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'Collaborating' with the dead: ghostliness, nostalgia, and The Beatles' "Free as a Bird".

In 1995, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr released a new single utilizing a rough home demo tape that the late John Lennon recorded in 1977. "Free as a Bird" marked the first Beatles' reunion (albeit a virtual one that crosses the boundaries between the living and dead) since their split in 1970, and was selected as the opening track for the commemorative Beatles' Anthology CD. Mixed at McCartney's home studio in Sussex, U.K., the track features Lennon's lo-fi crackling vocals from the 1977 demo blended with hi-fi vocal and instrumental additions from the three remaining band members. The effect of this collaboration made possible by technological trickery is haunting. "

Free as a Bird" however, is not an isolated case of such musical 'collaboration' between the living and the dead. To start with, the second volume of The Beatles' Anthology series opens with another reworked Lennon demo, "Real Love." Examples preceding the Beatles' experimentations include the duets, "There's a Tear in My Beer" of Hank Williams Jr. and his deceased father (1988), and the later rendition of "Unforgettable" that reunited Natalie Cole and the late Nat "King" Cole (1991). On the Beach Boys' 50th Anniversary World Tour in 2012, the late (yet youthful) Carl Wilson led the living band members in a performance of "God Only Knows" from a large video screen, much to the delight of the audience. That same year, a high-definition holographic Tupac Shakur performed alongside Snoop Dogg at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival (Potter, 2012, p. xv; Micoleta, 2012; Smith, 2012). Since the isolated novel examples of the late 1980s and 1990s living-dead musical collaborations are now more commonplace, increasing in sophistication as technological possibilities expand.

Today, accessing recorded voices of dead musicians is simple, and their presence ubiquitous. For example, while one's aural perception of The Beatles' Abbey Road (1969) may not be affected by the fact that two band members have passed since its release, there is something uncanny and tantalizing about the living-dead interactions outlined above. This article examines "Free as a Bird" as a technologically mediated encounter between living and dead musicians. As a point of departure, I engage with recent scholarship from the interdisciplinary field of sound studies that problematizes connections between sound recording, human subjectivity, and death. Beyond the technological, I situate "Free as a Bird," its production, and impact within varying contexts of reception constructed by journalists, scholars, fans, producers, and the Beatles themselves. The song finds itself entwined within multiple discourses of nostalgia, commercialism, and meaning--its unique living-dead attribute generating additional layers of complexity.

Ghosts and Recorded Sound

In the introduction to the collection of essays, Popular Ghosts: The Haunted Spaces of Everyday Culture, Maria del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren (2010) write that "it seems that ghosts are everywhere these days. Whether in rock songs, Internet news feeds, or museum exhibits, we appear to have entered an era that has reintroduced the vocabulary of ghosts and 'haunting' into everyday life" (pp. ix-xxii). The authors' conception of the "ghost" is flexible, encompassing the traditional, supernatural kind and the more figurative ghosts that lurk at the backdrop of everyday life like the "spectral labor" initiated by global capitalism, identity theft, and the vague, omnipresent "War on Terror" (ibid., pp.x-xiv). The constant evolution of technology has been key to the proliferation and pervasiveness of new ghostly presences. Analyses of recorded sound, "ghosts," and death have increased in recent years within the growing, interdisciplinary field of sound studies.

In The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction, Jonathan Sterne (2003) sets forth a detailed history of sound recording beginning in the late nineteenth century and exploring its function in society and changing social receptions. Sterne's sources reveal numerous commentators' enthrallment in the early days, with new technology and its capability to preserve the human voice beyond the grave. It was within the Victorian culture of death and dying--the penchant to collect, embalm, and preserve eternally--that sound technologies first gained their hold over the social imagination. Throughout the twentieth century, numerous scholars expressed suspicion or distrust towards sound recording technology, its function in society, and its uncanny potential to capture and embalm sound or to make endless copies of it. While Walter Benjamin's prescient "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1968) might be reapplied to the phenomenon of recording sound--the "death" of an original musical event through electronic codification and endless reproduction--, R. Murray Schafer's (1977) concept of "schizophonia" signals a form of 'death' by dislocation (p. 273).

For Jacques Attali (1985), recording technology is a totem of a repetitive world where music has become a mass-produced commodity that is filtered carelessly into every area of human life. In Attali's view, repetition replaced representation and is coterminous with "death" (pp. 87-133).

Two recent studies examine the problematic dimensions of sound recording technology, human subjectivity, and 'death,' providing useful theoretical underpinnings for a study of "Free as a Bird." Through a "speculative historical thanatology of recorded sound," Jonathan Sterne (2005) posits that recording technologies and other media are not simply at the backdrop of human experience; they are effective "modes of organizing and explaining subjectivity" (pp. 253-254). As various technologies shift from novelty to normality over time, and as new possibilities materialize, the ways we think about recorded sound, the living and the dead, change in tandem. In their comprehensive study of posthumous musical interaction, Jason Stanyek and Benjamin Piekut (2010) examine the myriad ways in which worlds of the living and dead collaborate in a recording studio context. Focusing on "Unforgettable," the oft-discussed duet of Natalie Cole and her deceased father Nat "King" Cole, the authors explore issues of agency and attempt to craft a more nuanced definition of the term "collaboration." In the case of "Unforgettable," to attribute agency exclusively to the living would be a misunderstanding and oversimplification. Stanyek and Piekut (2010) argue that agency is a much more complex, unstable phenomenon--it is not simply a trait that something/someone has, earns, or is given. If this understanding of agency can be applied to both living and dead participants in musical projects like "Unforgettable" and "Free as a Bird," so can the concept of "collaboration." The authors' perspectives "run counter to the common understanding that collaboration necessarily entails face-to-face encounter, where participants can reach unanimity supported by an equivalence of output and capacity" (Stanyek and Piekut, 2010, p.19). Collaborations of an intermundane nature, they argue, are just as genuine as those that are face-to-face.

"Free as a Bird" as Virtual Reunion

To provide some context, John Lennon (1996) recorded the "Free as a Bird" demo on mono cassette for voice and piano accompaniment at his home in New York in 1977, roughly three years before his death. As the well-trodden story goes, following Lennon's posthumous inauguration to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, Yoko Ono handed McCartney a number of Lennon's poor quality home demos, "Free as a Bird" among them (Everett, 1999, pp. 286-287; MacDonald, 2008, pp. 376-377; Elliott, 1999, p. 158). Deciding to work on the track as part of the Beatles virtual reunion project, the demo tape was sent to Los Angeles to be worked on by producer Jeff Lynne and engineer Marc Mann. According to Ian MacDonald (2008):
   The mono cassette needed to be carefully cleaned up in a digital
   studio, synchronized to a sequencer using a time-stretch program to
   cure Lennon's typically unsteady tempo (thereby allowing the other
   Beatles to play in time with it) and, finally transferred to
   multitrack (p. 376).

In an interview for Goldmine, Lynne comments that amending Lennon's "Free as a Bird" demo was technically "one of the most daunting and physically impossible things to do" (Sharp, 2013, n.p.). The demo, he argues, lacked flexibility due to the medium upon which it was recorded and through the musical choices Lennon made in performance:

The piano was stuck to John's voice, so you can't even raise his voice without the piano coming up. Then there was also the problem of timing. The meter was not right for anybody to play to. What I did was measure the speed at the beginning, the middle and the end and just do an average, and that's the speed we used for them (ibid.).

In addition, sections of Lennon's demo were broken up and placed in a different order to facilitate an easier addition of vocals and instrumentals (Everett, 1999, p. 287). When these processes were complete, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr worked on the polished track with Lynne and engineer Geoff Emerick at McCartney's studio in Sussex (MacDonald, 2008, p.376; Everett, 1999, p. 287). Here, McCartney added supplementary lead vocals to fill the gaps in Lennon's texture, with Harrison and Starr providing harmonies. Instrument-wise, piano, acoustic guitars, bass, electric slide guitar, drums, a synthesizer, and a ukulele were also added (MacDonald, 2008, p. 376).

Stanyek and Piekut (2010) posit that a nuanced understanding of living-dead musical interaction goes far beyond acknowledging the aliveness or deadness of the performers in question. They argue that various technological processes in the recording studio also engage in/create/facilitate alternate forms of death (pp.19-20). Four of the six processes they outline enhance the analysis of "Free as a Bird" as intermundane collaboration, helping us understand the original demo track's journey through time, through multiple technological changes, and across geographically distant locations to the final single/Anthology version.

"Revertibility" refers to the undoing of recorded material in ways that alter the linear flow of real time (Stanyek & Piekut 2010, pp.19-20). While this condition is endemic in much studio-recorded music, the engineering work to clean up Lennon's demo and blend the new vocal/instrumental portions demonstrates revertibility at play. It is probable that the newly added materials were also manipulated in a similar way--sounds added and removed to create the ideal balance of the final mix.

"Recombinatoriality"--the methods by which recorded materials are manipulated and re-combined (e.g. cutting, splicing, mixing)--are important to the production stages of the song and again, occur to some degree in the majority of studio-recorded music. Notable here are the ways that Lennon's demo was re-ordered to enable the smooth addition of newly

recorded audio elements.

"Rhizophonia" refers to the procedures by which "sounds and bodies are constantly dislocated, re-located, and co-located in temporal aural configurations" (Stanyek & Piekut 2010, pp. 19-20), and are particularly relevant to "Free as a Bird." The journey from the original demo to the final Anthology version involves movement through time (1977 to 1994 to 1995), across vast geographical space (New York to Hollywood to Sussex), and across the borders between life and death to be understood in this context. Linked to this is the concept of "corpauralities," an understanding of the location of human bodies and voices within rhizophonic processes--in this case, split by time and space. A salient example occurs in sections where McCartney, Harrison, and Starr engage in consonant, third-based harmony with Lennon. Here, the layering and blending of bodies and voices, living and dead, create moments of self-conscious, technologically constructed unity.

Structurally, the song is simple, featuring a verse-verse-refrain-verse-verse-truncated refrain and closing section. At the opening, newly added guitars and drums almost mask Lennon's piano on the demo entirely (although, the piano does leak through with careful listening). The first striking interaction between the voices of the living and dead begins in the opening verse where Lennon's papery, distant vocals are sounded against a highly mediated, polished instrumental backdrop. As Lennon sustains the word "free," the other band members harmonize with him on the lyrics "as a bird." The superimposition of hi-fi vocal harmonization (representing presence) with Lennon's distant and crackly lo-fi voice from the demo (creating a sense of absence) sets the song's eerie tone.

At the refrain, the 1995 version of the song differs greatly from Lennon's 1977 recording. In the demo, Lennon's voice and chordal piano accompaniment are metrically swung. Here, he begins with the lyrics, "Whatever happened to, the life that we once knew?" before trailing off and humming the rest of the melody. In the 1995 collaboration, McCartney sings in a rhythmically straight manner (evidence of the Lynne/Mann temporal clean up), filling the gaps with new lyrics:
   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 ... [free as a bird] (Beatles, 1995).

McCartney's sentimentally-soaked additions may evoke feelings of loss, sadness, or nostalgia in some listeners. While these lyrics may have come directly from the heart, it is more likely that they were crafted to affect listeners in a specific way, drawing them into the spirit of the broader commemorative project. In a New York Times review of the Anthology, Jon Pareles (1995) suggests that the added lyrics turn "Free as a Bird" into a "lost-love song" that attempts to rekindle a happy Beatles past within the space of virtual reunion.

Indeed, through close musical analysis, Walter Everett highlights a number of harmonic and melodic gestures at play in "Free as a Bird" reminiscent of 1960s Beatles idioms. One prominent example is the backing vocal "aahs" (shifting silkily between homophonic and simple contrapuntal textures) accompanying the slide guitar solo that conjure up memories of "Because" from Abbey Road, while the modulating guitar solo pays homage to "Something" from the same album (Beatles, 1969; Everett, 1999, pp. 287-288). In addition, Everett (1999) illuminates a number of very subtle cadential patterns and harmonic progressions that appear to reference "P.S. I Love You," "With a Little Help from My Friends," "Hello Goodbye," and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" among others, though it is unclear whether these occurrences were self-conscious or coincidental (pp. 287-288). For the seasoned Beatles listener, the explicit Abbey Road-inspired gestures might prompt feelings of familiarity and intimacy. The more elusive melodic and tonal similarities, however, are less likely to register. Within the wider context of the Anthology project, we might read the sentimental lyrical additions and musical self-referentiality as attempts to present a new, unified front for the "reunion," counteracting widely disseminated images of a fractured band riddled by animosity.

The production of "Free as a Bird" and its journey through time and geographic space involved the participation of numerous actors, living and dead. Within this dispersed context, how might we understand issues of artistic agency? As Stanyek and Piekut (2010) argue, agency is not something that belongs exclusively to the living. In the case of "Free as a Bird," do the living exercise greater authority over this collaboration than the dead, or vice versa? One central ethical issue diminishes Lennon's collaborative cut significantly: the use of private artistic material without the permission of the creator, its alteration, and its release into the wider world. Seeing that Lennon never recorded "Free as a Bird" in a more official context, it may have been something he wished to remain private (Makela, 2005, p. 178). In addition, it is unclear whether or not Lennon would have endorsed a Beatles reunion of any sort--his opinion on the matter was in a frequent state of flux (Elliott, 1999, pp. 154-156).

Assessing the levels of collaboration within the musical parameters of "Free as a Bird" is equally complex. First, the living musicians and studio engineers had to work within the basic harmonic and melodic parameters set by Lennon's demo. The engineers, however, altered Lennon's original in a number of ways: converting it from mono to digital, reordering material, and significantly ironing out many of the temporal irregularities. The cleanup process might be problematic to some listeners. Some may feel the demo--the "original," "authentic" object (to use these words cautiously)--ought to exercise utmost authority. In this view, the living band members and studio engineers should have adapted to Lennon's wayward tempo and melodic idiosyncrasies as an act of homage. Because of this cleanup, Lennon's cut of the intermundane collaboration is somewhat reduced. Lennon's vocal part in the Anthology version, however, still retains its distant, papery, crackling quality despite clear attempts to sharpen it. The diaphanous timbre of his voice, contrasted with the polished vocals of the other singers, marks an explicit space where intermundane conversation occurs. Lennon is distant, yet very much present, alongside his former band members, albeit in a ghostly form.

Despite mixed critical reception regarding the track's quality in comparison to the band's previous work and concerns about the exploitation of the Beatles' brand, "Free as a Bird" achieved chart success in both the U.S. and the U.K. In 1996, the song won a Grammy award for "Best Pop Performance by a Duo or a Group with Vocal" and the accompanying video (created by Joe Pytka and Vincent Joliet) winning the award for "Best Short Music Video" ( At present, no Grammy for "Best Intermundane Collaboration" exists.

"Courting" Nostalgia

[Free as a Bird] is a slight song with a production that deliberately courts nostalgia. It's a ballad with a wistful, descending doo-wop chord progression and ambiguous Lennon lyrics that don't get far from the title's cliche (Pareles, 1995, November 21).

"Free as a Bird" isn't an embarrassment, nor is it an essential addition to the Beatles canon [...] There is perhaps some nostalgia value in hearing McCartney and George Harrison singing harmonies with the voice of their late friend (Kot, 1995, November 21).

The multimedia Anthology initiative comprising a television/VHS documentary, three double CD sets, a DVD rerelease of the documentary, and an extensive tome was released in a staggered fashion between 1995 and 2003. The first installment marked a quarter century after the band's split in 1970--a significant anniversary for marketing purposes. As might be expected, much of the critical reception surrounding the Anthology centers on the theme of nostalgia with "Free as a Bird" playing a key role. Although released separately as a single, "Free as a Bird" opens the first Anthology CD that otherwise exhibits rare recordings, comical false starts, and vocal clips from the band's early years. The opening song is followed by a short vocal snippet where Lennon explains the band's humble origins and fortuitous rise to fame, before moving to a crackly rendition of Buddy Holly's "That'll be the Day." The remainder of the two-disc Anthology 1 CD takes the listener on a rapid excursion through the band's early years--a compressed illustration of their rise from obscurity to worldwide fame. On such a high-profile project, it is clear that the producers made very deliberate choices regarding the placement and ordering of tracks. Opening with "Free as a Bird"--a 'new' Beatles song where Lennon collaborates from the grave with McCartney, Harrison, and Starr--is a unique selling point. From the outset, the listener is drawn into the commemorative project through a long-awaited, perceivably impossible Beatles reunion.

"Nostalgia" is a vague term, and its prevalent use in media discussion of the Anthology project is equally ambiguous. While a number of critics were suspicious of a nostalgia manufactured to exploit the Beatles' brand, others highlight the artistic value of the endeavor, expressing a genuine excitement for the new and/or newly constituted material (Kot, 1995; Reuters, 1995; King, 1995; Fusili, 1995; Green, 1995). If the conjuring of nostalgia is part of this story, for whom was it intended? For those who lived during the 1960s? For the children of the so-called 'baby boomers' who grew up listening to their parents' music and observing a media saturated by 1960s imagery? For those who might have never listened to the band before? Perhaps the multimedia nature of the Anthology generates an all-inclusive nostalgia--one that anyone can be a part of to varying degrees. As Svetlana Boym argues, living through a particular experience is not a prerequisite for nostalgia. "Pop nostalgia," she argues through military analogy, "is often a disease of war buffs, not war veterans, who prefer to fight staged battles on their own terms" (Boym, 2001, p. 37).

It might be productive to frame "Free as a Bird" and the Anthology project more generally within two complexly entwined nostalgic trends. First, the project fits into recurring waves of 1960's popular culture veneration that have surfaced since the decade's close, especially potent in England and the United States. At the heart of these various revivals lies romanticized, almost mythical notions of Sixties exceptionalism--a decade quite unlike any other (Marwick, 1998, p. 3). Second, while the Beatles fit into these broader 1960s nostalgic waves, they also exist outside of it on independent trajectories. To put this simply, re-explosions of Beatlemania may not be contingent upon wider revivals of 1960s popular culture. Regarding the latter, Janne Makela (2005) makes the following comments:
   Considering the pervasive presence of the Beatles, from regular
   rereleases of the Beatles' records, to tourism and from fan culture
   to abundant media coverage, there is unlikely to be a significant
   decline in fascination with the group in contemporary culture. On
   the contrary, the history of the Beatles continues to unfold as a
   cultural narrative (p. 171).

Continuing to "unfold as cultural narrative" suggests that the Beatles are as much a part of the post-1960s popular imagination as they were of their own time. During the 1960s and since their split, "The Beatles" as an idea continues to accrue new meanings, relevance, and purposes for those that embrace it in different world locales and across generations. If the Beatles are just as relevant today as yesterday, at what point does something cease to be nostalgic?

The timing of the Anthology release (1995-2003) coincides roughly with a cultural phenomenon British music critic, Simon Reynolds (2011), calls "retromania," a concentrated embrace of various post-1950s popular cultures in the early 2000s (p. xiii). Reynolds argues that this was a time of
   the 're' prefix: revivals, re issues, remakes, re-enactments.
   Endless retrospection: every year brought a fresh spate of
   anniversaries, with their attendant glut of biographies, memoirs,
   rockumentaries, biopics and commemorative issues of magazines. Then
   there were the band reformations, whether it was groups reuniting
   for nostalgia tours in order to replenish (or to bloat still
   further) the members' bank balances [...] or as a prequel to
   returning to the studio to re launch their careers as recording
   artists (p. xi).

The tone of Reynolds' study is largely negative: Reynolds suggests that the pervasiveness of popular music revivalism in the 2000s signaled a lapse in originality among musicians at the time. Regarding the revival of 1960's bands/musics, this time frame may not be surprising considering that it coincides with prominent anniversaries of band formations, single/ album releases, break-ups, and so on. The inception of the Anthology marks a quarter century since the band's split and, more generally, since the end of the 1960s. It also marks fifteen years since Lennon's death. The timing of this release follows a similar logic to the 2012 Beach Boys 50th Anniversary World Tour (marking half a century since they signed with Capitol) and various Rolling Stones' 50th anniversary endeavors the same year.

But "Free as a Bird" complicates the Anthology project somewhat. While the CDs, book, and documentary present a multimedia representation of Beatles history constructed from collaged voices, past and present, "Free as a Bird" makes the fantasy of reunion a (virtual) reality.

In addition, discourses of nostalgia surrounding the song ought to embrace more than a 1960s revival, Beatlemania, and economic exploitation. There is also great value in assessing the ways music and the musicians involved can affect individuals on a personal level. As Anthony Elliott (1999) argues,
   The nostalgia encountered here is not simply of the Hollywood
   variety which packages the past as "product," as one sense of style
   among others. On the contrary, nostalgia is how we see ourselves
   today in the light of the past. From this angle, nostalgia has a
   certain transformative quality, permitting the recovery of lost
   memories, thoughts, and feelings as a medium for present artistic
   experience" (p. 177).


On December 14, 1980 at approximately 2pm Eastern time, millions of fans around the world held ten-minute silent vigils in light of Lennon's murder (Haberman, 1980; Butler, 1980). A reporter for the New York Times explains that over one hundred thousand people gathered in Central Park, close to Lennon's home, for this collective wake:

Whatever impelled people to the park, they listened for an hour to music boomed from giant speakers straddling the bandshell stage. There, Mr. Lennon stood in portrait, arms folded, wearing a t-shirt that said "New York City" (Haberman, 1980).

Coverage from the Guardian describes that:

at two o'clock bells tolled, silence fell, and thousands of people clasped hands and stood, many of them praying or meditating. For ten minutes the only sound was that of police helicopters overhead. At the same time--7pm in Liverpool--crowds also stood in silence and candles were lit (Rosen & Dunn, 1980).

The magnitude of collective mourning for John Lennon is quite remarkable--the singer clearly meant (and continues to mean) a great deal to a large number of people across the world. These images enhance our understanding of "Free as a Bird" as an aesthetic object saturated by multiple meanings that extend beyond concerns of commercial exploitation, 1960s nostalgia, and Beatlemania into the realm of the personal. The song gains additional significance from the lingering sadness surrounding Lennon's murder, fan responses to it, and the legendary status he attained after his death. In recent years, scholarly attention to the afterlife of deceased celebrities has increased, urging for more nuanced understandings of the phenomenon (Jones & Jensen, 2005; Stanyek & Piekut, 2010; Ebert, 2010; Rodman, 1996). Joli Jensen (2005) encourages scholars to think beyond limited perspectives that align fandom with "cultural shallowness" or "pathology" in order to understand how responses to celebrity deaths are rich, complex, and deeply meaningful to the individuals who are affected (p. xv). "Free as a Bird" is undeniably inscribed with the sadness of Lennon's passing. Hearing his voice in song, once again, alongside McCartney, Harrison, and Starr might be uncanny, devastating, transcendent, comforting. In an interview for the Los Angeles Times, McCartney states that:

I warned Ringo that he'd better have a handkerchief ready when he listened to the tape for the first time, because he's a very emotional guy, and I know I had a bit of a cry. It's a powerful thing hearing your friend on a very beautiful song. When we got in the studio, however, it felt like John was there. It was like he had done his vocal and maybe gone off to the toilet or something while the rest of us worked on the track (Hilburn, 1995).

"Free as a Bird" is a complex entity that has accrued multiple meanings from its origins as a rough home demo through various stages of production, to its release and reception as part of the Anthology project. As a technologically mediated encounter between living and dead musicians, this song provokes fruitful discussion regarding the relationships between life, death, and the medium of sound recording. Beyond the technological, "Free as a Bird" exists within numerous entwined contexts of reception constructed by journalists, producers, fans, scholars, and the Beatles themselves. Here, discussions of nostalgia, commemoration, and sadness of Lennon's passing are layered with concerns of commercial exploitation, ownership, and authenticity. This article aims to deepen discussion of this compelling, enigmatic song in hope that further questions are raised as new meanings materialize.

Laura Shearing

Doctoral Candidate

University of Chicago


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Date:Sep 22, 2014
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