The anniversary celebrations abound everywhere: 50 years ago, the Beatles first reached American shores, debuted on Ed Sullivan, and officially kicked off the Beatlemania era. However, another event occurred at the Rock and Roll of Fame ceremony 20 years ago: On January 19, 1994, Paul McCartney inducted John Lennon into the Hall of Fame, a significant event in itself. But what happened offstage proved even more important: that night, Yoko Ono handed McCartney cassette tapes containing four Lennon demos.
Out of this moment came the “Threetles” sessions, or the virtual Beatles reunion that would cap off the 1995 Anthology project. The first single, “Free as a Bird,” was based on an unfinished 1977 composition that indicated how Lennon was experimenting with his sound and clearly finding renewed inspiration.
So, the story begins 17 years before that fateful Rock and Roll Hall of Fame meeting, back when Lennon was slowly returning to writing and recording. He and Ono had repaired their faltering marriage and were enjoying parenting two-year-old Sean. Lennon famously became a “house husband,” caring for Sean while taking an extended break from music. Inspiration slowly returned, and he finally began composing songs. As part of this creative spurt, he recorded various demos at the Dakota apartment, often featuring partially completed lyrics
One such track, “Free as a Bird,” was recorded on cassette with Lennon’s vocals and piano. The Reunion Sessions site states Lennon may have recorded three takes of the song, with Lennon repeating the title phrase, a few key lines, and the unfinished lyric “Whatever happened to, the life that we once knew” along with generic vocal fills. Apparently Lennon abandoned the song, as he never officially recorded it for Double Fantasy nor did it appear on the posthumous collections Milk and Honey and Menlove Ave.
Flash forward to 1994, when the surviving Beatles debated recording new material together for the Anthology documentary. After briefly considering creating just “incidental” or background music for the film, they decided it would be more meaningful to reunite as much as possible to lay down new material. Stories vary as to whether McCartney or Harrison first approached Ono with the idea of working from Lennon demos, but in the end Ono handed over tapes for “Free as a Bird,” “Real Love,” “Grow Old with Me,” and “Now and Then.”
In an interview promoting Anthology, McCartney recalled the emotion everyone experienced when first hearing these unfinished Lennon tracks. “I played these songs to the other guys, warning Ringo to have his hanky ready. I fell in love with ‘Free As A Bird,’” he said. “I thought I would have loved to work with John on that. I liked the melody, it’s got strong chords and it really appealed to me. Ringo was very up for it, George was very up for it, I was very up for it.”
After choosing to work on “Free as a Bird,” however, various challenges arose. First, the tape’s condition was not optimal, as Lennon had recorded the song on a home tape recorder. Second, despite modern technology, it was impossible to separate Lennon’s vocals from the piano without sacrificing even more sound quality. Finally, original Beatles producer George Martin could not helm these sessions, as his hearing loss forced him to largely retire. George Harrison solved one problem by recommending his friend Jeff Lynne, the former Electric Light Orchestra mastermind who had produced Harrison’s comeback album Cloud Nine and the subsequent Traveling Wilburys discs. This decision drew controversy from fans and even McCartney, as all feared Lynne’s distinctive production stamp might overshadow the delicate ballad. Debates rage on to this day.
Lynne later admitted that the technical challenges were daunting. He and his production team spent weeks utilizing ProTools and every other piece of editing software to sharpen the sound and remove as much tape hiss as possible. By February 1994, Lynne had finally created a “dummy” or rough draft version to play for Harrison, McCartney, and Starr for their final decision. They convened at McCartney’s home studio, the Mill, to work on “Free as A Bird” as well as the other demos. After experiencing even more difficulties (including that Lennon’s demo did not keep strict time), they were forced to isolate Lennon’s vocals as much as possible so that the three could play guitar, bass, piano, and drums, and add their own voices.
Another issue occurred when Harrison and McCartney appended lyrics to Lennon’s line “Whatever happened to, the life that we once knew.” As McCartney later explained, “When we were working on ‘Free As A Bird’ there were one or two little bits of tension, but it was actually cool for the record. For instance, I had a couple of ideas that [Harrison] didn’t like and he was right. I’m the first one to accept that, so that was OK.”
The rest, of course, is history: those who watched the first installment of the Anthology documentary in 1995 well remember the countdown clock that appeared during the closing credits, which led to the premier of the song and its “Easter egg”-filled video. The song itself included even more winks to longtime fans, with the ukulele at the end and a backwards loop of Lennon apparently saying “made by John Lennon” (actually Lennon muttering “turned out nice again”) Billed as the first Beatles single in years, “Free as a Bird” peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 2 on the UK Singles Chart.
“Free as a Bird” met with mixed reaction from critics and fans, some expressing disappointment at the seemingly depressing tone of the track. Others criticized Lynne for hijacking the song to sound like an ELO cut. Regardless of opinion, it gave the “Threetles” an impetus to record together again. It also indicates how Lennon would have expanded his sound, as the chord changes and Lennon’s falsetto departed from his previous material. Despite the plodding rhythm and the predominance of minor chords, the lyrics suggest Lennon emerging from darkness into light:
Free as a bird
It’s the next best thing to be
Free as a bird
Home, home and dry
Like a homing bird I’ll fly
As a bird on wings
These words correlate with Lennon’s “nesting” stage, finding happiness with family. However, he uses the bird image as the embodiment of freedom: What kind of freedom is he espousing? Here, home is sanctuary, a place to return for emotional and physical shelter. Clearly, however, he yearns for a kind of freedom; based on his “Lost Weekend” years and well-chronicled battles with depression, he could mean liberty from his previous darkness. As with many Lennon lyrics, he leaves them to individual interpretation so anyone can relate to the emotion expressed within the words. Harrison and McCartney’s added lines create further obfuscation:
Whatever happened to
The life that we once knew?
Can we really live without each other?
Where did we lose the touch
That seemed to mean so much?
It always made me feel so …
The duo’s appended words suggest that freedom also means connection, that isolation leads to an emotional prison. Living with and loving each other — in other words, emotional connection — leads to freedom from darkness. It is interesting to speculate what Lennon intended with the original lines “Whatever happened to, the life that we once knew.” Was he reflecting on past relationships, or the camaraderie he once felt with his former bandmates? Obviously we will never know the truth, but once again, Lennon leaves the meaning to individual speculation. Whether he would have approved of Harrison and McCartney’s composition is also an open question.
While Lynne’s production is in the forefront, “Free as a Bird” does incorporate key Beatles sounds such as Starr’s powerful drumming, Harrison’s wailing slide guitar, and McCartney’s piano. Hearing Harrison and McCartney’s vocal parts also thrills, their voices undimmed by time. Unfortunately their harmonies are buried under the heavy-handed production, and technical limitations lessen the power of Lennon’s voice.
Nevertheless, “Free as a Bird” provides an epilogue, albeit imperfect, to the Beatles’ story. Twenty years ago, the surviving Beatles entered the studio to experience their chemistry one more time, and “Free as a Bird” serves as a permanent record of their improbable reunion.