Before the Anthology project, the closest The Beatles had come to reuniting while all four members were still alive was during the recording of Starr's 1973 Ringo album when they all worked on tracks, though Lennon and McCartney did not work together.
The idea of redoing some of Lennon's old songs apparently was inspired by former Beatles road manager Neil Aspinall and Harrison, who first requested some old demos from Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono. Then, in January 1994, McCartney came to New York City for Lennon's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. While there, he received at least four songs from Ono. According to Aspinall, it was "two cassettes" which "might have been five or six tracks." Producer Jeff Lynne spent over a week editing the track to remove tape hiss and clicks before being transfered to DAT and expanded to 48 track form.
The song ends with a coda which includes a strummed ukulele by George and the voice of John played backwards. The message, when played in reverse, is "Turned out nice again". The final result sounds like "made by John Lennon", which, according to Paul, was unintentional and was only discovered after the surviving Beatles reviewed the final mix.
"It was all settled before then, I just used that occasion to hand over the tapes personally to Paul. I did not break up The Beatles, but I was there at the time, you know? Now I'm in a position where I could bring them back together and I would not want to hinder that. It was kind of a situation given to me by fate." - Yoko Ono
"It's going to be a bit spooky hearing a dead guy on lead vocal. But give it a try." - Sean Lennon, to Paul McCartney
"I said to Yoko, 'Don't impose too many conditions on us, it's really difficult to do this, spiritually. We don't know, we may hate each other after two hours in the studio and just walk out. So don't put any conditions, it's tough enough. If it doesn't work out, you can veto it.' When I told George and Ringo I'd agreed to that they were going, 'What? What if we love it?' It didn't come to that, luckily." - Paul McCartney
"It was very difficult and one of the hardest jobs I've ever had to do because of the nature of the source material. It was very primitive sounding, to say the least. Free As A Bird however, wasn't as quarter as noisy as Real Love, and only a bit of EQ was needed to cure most problems. I spent about a week at my own studio cleaning up both tracks on my computer. So it took a lot of work to get it all in time so that the others could play to it." - Jeff Lynne
"It came to the backing harmonies and George said to me 'Jeff is such a big Beatles fan, he'd love to get on this record, he'd just die! Even if he goes 'hey!' he can then say he was on it'. And I was a little bit reluctant. I'm a bit sort of precious, a bit private about who's in the Beatles and we didn't do too badly on that philosophy. Even when Billy Preston came in I was in two minds. The others were so definite that I went with their thinking, as I always did, because I knew they had right-on opinions. Well Ringo says 'You know why ELO broke up? They ran out of Beatles riffs.' One off Jeff's great prides is that he met John once - obviously a huge fan of John's - and John said 'I really like all that ELO stuff man.' That was the highspot of Jeff's life! He was vindicated. John said it was alright! So we got Jeff on Free As A Bird." - Paul McCartney
- 1977 (John Lennon's original demo)
- February-March, 1994 (additional editing, instrumentation, and vocals by Paul, George, & Ringo)
- #2, charted 8 weeks (UK)
- #6, Billboard Hot 100 (US)
- Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, 1997
- Grammy Award for Best Short Form Music Video, 1997