Free As A Bird - The Penultimate Beatles Song
Created | Updated Mar 14, 2008
In 1995, the highly controversial penultimate 'new' Beatles single, 'Free As A Bird', was released. This was a song John Lennon had written in 1977 which he had recorded a demo of, but never a proper recording. In early February and March 1994, with the permission of Yoko Ono, this demo was given to Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr to develop into a 'Beatles' song in Paul's studio in Sussex.
Creating Free As A Bird
Paul and Yoko, long believed to be bitter rivals, appeared to reconcile their differences when they both attended John Lennon's solo induction into New York's Rock 'n' Roll Hall Of Fame at the beginning of 1995. Yoko described the historic moment that the tapes were handed over by saying:
People have said that it was all agreed when Paul came over to induct John into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, but it was all settled before then. I just used that occasion to hand over the tapes personally to Paul.
Paul received tapes of four of John's songs: 'Free As A Bird', 'Real Love', 'Girls And Boys' and 'Grow Old With Me'1.
Paul McCartney described the experience by saying:
We took the attitude that John had gone on holiday, saying 'I finished all the tracks except this one. I'm sorry that I can't make the last session, but I leave it to you guys to finish it off. Do what you'd normally do. Don't get fussy; just do your normal thing. I trust you.' Once we agreed to take that attitude it gave us a lot of freedom.
He has also described how much of an emotional experience it was to hear John Lennon in his headphones again for the first time since 1970.
When I actually heard the demos, I loved the songs so much, particularly 'Free As A Bird', which was the one I first got attracted to. I just loved hearing John singing it, and I just thought 'Wow! This is like an amazing opportunity, all these years after he's died so cruelly I get to work with him again!' Something that obviously is impossible... But suddenly this occasion arose to actually have him in my headphones, and actually be singing with him!
And that was how it was, when we got round to the sessions. About a week before Ringo was saying to me, he said 'How is it?' and I said 'It's great, it's a lovely song, so keep your hanky ready when you listen to it, because its quite sad to be listening to our old mate.' But when he heard it, he rang up he said 'This will be quite joyous!' And it was, it was a joyful, joyous experience, and we got on great. It was like old gloves, it was like a day hadn't gone by.
John Lennon's original demo was built upon by Paul, George and Ringo adding their own vocals and instrumentation, taking care to ensure John's voice and piano were still very much to the forefront. Although George Martin had been asked to produce the record, he declined on the grounds that his ears were no longer sharp enough (although he did produce and direct the Anthology project). Geoff Emerick, who was the engineer on many of the original Beatles recordings, returned to work with the Beatles once again for this project.
One of the major problems with the demo was that John Lennon's tempo fluctuated unsteadily during the song, something which had to be digitally time-stretched before it was possible for the other Beatles to play in time to it.
Paul described the whole process:
We fixed the timing and then added some bits. John hadn't filled in the middle-eight section of the demo so we wrote a new section for that, which, in fact, was one of the reasons for choosing the song; it allowed us some input. The beginning was originally just John and piano and his voice on mono tape. Then George added some guitar and we all did harmonies. George and I competed on who actually had the better lyrics to the unfinished Lennon song.
Ringo aptly described the result by simply saying 'it sounds like the bloody Beatles.'
'Free As A Bird', unlike 'Real Love', was a new song. Although 'Real Love' had been released previously (on 1988's Imagine: John Lennon, the soundtrack album for a film of John Lennon's life2), 'Free As A Bird' had not been available before. Its eventual release in 1995 was therefore the nearest fans could get to hearing a 'new' John Lennon song.
The release of 'Free As A Bird' sharply divided Beatles fans. Many felt that this was merely an attempt to cash in on John Lennon's legacy, and that the song had never been intended to be a Beatles single. As it had not been written as such - and indeed had never even progressed beyond demo stage - many fans felt that it was wrong to release it. This is an understandable view, one which Paul McCartney himself shared at first, recollecting his horror in his childhood when some songs sung by his childhood idol Buddy Holly3 were released after his death.
Paul McCartney eventually reconciled himself to the matter:
I can understand that because when we were kids, when Buddy died, they did some records with a group called the Fireballs, instead of the Crickets, and they put Buddy's voice on it, and we always thought that was terrible. We thought they shouldn't have done it. So when this came around, this opportunity to do one of John's songs, that was one of the first things I thought. "Oh God, you know it's the old 'Fireball' thing!" But they weren't his group. So I kinda rationalised it, thinking, 'Now, if it had been the Crickets I think I might have thought it was okay to do that, its not like they're getting a new group in.
George Harrison was typically quiet on the subject of the release of 'Free As A Bird'. He once famously said that 'I sort of felt John was going off a little bit towards the end of his writing', and much speculation existed suggesting that one of the main reasons that George agreed to take part was to raise money needed for a court case concerning his ailing Handmade Films company.
However, it on was Harrison's suggestion that the mono cassette on which the song was originally recorded was digitally cleaned and enhanced by Jeff Lynne. Jeff Lynne, lead member of the Electric Light Orchestra, had co-produced George's Cloud Nine album and had been in The Traveling Wilburys with George, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty. Some fans however felt that Lynne's involvement merely resulted in the song sounding like the Traveling Wilburys.
John Lennon: The Original Recording
The main argument used against the release of the song is the fact that John Lennon only recorded it as a demo back in 1977 and never bothered to make a full recording of it. Does this show that John himself did not consider the song to be of value? This view overlooks the fact that John did not record any songs between February 1975 and June 1980. As soon as Yoko announced that she was pregnant with Sean, John made the conscious decision to retire to spend time with his family:
Walking away is much harder than carrying on. I hadn't stopped from 1962 'til 1973 - on demand, on schedule, continuously. And walking away was hard... Because I don't exist if my name isn't in the papers or if I don't have a record out in the charts or whatever.
The fact that 'Free As A Bird' was recorded at all shows how highly John thought of it. At the time, he noted:
[I] hung my guitar up above my bed, but I'd look at it every now and then. I didn't want to hide it, but I used to look at it and think, 'Will I ever pull it down?'
John Lennon's Post-1980 'Career'
'Free As A Bird' was actually not the first John Lennon song to be posthumously released. In 1984, four years after John's death, Yoko Ono compiled Milk And Honey, an album of songs recorded around the time of John's 1980 Double Fantasy album. In 1986 a second posthumous album arrived, Menlove Avenue, containing tracks from the Walls And Bridges and Rock 'n' Roll sessions, followed by the Imagine: John Lennon film and album in 1988. Added to the three double-CD Anthology sets and TV show in 1998 and, more recently, 2004's Acoustic album, The 'Free As A Bird' and 'Real Love' sessions are not unique in resurrecting John Lennon songs, yet were alone in the amount of controversy they caused. The reason? The involvement of John's former stablemates, the Beatles.
A Beatles Song?
Despite the controversy there are many arguments justifying the release of 'Free As A Bird'. After all, not only is it a perfect swansong to the Beatles achievement, it is a great song in its own right and one which deserved to be heard. Many fans feel that the way the song was released can only be an improvement on the original recording, having had all of its mono imperfections removed, with the sound enhanced by the performances of the Beatles. If vocal and instrumental enhancements were going to be necessary due to the poor quality of the original mono recording in order for this song to be released, surely it is better that it was done by the Beatles themselves?4.
The lyrics of 'Free As A Bird' have special, poignant meaning when sung by the Beatles, giving a new layer to an already beautiful song. For many people, the song becomes about the Beatles, and their break-up. In particular, the lyrics of the verses ask many of the same questions that Beatles fans themselves posed at the break-up of the group. 'Whatever happened to the life that we once knew?' brings to mind the fact that for many, the break-up of the Beatles was the end of an era. 'Can we really live without each other?' can be seen as a question of how the Fab Four would cope over the next decades on their own. 'When did we lose the touch that seemed to mean so much?' - a question that asks why the Beatles broke up, and when that process really began.
The Free As A Bird Music Video
This idea [was to] load lots of clues here and there, 'cause we used to do that in all the old records. it became a bit of a game in the old Beatles days to stick little clues in and he's used them in the video, so it's very clever. You've got a pretty nurse selling poppies from a tray and Maxwell's Silver Hammer shop. I think it's a nice background. It'll mean that people can watch it a few times and, you know, get into it.
As pioneers of the music video, The Beatles had a reputation to live up to when it came to the Free As A Bird music video. Happily, they did not disappoint. The video5 seamlessly takes the viewer on a 'Magical Mystery Tour' of the Beatles' lives and lyrics. In reference to the song title, Neil Aspinal (head of Apple, the Beatles' company) explains, 'you never see the bird. The camera is the bird.'. This journey is made extra-special as the scenes were filmed in the places the Beatles sang about, and many of the people on screen are Liverpool locals.
Spotting the dozens of images taken from the Beatles' songs proves to be a fascinating experience in itself. There are reported to be over 100 references to Beatles songs in the video. It is fascinating in that it projects a sense that we, the viewers, are being taken on a personal tour of the Beatles. It is also a video which benefits from multiple viewing as there is always something new to see.
The promo video for the song begins inside a room with a mantelpiece showing childhood photos of the four Beatles. The sound of a bird in the room, perhaps echoing the line 'she showed me her room, isn't it good?' from 'Norwegian Wood', is heard, as we follow the invisible bird out into Liverpool, and the beginning of the journey. It might also be seen to represent the song 'Flying', on the Magical Mystery Tour album. The lyrics 'and when I awoke I was alone, this bird had flown', again from 'Norwegian Wood', not only symbolise the flying out of the room, but also the flying journey. The bird could also symbolise 'Blackbird' from The White Album, or 'And Your Bird Can Sing'. The room itself stands in for John and Stuart's Sutcliffe's flat at 3 Gambier Terrace, which was near Liverpool Art School, which John and Stuart both attended.
The trip to Liverpool brings to mind a number of songs as we are shown the Beatles' lives: echoes 'In My Life'; 'Across The Universe'6; and 'A Day In The Life'. It could even represent Sentimental Journey, Ringo Starr's first solo album, which was released before Let It Be.
We catch a glimpse of the Liver Building7, the river Mersey and the boats on it, symbolising the line 'Picture yourself in a boat on a river' from 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds'.
We land in the docks, where it is raining. The Beatles are among the dock workers who 'when the rain comes they run and hide their heads' from 'Rain' and 'get your tan from standing in the English rain' from 'I Am The Walrus'. The dock workers could well be 'lonely people', as mentioned in 'Eleanor Rigby', or even represent John Lennon's father, Alfred, who worked as a steward on the transatlantic liners from Liverpool. The docks were a major part of Liverpool life, with most families having at least one member working there, and they were also the source of many of the imported records that shaped the Beatles' music.
From the docks we are taken to Mathew Street, where we are amongst the crowd of people trying to get into the Cavern. The Cavern is the club where the Beatles performed almost 300 times between 9 February, 1961, and 3 August, 1963.
Although the original Cavern was demolished in 1973 to make way for an extension to the Liverpool underground railway (which was never constructed), it was rebuilt on almost the same spot in 1984, using many of the same bricks and built to its original dimensions. However, as the original entrance no longer exists8, the current club was passed over as a filming location in favour of the recreation in 'The Beatles Story' museum in the Albert Dock, with the outside scenes being filmed in Henry Street. Here, we see the Beatles performing in time to the music9.
We are then taken from the Cavern, via Strawberry Fields, to Penny Lane. This could well reflect the lyric from 'Glass Onion', 'I told you about Strawberry Fields, you know the place where nothing is real, well here's another place you can go where everything flows', a lyric which applies to the whole video.
Here in Penny Lane, children run hand in hand, reminding us not only of 'I Want To Hold Your Hand', and of the 'couple of kids running in the yard of Desmond and Molly Jones' from 'Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da' but also of the children from 'Lady Madonna' and 'Little Child'.
There is a covered barrow in the marketplace, reminding us of 'Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da' again, while a van belonging to 'Liverpool Egg Company' can be seen, obviously 'the eggman' from 'I Am The Walrus'. Two people who look similar to Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Leader of the Opposition Edward Heath walk by, both of whom appear in the song 'Taxman'10, just as we observe a laughing Ringo walking past.
Outside a greengrocer's, selling apples11, we see the pretty nurse selling poppies from a tray mentioned in the song 'Penny Lane'. The nurse bears an uncanny resemblance to Paul's mother Mary, who worked as a district nurse and midwife. Also on Penny Lane is the barber with the photographs of 'every head he's had the pleasure to know'. Near his shop on the wall someone has written the word 'Help!', the title of the second Beatles film. Just then, two women come through a door into the road. One is dressed in black, perhaps to remind us of 'Baby's In Black', or the plastic raincoat from 'Polythene Pam'. Her companion could possibly be 'Another Girl', or Prudence from 'Dear Prudence', come out to play.
On the pavement, one boy whispers to a girl, reminding us of 'Do You Want To Know A Secret?' and 'All I gotta do is whisper in your ear' from 'All I've Gotta Do'. Next we see a couple acting quite passionately in a parked car, echoing 'Why Don't We Do it in the Road?', or, more probably, Paul McCartney's 'Back Seat Of My Car'. The Beatles watch, while outside we notice a large poster for the Anthology, reminding us that the Anthology too is part of the Beatles' canon. Also on Penny Lane is a bakery, which has a cake in the window that says 'Happy Birthday'. This reminds us of the song 'Birthday', with 6 and 4 in the corners of the cake recalling 'When I'm 64'. This also can symbolise Ringo Starr's father, who made cakes. We then see George Harrison walk into the Apple Building12 which in the video belongs to Doctor Robert from the song of the same name.
Down the road we see the car accident from 'A Day In The Life'. We see the 'crowd of people [who] stood and stared', and a girl in a Lotus sportscar, from 'Drive My Car'; that she is also crying might remind us of 'Cry Baby Cry'. At the accident we see not only Penny Lane's 'Fireman [that] rushes in' with his 'clean machine', but also the 'pretty little policemen in a row' from 'I Am The Walrus'.
The camera then flies away, passing a 'Helter Skelter' and a kite ('Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite'), to an alley in Liverpool. A group of children runs down an alley wearing pig masks, a nod to 'Piggies' and the 'See how they smile like pigs in a sty' line from 'I Am The Walrus'. Behind them the Beatles appear, then cross the alley and walk through a wall on the other side, suggesting either a 'Wall of Illusion' from 'Within You, Without You', or George Harrison's soundtrack album, 'Wonderwall' (which was released when the Beatles were still together to accompany the 1968 film of the same name).
Also in the alley is a ladder propped up against one of the terraced houses, and we see a foot disappear from its top through a window, referring to 'She Came In Through The Bathroom Window'. In the garden are some tall sunflowers, presumably the 'flowers that grow so incredibly high' mentioned in 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds'.
The camera takes us into the upstairs room of a man hard at work on his typewriter. On his window, there is the lizard on the windowpane mentioned in 'Happiness Is A Warm Gun'. The man himself instantly reminds us of the 'Paperback Writer', although it is possible that he is Father McKenzie 'writing the words to a sermon that no-one will hear'. It is even possible that he is writing a letter, from 'PS I Love You', or 'while I'm away I'll write home everyday' from 'All My Loving'. Inside his room is a copy of the Daily Mail, again from 'Paperback Writer', with the headline '4000 Holes In Blackburn Lancashire' (from 'A Day In The Life'). Also inside the room is a clock, which states the time is 10:10, presumably the 'One After 909'. On the table lies a bowl of apples and a box of chocolates, which can only be 'Savoy Truffles'. John Lennon is resting in a chair, reminiscent of 'I'm So Tired' and 'I'm Only Sleeping', next to a television which is broadcasting the Beatles on their famous Ed Sullivan appearance. A picture of 'Her Majesty' the Queen is also in the room, with a picture of a soldier on the window, either in reference to John Lennon's involvement in the 1967 film How I Won The War13, or the line in 'A Day In The Life' which states 'I saw a film today, oh boy. The English army had just won the war.'
St Bride Street
We are then taken outside the house, where we see a hole in the neighbouring house's roof - reminding us of 'Fixing A Hole' - when unexpectedly a Blue Meanie from Yellow Submarine pops through it. Also on the roof you can just make out a monkey (because of course 'Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey'). Echoing the lyric from the same song, 'The higher we fly, the deeper we go, so come on', we are then taken from the roof down to street level. Here we see a man walking his bulldog down the road ('Hey Bulldog'), and the newspaper taxi mentioned in 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds'. Two men carry a large picture of Chairman Mao across the road, reminding us of the line ('But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow') from 'Revolution'. We see John and Yoko waltz down the road14, either 'I'm Happy Just To Dance With You' or 'The Ballad Of John And Yoko'. A Blue Meanie then pops his head up out of a hole in the road, subtly reminding us that 'Mean Mr Mustard... sleeps in a hole in the road'15, or that the Meanie has just come from the Sea of Holes from the Yellow Submarine film. At the far end of the road, the Magical Mystery Tour bus16 drives by. This could be seen to also represent Harold 'Harry' Harrison, George Harrison's father, who worked as a bus driver after leaving the Merchant Navy, and indeed often drove his son George and Paul McCartney to school.
The Adelphi Hotel
We are then taken into a posh hotel, the Adelphi17, glimpsing Napoleon, presumably to remind us that 'All You Need Is Love' begins with the Marseillaise, the French National Anthem which dates back to the Napoleonic era.
A hunter is seen leaving the hotel, with his porters, mother and elephant18, reminding us of 'The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill', who 'went out tiger hunting with his elephant and gun, in case of accidents he always took his mum'. We also see the Maharishi Yogi, who the Beatles stayed with in India, and perhaps even the 'Sheikh of Araby', one of the very earliest Beatles recordings, as featured on the Anthology.
We then see a gathering of the people on the Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band cover chatting, listening to the Indian music of a sitar19 including a cut-out of Stuart Sutcliffe, the Beatles' bass player and close friend of John Lennon, who died of a brain haemorrhage in Hamburg on 10 April, 1962. We are then taken through a skylight, reflecting 'Here Comes The Sun' and 'Good Day Sunshine'.
We are then taken to a cemetery. In it, a statue of Mary can be seen, her head turning to follow us, reminding us of 'Lady Madonna', and the line 'Mother Mary comes to me' from 'Let It Be'. We also see Eleanor Rigby's gravestone20 and Father 'McKenzie, wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave'. We then see a sheepdog running through the graveyard, probably a reference to Paul McCartney's sheepdog Martha (referred to in 'Martha, My Dear') or the line 'Sheepdog, standing in the rain' in 'Hey Bulldog'. Outside the graveyard we see a woman walking down a 'Long And Winding Road' carrying a suitcase, reminding us how 'She's Leaving Home', while Paul is seen jumping up and down in footage taken from 'The Fool On The Hill' sequence from the 'Magical Mystery Tour' film.
We then move to London, and the world-famous zebra-crossing shown on the Abbey Road album cover21. On the left side of the road a traffic warden, presumably 'Lovely Rita, Meter Maid' can be seen, presumably about to ticket the Volkswagen Beetle largely responsible for causing all the 'Paul McCartney Is Dead' hysteria that gripped America in late 1969.
The final sequence takes us to a theatre, possibly representing the Saville Theatre in London where the 'Hello, Goodbye' video was filmed. The Beatles are then seen rushing into the theatre, in a scene from the A Hard Days Night film, surrounded by clowns - perhaps echoing 'Gather round all you clowns' from 'You've Got To Hide Your Love Away' - while on the stage a little man plays the ukulele22. As the curtain lowers we hear a voice which appears to say 'My name's John Lennon', but is in fact 'Turned Out Nice Again' played backwards - a reference not only to the backwards track on 'Rain', but also to George Harrison's childhood hero ukulele player George Formby23, who used it as a catchphrase.
To conclude, the Beatles song 'Free As A Bird' was an amazing masterpiece, from John Lennon's original 1977 composition through to the 1990s recording with the other Beatles and the thought-provoking music video. Although many of the references contained in the video have been outlined above, there are undoubtedly several others missed which repeated viewing and others' perspectives will bring to light.
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