The Beatles – “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” (1995-1996)

History: While work was happening on the Beatles Anthology documentary and associated album releases, there was debate on whether the surviving Beatles should record new music. With a strong desire to not do anything called The Beatles without John, they reached out to Yoko for any unreleased recordings, and she provided them with some demos. Jeff Lynne produced the tracks and also provided some guitar and backing vocals.

My own personal history: There’s no need for a prediction here because I know these two songs very well. If there was no Beatles Anthology, there would probably be no blog, as the special is what turned me from a casual fan of their music to a full blown fanatic. It made me go from thinking that Paul must be my favorite Beatle because he was kind of cute to proclaiming John was my favorite because he was the one most like me. I watched the version taped off the television for a few years until I could afford to buy the VHS boxset with extra scenes, and then eventually upgraded to the DVD version with even more content to pour over. I have bored my best friend trying to get her to watch it and my husband has become an expert by proxy for having been in the house when I decide to go through it all one more time. He’s also the reason this post exists, by the way, insisting that since these singles were released after “The End” they would count for this blog and therefore I should talk about them.

Review: I feel like beginning with the music video for “Free as Bird” makes the most sense, as it was the first way I experienced the song. What an absolute feast for the eyes, a moving, breathing collage of so many Beatles references, it was exactly what I needed at that age because I felt so clever as I began to recognize more and more of them. It’s also a marvel of technology for the time period, the filter being placed on the film helping to blend in the older images with the new in a way that is almost seamless. Yes, in this day and age you can see some of those seams, but for the most part it all looks really good. It’s also a wonderful tribute to them as a whole, incorporating so much delightful imagery that they gave us in their songs.

As for the song itself, I do almost have a hard time separating it from that video, it’s sort of like when I hear songs from Help! I’m inevitably thinking about where they fit in the movie. But I think the song is still strong enough to hold itself up on its own. It’s an interesting composition as there is something about it that should be melancholy, but I rarely ever think of it that way. The music is certainly there, not exactly a feel good number, but maybe it’s the talk of freedom that makes me think more of peaceful times than sad times. It’s also such an interesting choice they made, the only Beatles song to feature three lead vocals. On one hand it feels out of character – yes, the three of them sung together plenty of times, and John and Paul traded leads, but this is only time they do it this way. On the other hand, I think that if you know what led George from walking away from the band, it makes sense that something like this may have been the only way they could have moved forward. I can imagine that it was a simultaneous desire for George to feel more included here, as well as his recent experiences with sharing the lead in The Traveling Wilburys that helped them get to this idea. Of course it also begs the question why Ringo couldn’t have had a turn?

I know some people complain about Jeff Lynne’s production of both of these, but personally it doesn’t bother me. His style is so compatible with the Beatles sound, and thanks to the fact that he’s worked with both George and Ringo before this, it also helps it all feel more like the modern versions of them as well. He’ll work with Paul solo soon enough too.

“Real Love” I don’t like as much as I do “Free as a Bird” but of course that isn’t to say I don’t like it at all. I think if anything the technology limitations really suffer more on this one, with John and his piano being on the same mono recording and he ends up pitched up because of their choice to speed up the tape. Of course it’s not unheard of for the Beatles to do this on their past recordings, but here it feels less like experimentation and more like trying to hide tape hiss. Looking back on it now, knowing how they were able to clean up the Get Back documentary, you do wish that these collaborations were done in a more modern era, or at least that someone would completely remaster them now with that in mind.

That said, the video for “Real Love” really makes me smile, with its combination of old and new recording clips as well as shots of all of them with their wives. This was the first time viewing it that I realized the shot of Ringo playing with Barbara behind him was from Give My Regards to Broad Street. I also just really love seeing all the shots of George and Olivia together, they just look so wonderfully happy. It also made me think of the “Off the Ground” music video with the instruments flying in the air rather than Paul and his bandmates. I liked the way they took the clips of the people looking up toward the rooftop concert and made it look like they are watching the instruments floating in air.

It’s sort of amazing to me that at the time I never even considered that logically there should have been a third song that would have been included on the third Anthology set, but I guess I was just so happy to have two new Beatles songs that I never even considered it. Apparently “Now and Then” was in even worse condition than “Real Love” was, and its poor quality is what largely led to them dropping the idea. Given how oddly ethereal John sounds on that one, I think I’m okay with the idea that they didn’t continue. However there are still rumors and occasional teases from Paul that they may take a now more cleaned up version with guitar from George from those scrapped sessions and eventually complete it, so we will see if that ever happens in their lifetimes.

Next Time: Paul continues to reminisce a little by naming his next album Flaming Pie.

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