“Lennon’s rasping voice floated towards us from some faraway echoing place beyond the horizon, or the grave. I didn’t mind being told again about love.” Ian McEwan placed The Beatles in an alternative temporality that allowed them to be reunited. It happens in Machines Like Me. It is 1982, no less: the United Kingdom has lost the Falklands. The dictator Leopoldo Galtieri celebrated the armed victory “in braided hats, campaign ribbons, cavalry boots, and Galtieri on his white horse in a confetti blizzard on the Avenida 25 de Mayo.” The Beatles had returned to the arena after a 12-year break with the background of war drums. Their album Love and Lemons was nonetheless ridiculed because of its excessive use of a symphony orchestra. “Nor did we wish to be told again that love was all we needed, even if it were true, which it was not,” The Times complained.
Four years after the novel was published, we find ourselves with another Beatles comeback, this time supposedly true. “Now and Then”—also of alternative temporality, as we shall see—has provoked mixed feelings in me. An argument between emotion and reason in each listening (and there have been so many). Could it be otherwise? The pact we have with that musical history does not only pass through the filter of an analysis. We let ourselves be carried away by old affections and the power of history as if it could pick up where it had been brought to a close. A heartbreaking song, Lennon’s “God,” closed his first solo album in 1970 with an epitaph and new becoming. “The dream is over / What can I say? / The Dream is over / Yesterday / I was the Dreamweaver / But now I’m reborn.” Now, John Lennon has been reborn from the analog ashes. A dream within a dream.
The plausibility, I admit, does not meet a fundamental requirement: the complicit, synergetic, and at times acrimonious interaction in the studio of the two gravitating forces of The Beatles; nor do George Harrison’s attempts to mediate between Lennon and Paul McCartney. John had recorded the outline of “Now and Then” at home at the age of 37 and in a very precarious manner. An attempt was made to exhume the song 25 years after his murder with the Anthology project. “There was a noticeable buzz that was difficult to remove, the song was missing verses, and the band never finished the backing track, among other problems, mainly due to Harrison’s displeasure,” recalled producer Jeff Lynne. In 1997, McCartney acknowledged that the survivors were a deliberative body and he couldn’t always do what he wanted. “George didn’t like it. The Beatles being a democracy, we didn’t continue with it,” he told Q magazine. “Now and Then” constituted a state of emergency to that imaginary democracy.
Technological advances made it possible to clean up the noise and fatten the voice based on Artificial Intelligence (AI). From that premise, McCartney recomposed “Now and Then” as he had done with the outline of “Strawberry Fields Forever” in 1967, despite Lennon’s obfuscation at the levels of complexity that had been added. At the age of 80, Paul tried in part to do the same and to demonstrate, as evidenced in the documentary Get Back, that he was the vector of the group at least since Pepper. As if to say, once again: The Beatles c’est moi. Of course, this time without John and George, who had barely recorded an acoustic guitar in the first attempt to recover “Now and Then”. A fragment of the original song was removed: “I don’t wanna lose you, oh no, no / Abuse you or confuse you / Oh no, no, sweet darlin’ / But if you have to go, away / If you have to go, well you the reason.” As the refrain had been sung only once (“Now and Then I miss you / Now and Then I want you to be there for me”) there was no choice but to cut and paste.
McCartney disguises this deficit with the first guitar solo, the strings alluded to by McEwan in his novel, and the customary vocal harmonization. This time, Paul was forced to add Ringo Starr to the backing vocals (they were filmed in different locations). As these are the voices of two octogenarians, they had to be placed in the mix in the background. A sign of honesty. In this case, they did not go through the IA patch. McCartney played the slide à la Harrison, as he had done with the electric guitar in Beatles times for practicality and the irritation of the natural soloist, according to the account of Geoff Emerick, the Fab Four’s sound engineer in Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles. The end result adds, beyond its nostalgic and disturbing beauty, a debatable element: “Now and Then” sounds with audio compression levels on bass, piano, drums, and Lennon’s voice itself. It’s the dynamic range manipulation you’d expect from any song these days. Not a Beatles song. Maybe George Martin wouldn’t have gone for it. His son Giles, in charge of mastering Revolver and The White Album, went in the opposite direction.
The Guardian nevertheless considered that the Fab Four’s “final” song “is a moving closing act,” much better than “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love.” The additions to an incomplete song are “seamless.” Beatles-y “signifiers” are all over the place (the characteristic string attacks and countermelody, the instrumental momentum and modal interchange). “If you squint, you could just about imagine that it’s the Beatles playing together.”
But what about our ears? The answer vibrates in the air: all you need is AI. Therein lies the heart of a problem that exceeds the song. Everything that founded the group idea, a principle of combustion capable of igniting the creative fire, is replaced by remote operations and tools. If the Beatles held out a promise of creative horizontalization that undermined the categories of high and low in music (the cover of Pepper was its emblem: there Karl Marx, Buster Keaton, Edgar Allan Poe and Karlheinz Stockhausen could coexist) the Beatles of post-truth extend a line of opacity between the human being and his artifices: Lennon’s clean voice, extracted with gain from a repository sings the song of the new anthrotechnology. “I know it’s true / It’s all because of you.” It is as if he were saying it to the same IA that transformed its materiality based on the stipulated parameters (Paul installs that truth on the stages when he sings a duet with his ex-partner in “I Got a Feeling,” in an invitation to take the refrain of “Now and Then” as certainty: “I want you to be there for me / always to return to me.”)
The humanism of “Eleanor Rigby,” the avant-garde disruption of “A Day in the Life” are replaced by forms of statistical calculation. I will try to explain. We had heard “Now and Then” before it acquired significance as a franchise on the platforms. And I’m not necessarily talking about the demo or the amateur groups that had covered it. Its prior existence was inscribed in the very field of probabilities constituted over more than half a century, and that we could define as the beatle, something more than a style and a tribute. We find it in The Rutles and Oasis or XTC, the best of all. What to say about the solo experiences of McCartney and Harrison imitating themselves. Two examples: “My Brave Face” and “When We Was Fab” (here with Ringo on drums and a bass player dressed as the walrus, while George invites acceptance: “Long time ago when we was fab. But it’s all over now, baby blue”).
Fifty-three years after the dissolution of the greatest group of all time, and a history of repeats of repeats and exponential accumulation of the past, we can only note that the uchronia is consummated at a high symbolic price (an AI version of “Now and Then,” 64 style, is already on YouTube). At one point in the video, we think Paul gets it. The camera takes him in close-up. His gaze exudes melancholy. Something hurts us when the ghosts of John and George appear in the video to accompany the chorus. Paul and his smiling specter. Two Ringos from different eras playing at the same time (which is the real one if, like vampires, he can’t reflect himself in the mirror). The artsy that distinguished the Beatles and their modern condition has surrendered to the artificial.
It is suggestive that the “last song” coincides with the protest of actors and screenwriters in Hollywood who have demanded guarantees against the voracious advance of AI and the danger of being replaced by simulacra. Not only actors and voices can be captured, cloned, and reinvented through deepfakes. Even state leaders are exposed to be transformed into singers, as has happened with Emmanuel Macron. The Canadian visual artist and storyteller Gregory Chatonsky says in this regard that this paradigm of permanent simulation would affect not only human figures, “but the constitution of time itself, which through such a resurrection, very different from Christian theology, would lead us into an eternal return of the same, an eternal return that is idiotic and repeats the statistical average, as distinct from the interpretation of an eternal return of difference that Deleuze or Klossowski had made canonical, so to speak.” How not to review “Now and Then” through that prism?
If the Anthropocene designates the epoch marked by man’s impact on the earth, the Algorocene incorporates an accelerationist redefinition of disaster. The digital reservoir amassed by computers can, with the help of artificial intelligence, turn us into simulacra of John and Paul. Lennon lives no longer refers to a mode of commemoration: it is feasible to be Beatles for a day or to make Javier Milei or Kurt Cobain interpret “And I Love Her”. The pact of verisimilitude that would emerge in each circumstance is terrifying. Music and fake news find their convergence in this path.
From these same procedures and listening arrangements, the Beatles will be able to self-generate based on stored information and the most imaginative program, to continue after the fans vanish from the face of the earth, or what is left of it. They will be children of statistics and configurations that facilitate permanence by other means: series of series, music of music imitating the past world. If this were so, there would never be a last Beatle (as in that story by Leopoldo Marechal). Living species disappear in proportions and at a speed never seen before on Earth as a consequence of technical activities. The Fab, on the other hand, could remain dormant in a data bank.
“It’s not just that we’re teaching AIs to create images, texts and sounds that resemble us, it’s that we resemble them, and in contrast to reactionary rhetoric, we want nothing more than to actively alienate ourselves. We don’t believe in making AI readable through transparent code, nor in cutting and separating ourselves from these flows to regain an imaginary autonomy and sovereignty. We want to experience that what we believe ourselves to be is also a product of technology and its paradoxical reproduction. We are the resumption,” Chatonsky reflects when analyzing the recent presentation of the Belgian singer Angèle at the festival of the left-wing newspaper L’Humanité in Paris. She took the stage preceded by one of the irrepressible effects of this normality.
Last August, a Nancy-based producer, Lnkhey, posted on YouTube a remix of a song by two French rappers, “Saiyan,” but with Angèle’s cloned voice. Lnkhey used the free software Retrieval-based-Voice. The gimmick was heard by millions of people. “I don’t know what to think about artificial intelligence, I think it’s madness, but at the same time I’m afraid for my job, merde,” the singer reacted on TikTok. She then lip-synced over her simulated voice. Angèle received so many requests on the networks that finally, when she took the stage in Paris on September 17, she finally sang “Saiyan” by Gazo and Heuss l’Enfoiré. The enthusiastic audience added their chorus while filming the scene and taking a selfie.
AI lacks (for now) a theory of taste. It is a replicating force that can go from Lennon to Bad Bunny. The reggaetonero has just exploded in anger at the realization that a song that uses his and Daddy Yankee’s voice artificially was a resounding success. “If you guys like that shitty song that’s going viral on TikTok, get out of this group right now. You guys don’t deserve to be my friends,” he raged on his streaming channel. “Slowly, slowly, la nostalgia está viniendo,” it is sung. This garbage circulated precisely under the title “NostalgIA,” with millions of reproductions.
Academic composer Daniele Ghisi did something similar for the show La Fabrique des Monstres: generating musical textures using generative models from a corpus of contemporary lieders. A computer model underwent a learning process. The monstrous as an interchangeable capital.
Possessing a voice, an image.
Literature has offered us some anticipations. In Le Château des Carpathes, Jules Verne recounts the delirious efforts of a music lover, the Baron de Gortz, to keep alive his favorite lyric singer, Stilla. Electricity and mechanics, portents of the late 21st century, will enable him to preserve her voice. The dilettante Gortz had gone into despair when he learned that she was going to leave the music scene and become the wife of Count Franz Télek. A mad scientist, Orfanik, proposed to him to collect by means of a phonograph the main pieces of her repertoire.
“This instrument had reached a high state of perfection at this period, and Orfanik; had so improved it that the human voice underwent no change, and lost none of its charm or purity.”
As if it were a digitization.
So it was that on its plates cavatinas, opera, and concert pieces were recorded, as well as the melodies before Stilla’s death while performing in a Neapolitan theater. Her truncated singing. Gortz locked himself in his castle in the Carpathian Mountains, and there, every night, he could hear her as well as see her through a set of reflective mirrors of a hyper-realistic painting of the singer with her flowing hair and arms stretched skyward.
“Is it hard for you to accept such a mechanical and artificial system for the reproduction of life?” who speaks this way is not Orfanik, but another scientist, decades later, and he does so in The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares. The main character, the Fugitive, begins to discover what is happening on the island when the inventor reveals to the tourists that he has been recording their actions of the previous week with a machine of his invention that is capable of reproducing reality. The recording will capture their souls. By replaying it, they will be able to relive that week forever.
Morel notes in his diary something that resonates in “Now and Then”:
The thing that is latent in a phonograph record, the thing that is revealed when I press a button and turn on the machine —shouldn’t we call that ‘life? Shall I insist, like the mandarins of China, that every life depends on a button which an unknown being can press? And you yourselves—how many times have you wondered about mankind’s destiny, or asked the old questions: ‘Where are we going? Like the unheard music that lies latent in a phonograph record, where are we until God orders us to be born?