NOW you can exhale.
“I’ll put that to one side for later” - John Lennon, 1980.
“This shit is unreleasable” - George Harrison, 1994.
“Archive gold, man!” - Paul McCartney, 2023.
The full story of the "new" Beatles record is surely known to all by now, but perhaps it bears repeating for historical context if nothing else.
Back in 1995, the three surviving members of the original superstar pop group were busy compiling the archive material for their Anthology project, a series of albums and a set of TV series which would document their career from start to finish. As a garnish for that, so to speak, they set about creating what would be the first new music to bear the name of The Beatles since the release of the Let It Be album back in 1970, polishing up half-finished demo recordings that John Lennon had captured on a cassette tape in his New York apartment shortly before he was murdered.
The sessions produced two finished singles, Free As A Bird and Real Love. Each returned the group to the Top 10 after a protracted gap in 1995 and 1996 respectively. But there was always supposed to be a third, a recreation of another John Lennon composition entitled Now And Then. But this proved to be harder work than the others. Real Love had been a struggle to compile thanks to the mushy quality of Lennon's vocals and an annoying mains hum on the tape, but Now And Then proved impossible to wrestle into anything that resembled a releasable piece of music. So it was shelved and largely forgotten.
But this was to reckon without the march of technology, and in particular the work of director Peter Jackson who had pioneered new audio restoration techniques and applied them to old Beatles tapes - first for the epic Beatles - Get Back documentaries and subsequently for the benefit of Paul McCartney who was able to perform a beyond the grave duet with the isolated vocals of John Lennon during his triumphant Glastonbury set in 2022. Finally the technology was powerful enough to turn Now And Then into a full, polished product. It truly is the work of all four men. John Lennon's original vocals, guitar tracks laid down by George Harrison during those aborted 1995 sessions, and of course new work from the two remaining members of the group Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, both now old men in their 80s. This is the "last" Beatles single, and one they worked hard to make sure is worthy of the name The Beatles.
The name itself means something extraordinary. Whatever contrarian opinions there may about the retrospective quality of their music, the four men from Merseyside set the template during the 1960s for just about everything that was to come. Their insistence on writing their own songs, the hysterical level of teen adulation which followed them everywhere, the overwhelming popularity which meant just about everything they put their name to once they had established themselves was a No.1 record, and the way in later years they began to explore just what was possible to create in a recording studio when freed from the need to make music that was reproducible live.
It all means that where The Beatles are concerned the normal rules of engagement don't always apply. When Free As A Bird was unveiled almost 28 years ago it was treated as a major stop the traffic event. When the music industry began the process of migrating its catalogue online and into the digital world in the mid-00s there was fevered speculation as to just what the reaction to Beatles music arriving for download would be. Entire newspaper articles were written over the then unthinkable prospect of their music dominating the Top 10 upon (re-release). Although in the end no such thing took place.
So let's not kid ourselves, waiting to see what would happen to Now And Then was a very big deal indeed. Critical reaction to the single when it premiered a week ago was mixed to say the least. It is at the end of the day a John Lennon song, one he wrote for his own purposes and not for his old group. The John Lennon at the end of the 1970s was obsessed with noting what a bad husband he was, the seam writ large both through the final album of his lifetime Double Fantasy and indeed the composition of Now And Then. But it is an epic in every other sense, and in truth how it actually sounded is irrelevant. Back in 1995 when Free As A Bird hit the charts I noted with some cheek that you could record the sound of a fart in a tin can, call it a Beatles single and it would sell. Almost three decades on the same holds true.
Come On, Come On
Last week I was still cynical about the track's chart prospects. Released at 2pm on a Thursday it garnered enough purchases to chart just outside the Top 40, sales which were in effect wasted and would not count for its first full chart week. But there was still physical product to come, and not only that the cumulative effect of acres of press coverage which translated into hundreds of thousands of streams. This was a song that everyone had to drop by and listen to, even if they only did it once. First midweek flashes indicated that Now And Then had over 30,000 chart sales to its name before the weekend was over, and although that was a heavily front-loaded number it was still a commanding lead that the rest of the chart pack were always going to struggle to surmount.
In December 1995 it was widely expected that Free As A Bird would return The Beatles to the top of the charts. That it did not do so was down to two factors. First that it had been beaten into the shops by a fortnight by the first volume of the Anthology project, an album on which it also featured. Secondly that although despite this it still sold 108,000 copies in that first week on sale, it was up against Earth Song by Michael Jackson which at that moment in time was selling over 130,000 copies a week.
The bad luck which stymied The Beatles in 1995 has turned into extreme good fortune in 2023. For Now And Then arrives in a singles market devoid of the kind of runaway leader that so often turns the chart race into a procession. Last week's chart-topper from Taylor Swift was always going to be a bit of a one week wonder, and so indeed it proves. With nothing else racing to take her place the path was clear for what we see before us this week. The Beatles are No.1 on the Official UK Singles chart.
The single chalked up a hugely impressive 78,200 chart sales over the course of the week. Notably fully 48,600 of these were paid sales - a massive 19,400 of them on good old-fashioned vinyl. That makes it the fastest selling vinyl single of the century, and indeed the 38,000 total physical sale is the most achieved by any single since Ben Haenow's 2014 X Factor winning song Something I Need shifted 47,000 in a week. But do the maths - without those paid sales Now And Then accumulated just over 29,000 sales via streaming, which would only have put it at No.4 on the chart this week.
Enough nit-picking. Now And Then returns the group to No.1 for the first time since The Ballad Of John And Yoko reached the summit in June 1969. The gap of just shy of 54 years and 5 months between No.1 singles essentially obliterates the existing record, set only last year by Kate Bush who had endured just over 44 years between chart-topping singles. The Beatles can now boast the longest-ever span of No.1 singles too, their first such single coming From Me To You hitting the top over 60 years and 6 months ago in May 1963. Although this is of course to overlook the eternal debate over its predecessor Please Please Me which was listed at No.1 on every published mainstream chart at the time with the exception of the Record Retailer chart which as the immediate antecedent of today's Official UK Singles Chart is thus the canonical record. But the record-breaking span is still over 60 years and surely, surely never again to be beaten.
The single is therefore officially the 18th No.1 single for The Beatles, although they remain in second on the all-time list behind Elvis Presley who has 21 to his name (18 first timers and three re-issues). It is the fourth posthumous No.1 for John Lennon and the second for George Harrison. Meanwhile McCartney (81) and Starr (83) are the oldest men ever to perform as members of a group on a No.1 single and are second only to Captain Tom as the oldest men ever to top the charts. With a climb of 42-1 Now And Then becomes only the eighth single in chart history to climb (officially) to the top of the charts from outside the Top 40, the first to do so since Fight Song by Rachel Platten soared 68-1 in September 2015. Not that The Beatles are any stranger to flying chart leaps, Hey Jude having leaped 21-1 in 1968 this at the time the second largest No.1 bound in the short history of the British charts.
I could go on, but I've a nasty feeling I already have. The Beatles returning to No.1 after 50 years could so easily not have happened, but it makes for an extraordinary moment in time that it actually has. This is a one week wonder, you can all but guarantee it won't be here next week. But for now what else can you do but savour the moment?
Nothing You Can Sing
Meanwhile there are 39 other songs on the Top 40 that aren't by The Beatles so I guess it makes sense to talk about them. For the second week running the track that is not by the biggest artist of the week is Prada from Casso and remixed passengers RAYE and D-Block Europe. Cementing its status as the unluckiest single of the moment it is the bridesmaid once more for the fourth time in total.
While most attention on the albums side of things was focused on the two-way battle between Taylor Swift's 1989 (Taylor's Version) and Oasis' re-released collection of b-sides and offcuts The Masterplan (eventually resolved in favour of Ms Swift for the second week running) the biggest brand new release was GOLDEN, the solo debut for Jung Kook of BTS (to give him his full name). He has the No.3 album of the week to become presumably the highest charting solo Korean star in albums chart history with the album also spawning the highest new entry of the week. Standing Next To You is his latest hit destined for a sharp in and out performance, but still makes No.6 to ensure people will go "I have no recollection of this" when 2023 comes around on Pick Of The Pops in 10-15 years' time.
Baby You Can Drive My Car
It is always funny how soundtrack singles either blow hot or cold, regardless of who is actually performing them. Ordinarily a brand new previously unheard Olivia Rodrigo single would be a very big deal indeed but this week her new release Can't Catch Me Now arrives at a comparatively lowly No.18. The track isn't from her recent Guts album but instead from the soundtrack of the new Hunger Games: The Ballad Of Songbirds & Snakes movie and so perhaps is seen as less essential than her usual work. Or maybe it isn't about shit boyfriends, so go figure.
As I touched on last week, right now we are in the middle of an odd time of the year. Slap bang in the middle of Quarter 4 when in theory all the biggest acts are flinging their new product at the market, but at the same time at that point just when the singles market goes crazy for Christmas. A new record out now is rolling the dice - become a hit now, or be there in the mix for January. Hence the future prospects of the next new entry are genuinely up in the air. After two weeks buzzing around the bottom of the Top 100 Won't Forget You from Jax Jones explodes into life with a viral surge that sends it rocketing to No.28. The single has a genuine cast of thousands, crediting D.O.D., Ina Wroldsen and The Blackout Crew, this the second collaboration between Jones and Wroldsen after the two paired up for Breathe back in 2017. A hit for now or a hit for later? Wait and see.
This week has been a Beatles-fest, let's not pretend otherwise. But this has only served to bury the lede of the biggest, most shocking, perhaps most disturbing chart news of the week. Christmas (there, I said it) is still fully six weeks away. But the tiniest pebbles at the head of the oncoming avalanche have reached civilisation already. Making their Top 40 bows for the season a full week earlier than they did last year are Last Christmas by Wham! (No.37) and All I Want For Christmas Is You by Mariah Carey (No.40). We can despair at the need for people to be listening to these tired old perennials already. We can look down our noses at the lack of popular imagination which means it is the same songs in the same order that are destined to dominate the festive market. But those who love them have no reason to care what we think. The downward slope to the end of the year starts from now I'm afraid.