Your Daily Beatle Break
Free As A Bird
Written by: Lennon-McCartney-Harrison-Starkey
Recorded: 1977; February, March 1994
Producers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Jeff Lynne
Engineer: Geoff Emerick
Released: 21 November 1995
John Lennon: vocals, piano
Paul McCartney: vocals, bass, acoustic guitar, piano, keyboards
George Harrison: vocals, electric slide guitar, acoustic guitar, ukulele
Ringo Starr: vocals, drums
Jeff Lynne: harmony vocals, guitar
Based on a 1977 demo recorded by John Lennon in New York, Free As A Bird was completed by the other three Beatles 17 years later and released as the lead single from the Anthology project.
The song was originally a simple piano demo recorded by Lennon at his home in the Dakota building, New York City. Never completed in the studio, it was one of a number of songs he taped on cassette during his ‘househusband’ period between 1975 and 1980.
In subsequent years the Anthology project slowly gathered pace, and by the early 1990s Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were considering recording some incidental music as a trio. This idea was discarded in favour of new songs, but agreed that they could only reunite musically as The Beatles if Lennon was on the recording.
We took the easy route, which was to do some incidental music, because what else can we do? There were four Beatles and there are only three of us left. We were going to do some incidental music and just get there and play the instruments and see what happened. Then we thought, well, why don’t we do some new music? And then we always hit the wall, and OK, Paul had a song, or George had a song, or I had a song, well that’s the three of us, why don’t the three of us go in and do this. And we kept hitting that wall because this is the Beatles; it’s not Paul, George, and Ringo.
On 19 January 1994 Ono met McCartney in New York, for Lennon’s posthumous induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. McCartney presented the award, which was accepted by Ono on Lennon’s behalf.
That night Ono gave him cassette tapes containing four songs: Free As A Bird, Real Love, Grow Old With Me and Now And Then. The occasion marked a reconciliation between the pair, whose relationship had often been tainted by animosity over the years.
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.
Although touched by the songs, McCartney was initially wary about adding to them.
I’d never heard them before but she explained that they’re quite well known to Lennon fans as bootlegs. 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.
Free As A Bird had its première on BBC Radio 1 on the morning of 20 November 1995. It was released on Anthology 1 the same day, and as a single in December. The 7″ was backed with Christmas Time (Is Here Again), while the CD single also contained versions of I Saw Her Standing There and This Boy.
The song was the first new recording released by The Beatles since The Long And Winding Road in 1970. It received mixed reviews, with many commentators judging it a pale imitation of their 1960s work.
In the UK, the single sold 120,000 copies in its first week, entering the UK Singles Chart at number two. It remained in the charts for eight weeks, but was kept off the top spot by Michael Jackson’s Earth Song.
In the US, Free As A Bird reached number six on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming The Beatles’ 34th Top 10 single in America. The song later won the 1997 Grammy award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.
In the studio
Before recording could take place, the demo had to be digitally cleaned up and synchronised to a click track, as John Lennon’s time-keeping was typically erratic. It was then transferred to a 48-track analogue multitrack, which was done – at George Harrison’s suggestion – at producer Jeff Lynne’s Hollywood studio.
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. I spent about a week at my own studio cleaning up both tracks on my computer, with a friend of mine, Marc Mann, who is a great engineer, musician and computer expert…
Putting fresh music to it was the easy part! Free As A Bird, however, wasn’t a quarter as noisy as Real Love, and only a bit of EQ was needed to cure most problems.
Sound On Sound, December 1995
George Martin declined to work on the song, claiming that his hearing was no longer up to the job. This is in spite of his involvement as producer and director of the entire Anthology project, and in 2006 he co-produced the Love album with his son Giles.
George wasn’t involved, no. George doesn’t want to produce much any more ’cause his hearing’s not as good as it used to be. He’s a very sensible guy, and he says, ‘Look, Paul I like to do a proper job’, and if he doesn’t feel he’s up to it he won’t do it. It’s very noble of him, actually – most people would take the money and run.
Bass Player, August 1995
In Martin’s absence, Paul McCartney took the demos to his Sussex studio. Work began in February 1994, with Lynne co-producing with the other Beatles, and the group’s former engineer Geoff Emerick manning the mixing desk.
I invented a little scenario; he’s gone away on holiday and he’s just rung us up and he says “Just finish this track for us, will you? I’m sending the cassette – I trust you.” That was the key thing, “I trust you, just do your stuff on it.” I told this to the other guys and Ringo was particularly pleased, and he said “Ahh, that’s great!” It was very nice and it was very irreverent towards John. The scenario allowed us to be not too, ahh, the great sacred fallen hero. He would never have gone for that. John would have been the first one to debunk that – “A fucking hero? A fallen hero? Fuck off, we’re making a record.”
In its original state, Free As A Bird was an unfinished demo recording by John Lennon. Its raw state enabled the ‘Threetles’ (as they were later dubbed by the press) to create a new arrangement and add new chords and lyrics.
Being right there in the inner sanctum and hanging out with them for a few weeks was fantastic. Although a long time passed since they last recorded as one unit, they worked terribly well together, and being in the control room watching and listening to them interact with each other was fascinating. I’d often have cause to think, ‘Christ, no wonder they were the best.’ But I always thought they were the greatest anyway.
They’re still great musicians and great singers. Paul and George would strike up the backing vocals – and all of a sudden it’s The Beatles again! To be there in the middle of all this and have a degree of responsibility over the result was astonishing. It wasn’t some kind of fake version, it really was the real thing. They were having fun with each other and reminding each other of the old times. I’d be waiting to record and normally I’d say, ‘OK, Let’s do a take’, but I was too busy laughing and smiling at everything they were talking about.
Sound On Sound, December 1995
McCartney re-recorded Lennon’s vocals for the middle eight. Lennon’s demo contained just the words “Whatever happened to the life that we once knew?” – possibly inspired by “Whatever happened to the boy that I once knew?” from the Shangri-Las’ 1964 hit Remember (Walking In The Sand). McCartney added the remaining lines in place of Lennon’s ad-libbing.
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, he was obviously just blocking out lyrics that he didn’t have yet. When he gets to the middle he goes, ‘Whatever happened to/The life that we one knew/Woowah wunnnnn yeurrggh!’ and you can see that he’s trying to push lyrics out but they’re not coming. He keeps going as if to say ‘Well, I’ll get to them later’. That was really like working on a record with John, as Lennon/McCartney/Harrison, because we all chipped in a bit on this one. George and I were vying for best lyric. That was more satisfying than just taking a John song, which was what we did for the second, Real Love. It worked out great but it wasn’t as much fun.
The studio equipment was mostly analogue, to make the recording as authentic as possible. While McCartney used a Wal five-string bass instead of his trademark Hofner violin instrument, Starr used his original Ludwig drum kit. Harrison played two Fender Stratocasters, and both he and McCartney added acoustic guitars. McCartney also used an Oberheim OBX8 analogue synth.
What we were trying to do was create a record that was timeless, so we steered away from using state-of the-art gear. We didn’t want to make it fashionable. It’s just making the statement that they are all here playing together after all these years. So while it sounds fresh and new, it wouldn’t have been out of place on the White Album.
Sound On Sound, December 1995
Directed by Joe Pytka and produced by Vincent Joliet, the Free As A Bird video won the 1997 Grammy award for Best Short Form Music Video. It took the perspective of a flying bird, and featured a great many references to Beatles songs and aspects of their past.
The video was seemingly designed to ensnare Beatles obsessives, some of whom spent a great many hours spotting hidden meanings in the imagery. Here are just some of them – there are quite possibly many more, and Apple Corps have indicated that there are more than 80 in total.
- The sound of a bird’s wings flapping, similar to the original version of Across The Universe.
- Above a fireplace, a clock displays five o’clock as the day begins (She’s Leaving Home).
- Elsewhere in the video, various clocks appear but the same time is never shown twice (Any Time At All).
- Photographs of Beatles as children – so much younger than today – are on the mantle above the fireplace (Help).
- In front of the picture of George is an old brown shoe.
- A cat sleeps on an armchair (I’m Only Sleeping).
- A scene of the Liverpool docks features rain.
- People leaving work (A Hard Day’s Night).
- The Beatles walk past. They reappear throughout the video (Here, There And Everywhere).
- The bouncer outside the Cavern Club has a flat top (Come Together).
- He forces people to wait.
- A policeman ushers others to the back of the line (Get Back).
- A woman in the queue wears red (Yes It Is).
- As the camera swings inside the club, it passes through a woman at the entrance (I’m Looking Through You).
- The entrance to Strawberry Field. The camera then pans from the top to the bottom of a tree – it must be high or low (Strawberry Fields Forever).
- A man from the Liverpool Egg Co delivers eggs (the ‘eggman’ from I Am The Walrus).
- Children running – ‘See how they run’ (Lady Madonna and I Am The Walrus).
- Two of the children hold hands (I Want To Hold Your Hand).
- Maxwell’s Hardware is on the row of shops (Maxwell’s Silver Hammer).
- Next door is a shop called Dylan’s (Yer Blues).
- A pretty nurse sells poppies from tray, near a barber shop showing photographs (Penny Lane).
- To her left is a barrow in the market place (Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da).
- There is a cigarette machine to the right of the barber’s (I’m Only Sleeping).
- A man wearing a hat holds a bent-backed tulip (Glass Onion).
- The barber says goodbye to a man with a briefcase. Another man tips his hat in greeting (Hello, Goodbye).
- A small sign in a shop window behind two pretty women says ‘Help’.
- A child whispers into the ear of another (Do You Want To Know A Secret).
- John Lennon and Yoko Ono embrace in a car (Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?).
- In a bakery window is a cake, with ‘Happy Birthday’ written on it.
- The cake also has the numbers six and four (When I’m Sixty-Four).
- George Harrison walks into the Apple headquarters, which has a sign outside saying ‘Dr Robert’.
- A crowd of people standing and staring at a car crash, as in A Day In The Life.
- The scene also contains a fire engine (Penny Lane) and policemen in a row (I Am The Walrus).
- People run quickly (Run For Your Life).
- A helter skelter slide appears.
- A kite is shown, representing Mr Kite.
- Children in pig masks (Piggies).
- The children run down an alley (Long Tall Sally).
- A sunflower, growing ‘so incredibly high’ (Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds).
- A ladder leading into an open window, into which a female vanishes (She Came In Through The Bathroom Window).
- The camera pans through a window, on which sits a lizard (Happiness Is A Warm Gun).
- A man types at a desk (Paperback Writer).
- Behind the man a clock shows 10:10 (One After 909).
- On a nearby table is a book by Edgar Alan Poe (I Am The Walrus), a copy of the Daily Mail (also Paperback Writer), some green apples (representing Apple).
- A box of Savoy Truffle chocolates is also on the table.
- Cigarette butts in an ashtray, with one cigarette burning (I’m So Tired, I Am The Walrus).
- The Daily Mail carries a headline about 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire (A Day In The Life).
- On the floor to the right is a portrait of the Queen (Penny Lane, Her Majesty).
- A picture of Chairman Mao (Revolution and Revolution 1) is in the bottom left corner of the window.
- Workers are fixing a hole in a roof.
- A Blue Meanie (from the Yellow Submarine film) looks out from the hole.
- There is a toy monkey by the side of the hole (Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey).
- A newspaper taxi (Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds) arrives.
- On the left side of the road a bulldog is being walked (Hey Bulldog).
- In the background another picture of Chairman Mao is carried across the road (Revolution, Revolution 1).
- John and Yoko dance a waltz (I’m Happy Just To Dance With You).
- The Blue Meanie makes a return appearance (he sleeps in a hole in the road, as in Mean Mr Mustard).
- The Magical Mystery Tour coach can briefly be seen in the distance.
- A succession of people walk past, including a hunter and his mother, representing The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill. The elephant was reportedly Starr’s idea; the Indian swami playing the sitar was requested by Harrison.
- Brian Epstein puts on a scarf to leave (I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party).
- Stuart Sutcliffe is shown in a recreation of the Sgt Pepper cover.
- Sunlight streams through the glass dome in the roof (Here Comes The Sun, The Inner Light).
- A statue of the Virgin Mary moves, representing Mother Mary from Let It Be (“Mother Mary comes to me”).
- A shot of Eleanor Rigby’s gravestone is followed by a priest walking from the grave.
- A sheepdog (Martha My Dear) runs past.
- A long and winding road vanishes in the distance.
- McCartney dances on a hill (The Fool On The Hill).
- Below him, a woman carries a suitcase (She’s Leaving Home).
- Lovely Rita, meter maid, walks by the Abbey Road zebra crossing.
- A Rolls-Royce car drives past (Baby You’re A Rich Man).
- Footage from the backstage theatre scenes in the A Hard Day’s Night film.
- Watching the man with a ukulele is a figure dressed as a joker (I Am The Walrus).