Free As A Bird (Lennon/McCartney/Harrison/Starr)
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 transferred 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
“I kind of told them I wasn’t too happy with putting them together with the dead John. I’ve got nothing wrong with dead John but the idea of having dead John with live Paul and Ringo and George to form a group, it didn’t appeal to me too much. In the same way that I think it’s okay to find an old record of Nat King Cole’s and bring it back to life and issue it, but to have him singing with his daughter is another thing. So I don’t know, I’m not fussy about it but it didn’t appeal to me very much. I think I might have done it if they asked me, but they didn’t…I thought what they did was terrific; it was very very good indeed. I don’t think I would have done it like that if I had produced it.
…The way they did it you must remember the material they had to deal with was very difficult. It was a cassette that John had placed on top of his piano, played and sang. The piano was louder than the voice, and the voice wasn’t very clear and the rhythm was all over the place. So they tried to separate the voice and the piano, not very successfully.
Then they tried to put it into a rigid time beat so they could overdub easily other instruments. So they stretched it and compressed it until it got to a regular waltz and then they were done. The result was, in order to conceal the bad bits, they had to plaster it fairly heavily, so what you ended up with was quite a thick homogeneous sound that hardly stops. There’s not much dynamic in it.
The way I would have tackled it if I had the opportunity would have been the reverse of that. I would have looked at the song as a song and got The Beatles together and say ‘what can we do with this song?’ bearing in mind we have got John around as well somewhere. I would have actually have started to record a song and I would have dropped John into it.
I wouldn’t have made John the basis of it. So where possible I would have used instruments probably and we would then try and get his voice more separate and use him for the occasional voice so it would become a true partnership of voices. Whether that would be practical or not I don’t know, this is just theoretically the way I would tackle it.” – George Martin
- 1977 (John Lennon’s original demo)
- February-March, 1994 (additional editing, instrumentation, and vocals by Paul, George, & Ringo)
- John Lennon – lead vocals, piano
- Paul McCartney – lead and harmony vocals, bass, acoustic guitar, synthesizer, piano
- George Harrison – lead and harmony vocals, slide guitar, acoustic guitar, ukulele
- Ringo Starr – backing vocals, drums
- Jeff Lynne – backing vocals, electric guitar
- #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