"Free as a Bird" is a song performed by The Beatles. The single was released on 4 December 1995, as part of the promotion for the release of The Beatles Anthology video documentary and the band's Anthology 1 compilation album.
The song had been written and recorded as a demo by John Lennon in 1977. Paul McCartney asked Lennon's widow Yoko Ono for any unreleased material by Lennon, and "Free as a Bird" was chosen as being the song all three remaining Beatles could be involved in, as they could finish the arrangement and write extra lyrics. Jeff Lynne of The Electric Light Orchestra was asked to co-produce the record as he had worked with George Harrison as part of The Traveling Wilburys.
The music video for "Free as a Bird" was produced by Vincent Joliet and directed by Joe Pytka (Space Jam) and depicts, from the point of view of a bird in flight, many references to The Beatles songs, such as "Strawberry Fields Forever," "Penny Lane", "Paperback Writer", "A Day in the Life", "Eleanor Rigby" and "Helter Skelter". "Free as a Bird" later 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 America. It was the first of two singles by the group to become a Top 40 hit in the 1990's [the other being "Real Love" in 1996].
McCartney, Harrison and Ringo Starr originally intended to record some incidental background music (as a trio) for the Anthology project, but wanted to record new songs. The Beatles had always agreed that if one of them did not agree with something the idea would be vetoed, so the only way they could reunite musically as The Beatles was if Lennon could be on the recording.
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 said: "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."
In an interview, McCartney remarked: "Yoko said 'I've got a couple of tracks I'll play you, you might be interested'. 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." McCartney was later surprised to learn that Lennon's demo song of "Free as a Bird" had already been released on the Internet by fans, and was widely available. Starr admitted that when he first listened to the recording he found it very emotional.
The remaining Beatles decided that Lynne would produce the record (as he had worked with George Harrison as part of The Traveling Wilburys) and not George Martin, who had produced most Beatles' material before then, because of Martin's problems with his hearing. McCartney said: "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."
The original tape of Lennon singing the song was on a 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. Starr said that as Lennon was not in the studio, 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 (The coda was an incomplete recording of This Boy), including a strummed ukulele by Harrison (an instrument that McCartney and Harrison were known to have often played) and the voice of John Lennon played backwards. The message, when played in reverse, is "Turned out nice again," which was the catch-phrase of George Formby, Jr. 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 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.
The song is the key of A Major, in a meter of 4/4, and uses the I-vi-iv-V7 model, with the exception that (in typical Lennon style -- see "In My Life") the iv chord is rendered as a minor chord (in this case Dm rather than D major). The structure is composed of:
Intro - verse chords
Verse - Lennon (A F#m F E / A F#m Dm E / A F#m Dm G / C Am Esus E)
Verse - Lennon
Bridge - McCartney (F F#° G A / F F#° G Esus E)
Verse - Lennon
Verse - Lennon (A F#m F E / A F#m Dm E / A F#m Dm G / C Am Ab+ G)
Bridge - Harrison (F F#° G Esus E) - (half-length)
Verse - Guitar Solo - (C Am Ab G / C Am Fm G / C Am Fm G)
Verse - Lennon
Outro - (A F# Dm G)
The music video for "Free as a Bird" was produced by Vincent Joliet and directed by Joe Pytka (Space Jam) 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," and "Helter Skelter." 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 steady cam camera produced. One instance was the filming of the car crash, which Pytka filmed for hours from above, but realized that a steady cam shot on the ground was a much better idea. Archive footage was used by imposing it on scenes shot by Pytka, who utilized a green screen stage to digitally blend it into the finished film, such as the 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 steady cam 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.
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.
Chart performance and critical reception
"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 #2, but it was kept off the #1 position by Michael Jackson's "Earth Song". It remained in the charts for 8 weeks. In the U.S., the song reached #6 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming The Beatles' 34th Top 10 single in America.
It was the first time a new recording had been released under The Beatles' name since "The Long and Winding Road" 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 U.S.
"Free as a Bird" was greeted with mixed reviews. Its release was criticized by one writer in The Guardian as a publicity gimmick, exploiting The Beatles brand, and owing less to The Beatles than Lynne. The Independent called the song "disappointingly low-key...George's guitar weeps gently enough when required, but the overall effect is of a dirge." 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.
* John Lennon: lead vocal and piano.
* Paul McCartney: lead and backing vocals, piano, acoustic guitar, electric and upright bass.
* George Harrison: lead and backing vocals, lead, acoustic and slide guitars and ukulele.
* Ringo Starr: drums and percussion.
* 7" UK: R6422 / USA: NR-58497
1. "Free as a Bird" – 2:42
* Original composition by Lennon; The Beatles version by Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starkey.
* Produced by Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Starkey, and Lynne.
2. "Christmas Time (Is Here Again)" – 3:02
* By Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starkey.
* Music recorded 28 November, 1967 at EMI Studios, London. Greetings recorded 6 December, 1966 at EMI Studios, London.
* CD UK: CDR6422 / USA: CDP 58497
1. "Free as a Bird" – 4:26
2. "I Saw Her Standing There" – 2:51
* By Lennon and McCartney Recorded 11 February, 1963 at EMI Studios, London. Produced by Martin.
* This version (take 9) was recorded after the more familiar version released as an album track on Please Please Me. The introductory count-in from take 9 was actually edited onto the start of take 1 to create the version that can be heard on the Please Please Me album.
3. "This Boy" – 3:17
* By Lennon and McCartney. Recorded 17 October, 1963 at EMI Studios, London. Produced by Martin.
* Here are two fun, but incomplete, versions (takes 12 and 13) of this song; both of them break down in laughter.
4. "Christmas Time (Is Here Again)" – 3:02
B-side: "Christmas Time (Is Here Again)"
Released: 4 December 1995 (UK), 12 December 1995 (U.S.)
Format: 7", CD
Recorded: New York City, circa 1977 and Sussex, February-March 1994
Label: Apple Records
Producer: Jeff Lynne, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr