"Free as a Bird" was certainly a hit, cracking the top-10 shortly after its 1995 release. It also served as a key marketing tool for the launch of the Beatles "Anthology" series.
It also sounded terrible.
For me, this was more than a minor misstep. I was 10 in 1980 and was standing outside a frozen schoolyard when I learned that John Lennon had been shot. So about 15 years later, nothing sounded more thrilling than the idea of the remaining Beatles taking one of John's songs to create new work. And producer Jeff Lynne, the Electric Light Orchestra's front man, had worked on some of my favorite late-'80s albums, including comebacks by George Harrison and Roy Orbison.
Then I heard "Free."
Two reassuring thumps of Ringo's snare, George's signature slide and then … John's voice?
Ouch. John sounded as if he had been slapped onto a Maxell tape and left on the dashboard of my Plymouth TC3 on a scorching summer day. And Sir George Martin agreed. There have been reports that he declined to work on the song and the other Lennon demo dub, "Real Love," because of his hearing problems. But that's not what he told Rockcellar Magazine in a 2013 interview.
"I kind of told them I wasn't too happy with putting them together with the dead John," he said. "I've got nothing wrong with dead John but the idea of having dead John with live Paul and Ringo and George to form a group, it didn't appeal to me too much. In the same way that I think it's okay to find an old record of Nat King Cole's and bring it back to life and issue it, but to have him singing with his daughter is another thing. So I don't know, I'm not fussy about it but it didn't appeal to me very much. I think I might have done it if they asked me, but they didn't."
He explained in relative detail where he thought "Free" went wrong. To deal with the poor quality of John's demo – which had been recorded on a boombox on top of his piano – Lynne and Co. had been forced to compress the original until "what you ended up with was quite a thick homogeneous sound that hardly stops. There's not much dynamic in it," Martin said.
That's not surprising, as Jack Douglas told The Washington Post this morning. Douglas produced Lennon's final studio album, 1980's "Double Fantasy" — a collaboration with Yoko Ono — and was working with the ex-Beatle in the studio the night he was shot. Douglas was familiar with "Free" and "Real Love," which were among the tapes Lennon had sent Douglas in 1979 as he prepared to get back into the studio for his first album since 1974's "Walls and Bridges."
"Here's the basic thing about those songs," says Douglas. "I rejected those for 'Double Fantasy' because I didn't feel they were completed."
There was also the sound quality issue. The demos, which featured Lennon's narration between songs, were recorded during the late '70s in his New York apartment in the Dakota and in Bermuda. And Lennon never intended them to be used as anything other than demos. That's why he created a decidedly lo-fi multi-track system. He would record a first track on one boom box and then, while playing that tape openly in the room, sing or play another instrument over it to be captured on a second boom box.
"I'm sure that somebody did the best they could to beef it up but you really couldn't do much with it," says Douglas, who teamed with Martin to co-produce the 1978 Aerosmith cover of the Beatles classic "Come Together."
Still, Douglas adds, "I was happy that they did ["Free as a Bird"]. Because it just brought them together for a bit of a memorial."
Martin made sure not to criticize the ex-Beatles or Lynne in his 2013 interview, saying that "what they did was terrific."
He added, though, that he would have taken a different approach. Instead of breaking down Lennon's demo and trying to dub over it, he would have had George, Paul and Ringo use the demo as only that, a road map to create a new song. John's voice could be dropped in, but it wouldn't be as central to the recording.
And then, like a true gentleman, Martin admitted he wasn't sure he was right: "Whether that would be practical or not I don't know, this is just theoretically the way I would tackle it."