutral rating because, on the one hand, true Beatlebums have to be gobsmacked that a “new” song from their beloved band didn’t come in at No. 1! How in this universe could this song not top EVERY chart across the universe after such a long wait?! Then again, in the streaming era of the here today/gone later today music machine, a dusty, mechanically manipulated, decades-old demo of a sleepy song they rejected at least once before charting at all is pretty sweet, all considering.
Jason Lipshutz: An 8. “Now and Then” received a high-profile rollout and release, and obviously The Beatles remain culturally enormous, but still, this is a polished demo that was originally recorded over 40 years ago, so a top 10 debut is pretty remarkable. I only docked two points because landing at No. 1 on the Hot 100 with “Now and Then” would have not only been surreal for the Fab Four, but also extended their record of Hot 100 chart-toppers – the Beatles still have the most at 20 No. 1s, but every year, modern artists like Taylor Swift and Drake creep closer to that mark.
Joe Lynch: A 9. As a lifelong Beatles devotee who liked but didn’t love “Now and Then,” I was still pretty excited to see this peak. It’s wild that 59 years after their first Hot 100 chart-topper they’re going top 10 with a new song. Hopes for it going No. 1 were a bit unreasonable: its Thursday release meant that first-week interest was split into two tracking periods (since the weekly charts begin a new tracking period each Friday); plus, it’s not exactly radio catnip, being a more melancholic tune than an earworm. (And really, does anyone think this deserves to be a new No. 1 in the Beatles catalog, which is regarded with almost Biblical reverence?) A top 10 entry – their record-extending 35th – is a perfect peak for this song.
Katie Atkinson: I’ll go with a 7 for No. 7! Yes, this was the “final Beatles song,” but there were also quite a few factors working against it, like its international premiere coming on Thursday morning, almost a full day before the U.S. chart tracking week begins. Plus, this is not an upbeat, poppy Beatles song. It’s emotional, yes, but not as melodically memorable as The Beatles’ biggest hits, or as their ’90s song releases. All things considered, I think a top 10 debut is a big win.
2. “Now and Then” debuts in the top 10 with 11 million streams, 2.1 million in radio reach and 73,000 physical and digital singles in its first full week. Do you think the song enjoyed a one-week burst in attention, or could you see it persisting as a new hit?
Eric Renner Brown: I’ve been wrong before, but this feels like a one-week burst in attention. I wouldn’t consider myself a Beatles obsessive, but I’m certainly a huge fan – the listen-to-all-the-demos-on-the-new-reissues tier fan – and “Now and Then” feels… completely inessential to me. The Beatles’ sound isn’t exactly in the zeitgeist either, currently. I don’t see it catching steam as a genuine hit, and I don’t see diehards listening to it enough to sustain a strong chart position.
Gil Kaufman: I think this track was lucky to come in with those numbers, which, honestly, feel tame-to-flop-ish considering the relentless hype around it. Keep in mind that a week before, a “From the Vault” song from Taylor Swift’s 1989 (Taylor’s Version), “Is It Over Now (Taylor’s Version),” debuted with 32 million streams and 4.7 million radio airplay impressions. Yes, she is a modern star, but The Beatles are forever stars – so given the tepid reaction, this song feels like a novelty with short legs that will slowly fade after the initial hype.
Jason Lipshutz: Probably a one-week burst, but since I’m generally in favor of “Now and Then” as a pop artifact, I could see the song performing well on streaming and sales platforms, and scoring a few scattered radio plays, over the next few months. Unreleased Beatles songs don’t come around very often, and “Now and Then” could catch on – maybe not as a new hit, but as a totem of fan appreciation, that spends extended time near the top of their catalog’s streams and sales figures.
Joe Lynch: I don’t think it’s going to disappear into nothingness. Interest in the song, and its inclusion on the expanded edition of the so-called Beatles Blue Album, will linger as the curious and the fanatical revisit what’s been promised as the final Beatles song. Do I think it will persist as a “hit”? No. As Christmas music encroaches on the Hot 100 and excitement over this song wanes, its Hot 100 life will be akin to Jimmy Nicol’s time with the Fab Four.
Katie Atkinson: I’m thinking a one-week burst, though I imagine radio could hang around on certain formats (that is, if all of the AC stations playing it haven’t already made the switch to holiday music). As an aside, I hope Beatles fans aren’t sleeping on the new Red and Blue Album greatest-hits revamps that came out last week too, because the updated audio on those classic songs makes it sound like hearing them for the first time. If “Now and Then” just has a one-week pop of interest, those collections deserve to be an in-demand holiday gift over the next month-plus and years to come.
3. What were your expectations for “Now and Then” – and now that you’ve had over a week to experience it, would you say that the song met them?
Eric Renner Brown: I had no expectations. We have so many brilliant Beatles songs that aren’t going anywhere, and getting more – beyond the expanded reissues, which have troves of fascinating, curio-level demos and outtakes – was never a possibility I considered seriously. I can’t say that I’m disappointed, because I didn’t have any hopes for the song. But my lack of anticipation hasn’t made this a pleasantly-surprised-by-default situation. There’s an uncanny valley aspect to the whole endeavor that just makes me feel weird. Maybe I’d feel differently if the song was good enough to make me look past that.
Gil Kaufman: Knowing what I knew about the song, and then learned about its creation pre-release, it’s pretty much what I expected. It’s no revelation or holy grail, but it is a nice, sweet coda to the greatest rock story of all time. It didn’t change any perceptions or reveal anything monumental, but it sure was nice to hear Lennon’s vocals one last time. I wasn’t expecting that much and it lived up to those expectations. Won’t turn it off if it comes on, but won’t go looking for it, either.
Jason Lipshutz: My expectations were pretty low for “Now and Then” – they usually are for excavated demos – so to have the song join my regular rotation and bask in its pensive beauty has been quite the pleasant surprise. “Now and Then” is not a Beatles classic, but it was never going to be; instead, we have a collection of lovely melodies and luxurious production, packaged as a coda in 2023 but likely going to last as a charming deep cut in the years to come.
Joe Lynch: As someone who greets the inevitable onslaught of AI-assisted resurrections with a grim resolution, I was relieved. AI was only used to clean up imperfections on shoddy tape, not to recreate or mimic anyone’s voice or guitar. (Incidentally, AI was used in precisely the same way on Peter Jackson’s justly celebrated Get Back documentary in 2021.) The song itself lacks the immediate melodicism that one associates with the Beatles, even on their filler tracks, but it’s likable in a swan song-y way. Given that my expectations existed in the space between dread and anxiety, I’m happy the song is well-intentioned, well-executed and solid. And for anyone claiming this is a stain on their legacy, well, you’re clearly not familiar with the 1982 abomination “The Beatles’ Movie Medley,” a Capitol-sanctioned single that somehow hit No. 12 on the Hot 100.
Katie Atkinson: I didn’t have any expectations about what it would sound like, but I was surprised that it’s such a quiet song. I now understand why “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” got the nod as the ’90s song releases, because they’re more in line with some of The Beatles’ poppier songs, but I was mostly impressed by the emotional wallop of “Now and Then.” The way it was set up with the mini-documentary and the backstory about how all four Beatles contributed to the song over the decades was so poignant. It feels like an unexpectedly sweet gift from a band that truly owes fans nothing more than they’ve already brought to the world.
4. Considering that “Now and Then” scored a top 10 debut after it was first recorded as a demo in 1977, and completed decades later thanks to new technology, do you think we’re about to see an influx of classic artists using AI and modern software to perfect and release older material?
Eric Renner Brown: I fully expect there to be an influx, especially considering the swell in repurposing old hits for new ones. Audiences are more nostalgic now than ever. So many classic artists are gone, and the ones who are still around aren’t getting any younger. But ultimately, I don’t see this method being any more successful long-term on the charts than the outtakes dumps we see on reissues – that is to say, I don’t expect them to be successful, really. Many truly great artists achieved that distinction in part through outstanding quality control, and I think that when listeners dig beyond what artists released, they quickly discover previously unreleased material was shelved for a reason. Put another way: The Beatles could only debut at No. 7, and with a solid song. What “new” song from a classic artist would have a bigger draw than a “new,” respectable Beatles song?
Gil Kaufman: Probably, but this feels like such a unique, one-off kind of thing I hope we don’t start digging into the crates for unfinished songs from beloved artists that won’t significantly add to their legacies, if not outright despoil them. A good friend who is a major rock band manager once told me, “If they didn’t release it as a single or even include it 11 tracks deep, you probably don’t need/want to hear it.”
Jason Lipshutz: Probably, although most of those attempts won’t likely achieve the chart impact of “Now and Then,” simply because no other artists possess The Beatles’ timeless stature. If technology allows artists to revisit garbled or incomplete material and freshen it up, though, they should do it, by all means. Why leave something on the cutting room floor if you feel like you now have the tools and desire to make it presentable to the world?
Joe Lynch: Absolutely. Anyone pretending AI isn’t going to change the reissue/remaster/catalog game has their head in the sand. I fear – well, let’s be honest, know – that ethical questions about dead artists and AI will be secondary to profitability, but I’m heartened to see that in this case, everyone’s priorities seemed straight. AI was used to improve a worn-out tape, not to create anything new. Fingers crossed that those in charge of the estates of our late icons take the same care when using AI for potential future releases.
Katie Atkinson: It is exciting to think that this technology could salvage spotty archival audio from late legends, especially with the blessing of living collaborators and family members like in this case. I think hearing those two letters – “AI” – from Paul McCartney in an interview months ago scared a lot of music purists, but seeing this materialize feels like the best-case scenario for how the technology can be used.
5. Fill in the blank: the long-dormant artist who I’d be most excited to get a “final” new song from would be _______.
Eric Renner Brown: Robert Johnson… there have to be more 78s out there somewhere.
Gil Kaufman: Kurt Cobain. Duh. Despite my previous answer.
Jason Lipshutz: Daft Punk. If our favorite French robots unveiled one final dance single before officially hanging up their helmets, I would expect a full-on, five-alarm banger. Let’s hope that they have even more than that for us someday, though.
Joe Lynch: Led Zeppelin. The reissues have shown us that plenty of material was left on the floor, and there’s gotta be some bonkers Bonzo drumming out there that the remaining three-fourths of the band could finish off.
Katie Atkinson: Freddie Mercury with Queen. Knowing how active the band has remained, just wrapping up a new tour with Adam Lambert, the idea of getting to hear Freddie’s restored vocals on one more bombastic Queen hit is very tempting.
Powered by Billboard.