For rock music historians, 1969 will always be a special year. It marked the introduction of Led Zeppelin, the year of Woodstock, and the debut of the Who's groundbreaking rock opera, “Tommy.”
It also was the last time the Beatles and the Stones had new music out at the same time.
For the Beatles, it was “Abbey Road.” And the Stones' “Let It Bleed” was released at the same time – November of 1969. Years later, many believe those albums were possibly the best either band had produced, before or since.
Both arrived on American shores at about the same time, appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” within months of each other, and competed for rock idol status here in America and around the world. There was unspoken competition between the two bands from the get-go, much of those flames being fanned by the insatiable mass media who relished the scuffles between these two British supergroups. But both bands, including Jagger, Richards, Lennon, and McCartney actually sniped at one another over the years, always generating lots of press – just the way they always liked it.
But it's been more than a half century since the two bands each had new stuff out and on the radio at the same time. Until this week, that is.
The Stones dropped their new single “Angry” in September as part of a clever stunt. And earlier this month, their first album in 18 years, “Hackney Diamonds,” was released. The reviews have generally been quite positive. But the most amazing thing is that both bands are still relevant, they are much talked about, they continue to earn radio play (and streams), and in 2023, they are once again part of the pop culture conversation – as they've been so many times in the past.
Case in point: I popped them into Google Trends to get a sense for how consumers are searching them. And wouldn't you know it – some of the key spikes on each band's curve is driven by the release of their new music. Both bands have always understood how to tease, how to build anticipation and how to make news.
While the Stones have held together for eons, continuing to tour until this day, the Beatles have been over and done since they performed that concert on the rooftop of their Abbey Road Studios in London back in 1969.
While John Lennon was alive, rumors swirled about a reunion, so much so that in 1976, Lorne Michaels engineered a stunt offering to pay the Beatles $3,000 for an appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” The story went that Paul and John were watching the show at John's apartment in the Dakota, just a mile away from NBC's studio – and they actually thought about showing up. Until they didn't.
Lennon's assassination in 1980 put an end to the speculation. And George Harrison's death in 2001 sealed the deal.
Until now. The appearance of a cassette tape from the late 70's with John singing a song he'd written – just him and a piano – surfaced many years ago. But it was not technically possible to do anything with it because of the quality and the mix of his piano and his voice was so combined until AI came along. And so the story is told on a 12-minute video that will be released later today for the world to see – on YouTube, on this post, and maybe on your website and social pages.
I was treated to a preview last week, and I can tell you that “Now And Then -The Last Beatles Song ” isn't just a thing of beauty – lovingly shot and edited – it is storytelling at its best.
The making and recording of this hibernated Lennon song on an audio cassette is a truly amazing tale of dedication, craft, and respect. “Now And Then” is being hailed as “the last Beatle song.” Hopefully, that's true because if anything comes out after this event, it will most assuredly struggle.
Unlike the Jimi Hendrix estate that's released 15 albums after the guitar maestro passed away in 1970, the Beatles haven't indulged in posthumous recordings, aside from their “Love” creation for the Vegas show and remastering projects.
In fact, the Red (1963-1966) and Blue (1967-1970) greatest hits albums will be rereleased in 10 days, mixed in stereo and Dolby Atmos. The Blue album will contain the new song, “Now And Then.”
The song itself will be released at 10am ET Thursday, and it will be fascinating to see how it is handled by radio. We do know this: more than 750 iHeart stations – music and spoken word – will play “Now And Then” simultaneously at that time, a remarkable set of circumstances. When else has that happened?
In writing yesterday's post about Big Loud and their marketing strategy to use radio last – after a song has been established as a streaming hit – several people have told me that in a world where any fan can hear any song at any time on Pandora or Apple Music, why would they care about hearing that same song on a radio station?
And to that I say, there is a difference. Streaming a song out of context is mostly boring. But hearing a story, a factoid, a reminder to listen to the orchestral part or Paul's newly recorded bass – well, it's a different experience – especially when you hear about it from a trusted friend. Or hopefully in this case, a personality you've been listening to for years.
How “Now and Then” is set up, staged, teed up, surrounded, produced, contextualized, and maybe even sampled is everything.
So, what can radio programmers and talent take away from this fascinating, emotional moment in music and cultural history?
Here's my list:
- Don't get hung up on the rules of chronology. Many Classic Rock stations are so fixated on achieving optimal 25-54 year-old ratings that they've excised the 60's (and early 70's) from their libraries. “Now And Then” in this moment defies the logic of that strategy. Break format.
- This could only happen in the Classic Rock world. We've seen so many instances over the years when an artist, song, or film from the era or that utilizes the music breaks through. The Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” from 2018 is a great example of the genre going totally mass appeal. But even the Fleetwood Mac/TikTok moment featuring the guy on a skateboard swigging Ocean Spray cranberry juice was another moment. “Now And Then” appears to be in this same ballpark. Of course, we will see.
- This isn't a song, it's a moment. That's an important distinction. If it were just an old song dredged up to break up the monotony of a horrible year, it would be one thing. But this is an emotional piece of music that goes to the heart at a moment when we're all tired and emotionally spent. During vulnerable times like these, anything's possible.
- It's also an event. The song, the Beatles, the visuals, the memories will be all over TV – at least for the next couple days. It will be hard to get away from, but if this is your music, you might even be able to get a personality on a local TV station or in the newspaper, helping their audience/readership understand the gravity and context of this event.
- It's a PR bonanza. And not just for the Beatles. Hundreds of iHeart stations – most of them “out of format” – wouldn't be playing “Now And Then” if it didn't have the chance to send a few shockwaves through the speakers. iHeart announced the following formats will feature the song: Alternative, Rock, Classic Rock, Classic Hits, CHR, Country, AC, Hot AC, News/Talk, Sports, “and others.” Let's face it – Bob Pittman is a CEO but he also may be one of the greatest showmen of our time. He knows these moments when he sees them. Don't think for a moment that he didn't personally greenlight this stunt. He may have even been the one who dreamt it up.
- Regardless of format, play the song. Or “See #5. Last week, I blogged about the impact of the element of surprise – something to shock the radio waters. If your format is conservative talk or Hip-Hop, it's just 4:56 out of your stations life. You won't go off the air and you might just gain an extra quarter-hour of listening on a Thursday in the middle of the Fall Book.
- Think about what it will sound like on Spotify…and make it better. This is a great opportunity to remind audiences what radio can sound like when something special is about to happen. Whether you spin “Now And Then” one time or once an hour on Thursday, make sure the staff is prepped with factoids about the song, the band, and the moment. You might even be able to grab a few sound bites from the video tomorrow. Just don't tell David Oxenford.
- Have fun. Unlike a disaster – man-made or climate related – this just might be one of those shared moments that actually contains joy. Remember what John and Yoko were all about. Lean into it. Enjoy it. Something like this might not happen for a while. Or ever.
Let me know how it goes.
- In Radio, Whatever Happened To “4 And Out The Door?” - December 7, 2023
- An Open (News)Letter To Radio - December 6, 2023
- The Case For Handcrafted Radio - December 5, 2023