25 Years Ago: The Secret Beatles Reunion

Almost as soon as The Beatles officially dissolved in 1970, the world started asking for a reunion. Despite the efforts of promoters, friends, and Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, the four members of the band never reconvened prior to John Lennon’s death in 1980. However, the four members would manage to record together again 25 years after their final, rooftop concert, and 15 years after Lennon’s passing. Two new Beatles songs featuring all four members came together in 1994 thanks to one big project and the contributions of Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono.

In 1994, a multimedia effort to construct a documentary and album project was already underway. The Beatles Anthology, which would eventually consist of a television series (six aired episodes, but two additional on video), three double-CDs of music, and a book, had the participation of the three surviving Beatles (Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr) and their fabled producer, George Martin. The parties involved hatched a plan to record new “incidental” music for the documentary, but then realized that they might want to make actual new songs.

The key to this seemingly impossible task was Yoko Ono. McCartney asked if there were any unreleased Lennon recordings, and Ono sent cassettes of four songs. Harrison and Neil Aspinall (the band’s one-time road manager) asked if the other three might be allowed to complete any of the songs on the demos. When McCartney went to New York to induct Lennon into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist in January of 1994, he met with Ono and her and John’s son, Sean, to pick up the actual demo tapes.

From there, the rest of the band went to work. Martin opted out of recording the “new” tracks due to his hearing difficulties, although he would work on the TV programs. To serve as producer, the group drafted their friend Jeff Lynne; Lynne was the leader of Electric Light Orchestra and had worked with Harrison on both the latter’s Cloud 9 album and the Traveling Wilburys projects. Of the songs on the tapes, the group selected “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” to complete.

“Free as a Bird” by The Beatles; video directed by Joe Pytka.

The original tape of “Free as a Bird” presented some challenges; Lennon’s vocals and piano had been recorded on a single track. Typically, separate parts are recorded on different tracks to facilitate editing. Nevertheless, Lynne made it work; Starr, McCartney, and Harrison played their usual instruments (drums, bass, and guitar, respectively) with extra vocals by McCartney and Harrison and so ukulele by Harrison. For “Real Love,” some studio wizardry was employed by Lynne to even out the timing of the song, which had an irregular rhythm; again, the group added traditional parts, as well as parts for harmonium and harpsichord.

“Real Love” by The Beatles; video directed by Geoff Wonfor.

Of course, this was all happening behind the scenes long before the rest of the world got to hear the results. It wouldn’t be until November of 1995, with the near-simultaneous release of the Anthology docuseries on TV and the first CD, that the public would hear “Free as a Bird” and see the companion video. The song entered the U.K. charts at #2, and it hit #6 in the U.S., cementing a top ten for the band in four separate decades (the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off re-release of “Twist and Shout” charted in the 1980s).

Paul surprises Ringo at his 70th birthday show.

The Anthology project was a massive success and marked the last time that “all” of The Beatles would work together. George Harrison would die of cancer in 2001. At this writing, McCartney and Starr still carry on very active musical careers, with the duo occasionally teaming up for special events (like Ringo’s birthday). While a full-on reunion tour and album was never meant to be, fans can still take comfort in the fact that they could work it out one last time.

Featured Image: The Beatles in an EMI trade ad from 1965. (Photo by EMI; Wikimedia Commons via Public Domain)