Prince is an artist who was never afraid to test the boundaries of pop music. With his swashbuckling style, he not only paved the way for accepted androgyny but also managed to traverse the genre borders of music like a lamb leaping over a gate. Unlike many of his later contemporaries, Prince was able to carve his pathway into the future by paying homage to the past stars. Of course, Prince’s innovation is what set him apart, but there were some lines he wouldn’t cross. Lines that, it turns out, The Beatles would cross.
In 1994, a curious occasion occurred that, despite being geared to scratch a collective itch, never really stood up to the billing. Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr would reunite to celebrate the mammoth release of Anthology 1 and attempt to complete an unfinished song. The reunion of The Beatles was always going to make headlines, even if they were dubbed the “Threetles” by the press, owing to the loss of the band’s gang leader, John Lennon, who was tragically murdered in 1980.
Lennon’s presence was desperately missing during the reunion. Not only was he a valued member of the band, but the three remaining members struggled to align without him. For everyone involved, it seemed painstakingly obvious just how much Lennon had led the group. Perhaps fittingly then, McCartney, Harrison and Starr decided to use the reunion opportunity to complete one of Lennon’s older compositions, ‘Free As A Bird’.
Already packing a few licks and the odd set of lines from Lennon’s 1970s recording, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr began work on fleshing out the track to be shared as an additional Anthology 1 bonus. However, much like the press junkets for the release, Lennon was clearly missing from the group. Using the latest technology, the Beatles set about ensuring the bespectacled singer’s presence would be felt and used computers to replicate Lennon’s voice on the track. It was this fact that Prince had a problem with.
Prince opened up about his dislike for the song when speaking with Guitar World about virtual reality as a whole, something that he shared a particular distaste for: “That’s the most demonic thing imaginable. Everything is as it is, and it should be. If I was meant to jam with Duke Ellington, we would have lived in the same age. That whole virtual reality thing… it really is demonic. And I am not a demon,” he said.
Clearly, with more foresight than most, Prince could see the trajectory of performances for legacy acts. But replicating an iconic voice like John Lennon’s was too much for him. “Also, what they did with that Beatles song [‘Free As a Bird’],” Prince continued, “manipulating John Lennon’s voice to have him singing from across the grave… that’ll never happen to me. To prevent that kind of thing from happening is another reason why I want artistic control.”
However, for The Beatles in question, it was a chance to work together again that they couldn’t pass up. Asking Yoko Ono for the tapes, Paul McCartney recalled: “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.”
Ringo Starr said of the experience: “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.”
The song certainly isn’t a Beatles classic in our book. It was largely decried by the band’s famed producer, George Martin, who also felt strange working with “dead John”, but the public lapped it up. A chance to hear a brand new Beatles song was clearly too much to ignore and below, you can maybe see why.