The Paul McCartney Project

Free as a Bird

Album This song officially appears on the Anthology 1 Official album.
Timeline This song has been officially released in 1995
Sessions This song has been recorded during the following sessions

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Song facts

From Wikipedia:

Free as a Bird” is a song originally composed and recorded in 1977 as a home demo by John Lennon. In 1995 a studio version of the recording, incorporating contributions from Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, was released as a single by The Beatles. It was released 25 years after the break-up of the band and 15 years after the death of Lennon.

The single was released as part of the promotion for The Beatles Anthology video documentary and the band’s Anthology 1 compilation album. For the Anthology project, McCartney asked Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono for unreleased material by Lennon to which the three remaining ex-Beatles could contribute. “Free as a Bird” was one of two such songs (along with “Real Love“) for which McCartney, Harrison, and Starr contributed additional instrumentation, vocals, and arrangements. Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra, who had worked with Harrison on Harrison’s album Cloud Nine and as part of the Traveling Wilburys, was asked to co-produce the record.

The music video for “Free as a Bird” was produced by Vincent Joliet and directed by Joe Pytka; from the point of view of a bird in flight, it depicts many references to Beatles songs, such as “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Penny Lane“, “Paperback Writer“, “A Day in the Life“, “Eleanor Rigby“, “Revolution“, and “Helter Skelter“. “Free as a Bird” won the 1997 Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal and was The Beatles’ 34th Top 10 single in the United States. The song secured the group at least one Top 40 hit in four different decades (1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s).

Origins

McCartney, Harrison and Starr originally intended to record some incidental background music, as a trio, for the Anthology project, but later realised, according to Starr, that they wanted to record “new music“. According to Harrison, they had always agreed that if one of them was not in the band, the others would never replace them and, “… go out as the Beatles“, and that the “only other person that could be in it was John.

McCartney then asked Ono if she had any unreleased recordings by Lennon, so she sent him cassette tapes of four songs. “Free as a Bird” was recorded by Lennon in 1977, in his and Ono’s Dakota building apartment in New York City, but was not complete. Lennon introduced the song on the cassette by imitating a New York accent and saying, “Free—as a boid” (bird). The other songs were “Grow Old With Me“, “Real Love“, and “Now and Then“. Ono says that it was Harrison and former Beatles road manager Neil Aspinall who initially asked her about the concept of adding vocals and instrumentation to Lennon’s demo tapes. Ono stated: “People have said it was all agreed when Paul came over to New York 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.

McCartney went to Ono’s home after the induction ceremony at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to listen to, and receive, the Lennon demo tapes; he recalls the meeting with Ono:

She was there with Sean … and she played us a couple of tracks. There were two newies on mono cassettes which he did at home … [s]o I checked it out with Sean, because I didn’t want him to have a problem with it. He said, “Well, it’ll be weird hearing a dead guy on lead vocal. But give it a try.” I said to them both, “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. 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.”

During an interview for the Anthology project, McCartney revealed that he was surprised to learn that Lennon’s demos of “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” had already been released and were well known by Lennon fans. Starr admitted that when he first listened to the recording he found it very emotional.

Recording

George Martin, who had produced most of the Beatles’ 1960s recordings, turned down an invitation to produce “Free as a Bird” due to hearing problems (though he subsequently managed to produce and direct the Anthology series). Harrison, in turn, suggested Lynne as producer, and work commenced at McCartney’s studio in February 1994. Geoff Emerick and Jon Jacobs were chosen to engineer the new tracks.

The original tape of Lennon singing the song was recorded on a mono cassette, with vocals and piano on the same track. They were impossible to separate, so Lynne had to produce the track with voice and piano together, but commented that it was good for the integrity of the project, as Lennon was not only singing occasional lines, but also playing on the song.

Although Lennon had died in 1980, Starr said that the three remaining Beatles agreed they would pretend that Lennon had “gone for lunch“, or had gone for a “cup of tea“. The remaining Beatles recorded a track around Lennon’s basic song idea, but which had gaps they had to fill in musically. Some chords were changed, and the arrangement was expanded to include breaks for McCartney and Harrison to sing extra lines. Harrison played slide guitar in the solo.

The Beatles’ overdubs and production were recorded between February and March 1994 in Sussex, England, at McCartney’s home studio. It ends with a slight coda including a strummed ukulele by Harrison (an instrument he was known to have played often) and the voice of John Lennon played backwards. The message, when played in reverse, is “Turned out nice again“, which was the catchphrase of George Formby. The final result sounds like “made by John Lennon“, which, according to McCartney, was unintentional and was only discovered after the surviving Beatles reviewed the final mix. When Starr heard McCartney and Harrison singing the harmonies, and later the finished song, he said that it sounded just like them [The Beatles]. He explained his comment by saying that he looked at the project as “an outsider“. Lynne fully expected the finished track to sound like The Beatles, as that was his premise for the project, but Harrison added: “It’s gonna sound like them [The Beatles] if it is them… It sounds like them now” [in the present].

McCartney, Harrison and Starr all agreed that the recording process was more pleasurable than when they later recorded “Real Love” (the second song chosen for release); as it was almost finished, they had very little input, and felt like sidemen for Lennon.

Music video

The music video for “Free as a Bird” was produced by Vincent Joliet and directed by Joe Pytka and depicts, from the point of view of a bird in flight, many references to Beatles songs, such as “Penny Lane“, “Paperback Writer“, “A Day in the Life“, “Eleanor Rigby“, “Helter Skelter“, “Piggies“, “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill“, “Strawberry Fields Forever“, “Doctor Robert“, and “The Fool on The Hill“. Between 80 and 100 allusions to the Beatles’ story, music and lyrics in the video have been estimated. Although the bird can be heard at the beginning of the video, it is never seen. Neil Aspinall (Apple Records executive at the time) said that this was because no-one could agree on what kind of bird it should be. Pytka had to send his ideas to McCartney, Harrison and Starr, as well as Ono, to make sure they all agreed before he could proceed with the filming of the video. Derek Taylor (ex-Apple Records executive) sent a two-page letter to Pytka confirming that he could proceed, and personally encouraged and supported Pytka’s ideas. The video was filmed in as many authentic locations as possible: Penny Lane was made by Pytka’s art department to look as it was in the 1950s, and other locations filmed were The Liver Building, and Liverpool Docks (as a reference to Lennon’s father Alfred Lennon).

Although Pytka fixed the ideas on a storyboard, he abandoned it as soon as filming began, and followed ideas based on what angles and perspectives the steadycam camera produced. One instance was the filming of the car crash, which Pytka filmed for hours from above, but realised that a steadycam shot on the ground was a much better idea. Archive footage was used by imposing it on scenes shot by Pytka, who utilised a greenscreen stage to digitally blend it into the finished film, such as Paul’s Old English Sheepdog in the graveyard, and the elephant in the ballroom procession scene. The elephant was put in last, as Aspinall phoned Pytka and said that Starr liked the scene, but insisted an elephant be put in it, which Pytka later did, as he had already put a sitar in at the request of Harrison. Apart from the steadycam shots, Pytka used a Russian-made Akil-crane for sweeping overhead shots, such as the Abbey Road zebra crossing shot at the end, as well as a remote-controlled toy helicopter with a camera added to it for intricate aerial shots. To make it more interesting, two Blue Meanies make cameos.

Harrison played the ukulele in the studio for the song, and asked to appear as the ukulele player seen only from behind at the very end of the video. Pytka resisted this, as he felt it would be wrong for any contemporary members of the Beatles to appear on screen. Pytka later stated that it was “heartbreaking” that Harrison had not played the role, particularly after Harrison’s death in 2001 and upon discovering that the ukulele was not a sample of an old song as Pytka had assumed. The video won the Grammy Award for Best Short Form Music Video in 1997.

On 6 November 2015, Apple Records released a new deluxe version of the 1 album in different editions and variations (known as 1+). Most of the tracks on 1 have been remixed from the original multi-track masters by Giles Martin. Giles Martin, with Jeff Lynne also remixed “Free as a Bird” to accompany the music video for the DVD and Blu-ray releases. The remix of “Free as a Bird” cleans up Lennon’s vocal further, and uses a different take of Harrison’s vocal phrase, replacing the lyric “whatever happened to the life that we once knew” with “whatever happened to the love that we once knew“. Towards the end of the track, this version also contains a clip of Lennon stating the phrase “turned out nice again” played forward – which was played backwards in the original mix of the song. McCartney’s lead vocal, buried in the original mix to serve as a double track for Lennon’s own vocal, can now be heard more prominently in the second verse.

Chart performance

Free as a Bird” was premiered on BBC Radio 1 in the early hours of 20 November 1995. It was released as a single in the UK on 4 December 1995, two weeks after its appearance on the Anthology 1 album. The single sold 120,000 copies in its first week, entering the UK Singles Chart at No. 2. It remained on the chart for eight weeks. In the US, the song reached No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming The Beatles’ 34th Top 10 single in America. It was the group’s first Top 10 song in the U.S. in nineteen and a half years, the longest span for the group between Top 10 hits since first charting in America in 1964.

Critical reception

Free as a Bird” marked the first time a single containing new material had been released under The Beatles’ name since “The Long and Winding Road” in the United States in 1970. The promotional video was broadcast during episode one of The Beatles Anthology that aired on ITV in the UK and ABC in the US.

Free as a Bird” was greeted with mixed reviews. Its release was criticised by Caroline Sullivan in The Guardian as a publicity gimmick, exploiting the Beatles brand, and owing less to the Beatles than to Lynne. Andy Gill in The Independent called the song “disappointingly low-key. … George’s guitar weeps gently enough when required, but the overall effect is of a dirge.” Ian MacDonald declared it to be a “dreary song” that stood no comparison with The Beatles’ Sixties music. Chris Carter, now the host of Breakfast with the Beatles, commented: “I would value any song (especially if it was great) performed by John, Paul, George and Ringo, no matter how (or when) it was recorded.” “Free as a Bird” later won the 1997 Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. […]

Paul McCartney in "Conversations With McCartney", by Paul Du Noyer:

It’s a pity there aren’t more tracks like ‘Free As A Bird’, but because of the tragedy occurring, there’s only so much stuff that Yoko has of John’s. She played us a couple of tracks and we chose them. The good thing about ‘Free As A Bird’ for us was that it was unfinished. So the middle eight didn’t have all the words to it. That was like John bringing us a song and saying, ‘Do you want to finish it?’

This opportunity came up with the Anthology to maybe have a go at one of John’s songs. So I rang Yoko and asked if this would be on. I ended up going to her house after the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dinner where I inducted John as a solo artist. I checked it out with Sean, because I didn’t want him to have a problem with it. And I said to them both, ‘If it doesn’t work out, you can veto it.’

I said to Ringo, ‘Let’s pretend that we’ve nearly finished some recordings and John is going off to Spain on holiday. He’s just rung up and said, ‘There’s one more song I wouldn’t mind getting on the album, but it’s not finished. So if you’re up for it, take it in the studio, do your stuff like you would normally do, have fun with it, and I trust you’. With that scenario in place, Ringo then said, ‘Oh, this could even be joyous’.

And it was. We’d not met for a long time, we did it down in my studio, and the press didn’t guess that we’d be down there. We had technical problems to overcome. But because we said, ‘John’s only left us this tape,’ we could take the piss. That was our attitude, we were never reverent to each other.

From The Usenet Guide to Beatles Recording Variations:

  • [a] stereo 1994? at [location?].
    CD: Apple CDP 8 34445 2 Anthology 1 1995, Apple C2 8 58497 Free as a Bird 1995.

The basic recording from 1977 was a mono cassette with voice and piano, and this 1994 version was probably made by cutting the Lennon demo of 1977 to pieces, fitting them to a mechanical drum track, and having the Beatles dub new parts over it. The Lennon track also had to be processed to bring the vocal sound up to avoid it being buried under the new sounds.

The songs are the same length on the two CDs, but on Anthology it starts fading sooner, making the very last part harder to hear. It also plays much louder on the “single”.

Last updated on November 30, 2016

Lyrics

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

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
Like 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

Whatever happened to
The life that we once knew?
Always made me feel so free

Free as a bird
It's the next best thing to be
Free as a bird
Free as a bird
Free as a bird

Officially appears on


Anthology 1

Official album • Released in 1995

4:25 • Studio versionA

Paul McCartney:
Acoustic guitar, Bass, Keyboards, Piano, Producer, Vocals
Ringo Starr:
Drums, Producer, Vocals
John Lennon:
Piano, Producer, Vocals
Jeff Lynne:
Guitar, Harmony vocals, Producer
George Harrison:
Acoustic guitar, Electric slide guitar, Producer, Ukulele, Vocals

Recording:
Circa 1977
Studio:
New York

Session Recording:
February / March 1994
Studio:
Hog Hill Studio, Rye, UK


Free As A Bird

EP • Released in 1995

4:26 • Studio versionA

Paul McCartney:
Acoustic guitar, Bass, Keyboards, Piano, Producer, Vocals
Ringo Starr:
Drums, Producer, Vocals
John Lennon:
Piano, Producer, Vocals
Jeff Lynne:
Guitar, Harmony vocals, Producer
George Harrison:
Acoustic guitar, Electric slide guitar, Producer, Ukulele, Vocals

Recording:
Circa 1977
Studio:
New York

Session Recording:
February / March 1994
Studio:
Hog Hill Studio, Rye, UK

Bootlegs


Meet The Threetles

Unofficial album

3:29 • Demo • Free As A Bird - John's demo


Meet The Threetles

Unofficial album

4:06 • Demo • Free As A Bird - acoustic mix


Meet The Threetles

Unofficial album

4:34 • Demo • Free As A Bird - 5.1 center channel


Meet The Threetles

Unofficial album

4:34 • Demo • Free As A Bird - 5.1 front stereo


Meet The Threetles

Unofficial album

4:34 • Demo • Free As A Bird - 5.1 surround


Live performances

Paul McCartney has never played this song in concert.


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