Free As A Bird

In its original state, Free As A Bird was an unfinished demo recording by John Lennon. Its raw state enabled the 'Threetles' (as they were later dubbed by the press) to create a new arrangement and add new chords and lyrics.

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Being right there in the inner sanctum and hanging out with them for a few weeks was fantastic. Although a long time passed since they last recorded as one unit, they worked terribly well together, and being in the control room watching and listening to them interact with each other was fascinating. I'd often have cause to think, 'Christ, no wonder they were the best.' But I always thought they were the greatest anyway.

They're still great musicians and great singers. Paul and George would strike up the backing vocals - and all of a sudden it's The Beatles again! To be there in the middle of all this and have a degree of responsibility over the result was astonishing. It wasn't some kind of fake version, it really was the real thing. They were having fun with each other and reminding each other of the old times. I'd be waiting to record and normally I'd say, 'OK, Let's do a take', but I was too busy laughing and smiling at everything they were talking about.

Jeff Lynne
Sound On Sound, December 1995

McCartney re-recorded Lennon's vocals for the middle eight. Lennon's demo contained just the words "Whatever happened to the life that we once knew?" - possibly inspired by "Whatever happened to the boy that I once knew?" from the Shangri-Las' 1964 hit Remember (Walking In The Sand). McCartney added the remaining lines in place of Lennon's ad-libbing.

John hadn't filled in the middle eight section of the demo so we wrote a new section for that, which, in fact, was one of the reasons for choosing the song; it allowed us some input, he was obviously just blocking out lyrics that he didn't have yet. When he gets to the middle he goes, 'Whatever happened to/The life that we one knew/Woowah wunnnnn yeurrggh!' and you can see that he's trying to push lyrics out but they're not coming. He keeps going as if to say 'Well, I'll get to them later'. That was really like working on a record with John, as Lennon/McCartney/Harrison, because we all chipped in a bit on this one. George and I were vying for best lyric. That was more satisfying than just taking a John song, which was what we did for the second, Real Love. It worked out great but it wasn't as much fun.
Paul McCartney

The studio equipment was mostly analogue, to make the recording as authentic as possible. While McCartney used a Wal five-string bass instead of his trademark Hofner violin instrument, Starr used his original Ludwig drum kit. Harrison played two Fender Stratocasters, and both he and McCartney added acoustic guitars. McCartney also used an Oberheim OBX8 analogue synth.

What we were trying to do was create a record that was timeless, so we steered away from using state-of the-art gear. We didn't want to make it fashionable. It's just making the statement that they are all here playing together after all these years. So while it sounds fresh and new, it wouldn't have been out of place on the White Album.
Jeff Lynne
Sound On Sound, December 1995

The video

Directed by Joe Pytka and produced by Vincent Joliet, the Free As A Bird video won the 1997 Grammy award for Best Short Form Music Video. It took the perspective of a flying bird, and featured a great many references to Beatles songs and aspects of their past.

The video was seemingly designed to ensnare Beatles obsessives, some of whom spent a great many hours spotting hidden meanings in the imagery. Here are just some of them - there are quite possibly many more, and Apple Corps have indicated that there are more than 80 in total.

  1. The sound of a bird's wings flapping, similar to the original version of Across The Universe.
  2. Above a fireplace, a clock displays five o'clock as the day begins (She's Leaving Home).
  3. Elsewhere in the video, various clocks appear but the same time is never shown twice (Any Time At All).
  4. Photographs of Beatles as children - so much younger than today - are on the mantle above the fireplace (Help).
  5. In front of the picture of George is an old brown shoe.
  6. A cat sleeps on an armchair (I'm Only Sleeping).
  7. A scene of the Liverpool docks features rain.
  8. People leaving work (A Hard Day's Night).
  9. The Beatles walk past. They reappear throughout the video (Here, There And Everywhere).
  10. The bouncer outside the Cavern Club has a flat top (Come Together).
  11. He forces people to wait.
  12. A policeman ushers others to the back of the line (Get Back).
  13. A woman in the queue wears red (Yes It Is).
  14. As the camera swings inside the club, it passes through a woman at the entrance (I'm Looking Through You).
  15. The entrance to Strawberry Field. The camera then pans from the top to the bottom of a tree - it must be high or low (Strawberry Fields Forever).
  16. A man from the Liverpool Egg Co delivers eggs (the 'eggman' from I Am The Walrus).
  17. Children running - 'See how they run' (Lady Madonna and I Am The Walrus).
  18. Two of the children hold hands (I Want To Hold Your Hand).
  19. Maxwell's Hardware is on the row of shops (Maxwell's Silver Hammer).
  20. Next door is a shop called Dylan's (Yer Blues).
  21. A pretty nurse sells poppies from tray, near a barber shop showing photographs (Penny Lane).
  22. To her left is a barrow in the market place (Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da).
  23. There is a cigarette machine to the right of the barber's (I'm Only Sleeping).
  24. A man wearing a hat holds a bent-backed tulip (Glass Onion).
  25. The barber says goodbye to a man with a briefcase. Another man tips his hat in greeting (Hello, Goodbye).
  26. A small sign in a shop window behind two pretty women says 'Help'.
  27. A child whispers into the ear of another (Do You Want To Know A Secret).
  28. John Lennon and Yoko Ono embrace in a car (Why Don't We Do It In The Road?).
  29. In a bakery window is a cake, with 'Happy Birthday' written on it.
  30. The cake also has the numbers six and four (When I'm Sixty-Four).
  31. George Harrison walks into the Apple headquarters, which has a sign outside saying 'Dr Robert'.
  32. A crowd of people standing and staring at a car crash, as in A Day In The Life.
  33. The scene also contains a fire engine (Penny Lane) and policemen in a row (I Am The Walrus).
  34. People run quickly (Run For Your Life).
  35. A helter skelter slide appears.
  36. A kite is shown, representing Mr Kite.
  37. Children in pig masks (Piggies).
  38. The children run down an alley (Long Tall Sally).
  39. A sunflower, growing 'so incredibly high' (Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds).
  40. A ladder leading into an open window, into which a female vanishes (She Came In Through The Bathroom Window).
  41. The camera pans through a window, on which sits a lizard (Happiness Is A Warm Gun).
  42. A man types at a desk (Paperback Writer).
  43. Behind the man a clock shows 10:10 (One After 909).
  44. On a nearby table is a book by Edgar Alan Poe (I Am The Walrus), a copy of the Daily Mail (also Paperback Writer), some green apples (representing Apple).
  45. A box of Savoy Truffle chocolates is also on the table.
  46. Cigarette butts in an ashtray, with one cigarette burning (I'm So Tired, I Am The Walrus).
  47. The Daily Mail carries a headline about 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire (A Day In The Life).
  48. On the floor to the right is a portrait of the Queen (Penny Lane, Her Majesty).
  49. A picture of Chairman Mao (Revolution and Revolution 1) is in the bottom left corner of the window.
  50. Workers are fixing a hole in a roof.
  51. A Blue Meanie (from the Yellow Submarine film) looks out from the hole.
  52. There is a toy monkey by the side of the hole (Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey).
  53. A newspaper taxi (Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds) arrives.
  54. On the left side of the road a bulldog is being walked (Hey Bulldog).
  55. In the background another picture of Chairman Mao is carried across the road (Revolution, Revolution 1).
  56. John and Yoko dance a waltz (I'm Happy Just To Dance With You).
  57. The Blue Meanie makes a return appearance (he sleeps in a hole in the road, as in Mean Mr Mustard).
  58. The Magical Mystery Tour coach can briefly be seen in the distance.
  59. A succession of people walk past, including a hunter and his mother, representing The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill. The elephant was reportedly Starr's idea; the Indian swami playing the sitar was requested by Harrison.
  60. Brian Epstein puts on a scarf to leave (I Don't Want To Spoil The Party).
  61. Stuart Sutcliffe is shown in a recreation of the Sgt Pepper cover.
  62. Sunlight streams through the glass dome in the roof (Here Comes The Sun, The Inner Light).
  63. A statue of the Virgin Mary moves, representing Mother Mary from Let It Be ("Mother Mary comes to me").
  64. A shot of Eleanor Rigby's gravestone is followed by a priest walking from the grave.
  65. A sheepdog (Martha My Dear) runs past.
  66. A long and winding road vanishes in the distance.
  67. McCartney dances on a hill (The Fool On The Hill).
  68. Below him, a woman carries a suitcase (She's Leaving Home).
  69. Lovely Rita, meter maid, walks by the Abbey Road zebra crossing.
  70. A Rolls-Royce car drives past (Baby You're A Rich Man).
  71. Footage from the backstage theatre scenes in the A Hard Day's Night film.
  72. Watching the man with a ukulele is a figure dressed as a joker (I Am The Walrus).

43 responses on “Free As A Bird

    1. Joe Post author

      Andy – according to a Sound On Sound interview (December 1995) Lynne played and sang on the track. Ringo’s contribution was noted by Ian Macdonald in Revolution In The Head.

    1. newyorkjoe

      The impediment to an unadulterated Free As A Bird is Jeff Lynne. While he was technically adept at dealing with the audio problems inherent in John’s original, home recorded cassette, removing clicks and hiss and pop, etc., his sound-stamp is all over the record. From the first drum downbeat, it sounds like a Jeff Lynne record more than a Beatles record. It’s his signature drum sound, executed by Ringo. The rhythm guitars are muddled, not punching the way John’s were on most Beatles songs. But the harmonies are gorgeous and gentle, the lyrics Paul wrote are poignant and apt without being sentimental, and George’s vocal and slide are great. But that damn drum sound… relentlessly Jeff Lynne. Too bad.

      1. Tweeze

        This has always been my sentiment. When I first heard it I thought that this is definitely not George Martin. The drums sounded like something out ’70s arena rock. Oh – Jeff Lynne – it figures. Quite frankly, there is a very good reason John didn’t put this among those he was going to release any time soon – it was a snippet of an idea but I just know he didn’t think it was good enough yet. It wasn’t. Like most of the tracks on Milk and Honey, which were more fleshed out than this, with the possible lyrical exception of ‘Forgive Me (My Little Flower Princess”, you could see John getting some of his old melodic sense back. The potential here was the stuff of awesome expectations. We can only imagine. “Grow Old With Me” — I would have loved to see where that would have ended up.

      2. Mathew

        I can see your point. When it first came out it bothered me, but today not as much. To me, the Beatles were a band that largely moved forward with new and different sounds, styles, and production methods throughout their career. My belief is that had they continued recording into the 1970’s their sound would’ve included a lot of different and new elements. And their basic instrument sounds (like drums) would’ve evolved and changed as well – IMO.

      3. Paolo

        I completely agree. There are far too many records released in the same period by different artists all sounding exactly the same because of Lynne’s production. George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, the whole Travelling Wilburys family, and unfortunately… the Beatles too.

  1. Jean Erica Moniker

    This song is vastly underrated. The original progression and recording are very Beatlesque and the bridge and instrumentation added were pure vintage Beatles. Certainly it was neither experimental, trailblazing or original on the one hand (and Paul’s bass part was a bit more controlled than in the fabs’ heyday – but IMHO it captured both the spirit, magic and heart of some of the best Beatles tracks. It was unrealistic to expect a new Strawberry Fields or Penny Lane but this track rates higher than a number of vintage Beatle tracks. It was so superior to much of John’s solo work (after Imagine) it’s kind of shocking he didn’t finish and record it for Double Fantasy.

    1. Joseph Brush

      In my opinion, there are more than a few individual tracks from Mind Games and Wall And Bridges that are superior to Free As A Bird.
      Songs from the above mentioned albums did not receive anything near the massive publicity that was attached to Free As A Bird which included a prime time television broadcast.

      1. Schminking of gin

        There were certainly a lot of Lennon solo songs superior to this one, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a terrific Beatles song. It is. Great harmonies, classic Harrison guitar work, and the “whatever happened to” line, while originally written by John, seems handpicked for a reunion song.

      2. Tweeze

        Nearly everything on ‘Mind Games’ and ‘Walls And Bridges’ was at least as good as anything on ‘Imagine’. But the difference is, once again, John’s lazy approach in the studio. He had this idea that if he filled the studio with top-notch session musicians the resulting sound will reflect that. As I understand it, even though ‘Mind Games’ brags that John was the producer, they actually had someone else come in to clean it up afterward. It result is somewhat muddy and homogenized – but the underlying music is excellent John. His singing was oddly lack-luter as well. “Walls And Bridges” was a cleaner sound but it was obvious that John still had some issues with filling out his arrangements (something Paul was apt to suggest to John). I figured if Paul was able to flesh out some of the arrangements on this collection they would be earth-shattering. In fact, I even tried to imagine what Paul might do with some of the tracks. “Going Down On Love” ended up being very much sounding like a Beatle classic from ’65. That tambourine — who does that anymore?

  2. BeatleMark

    I don’t know why they didn’t get George Martin to produce. Could it be that his ears where too far gone? I think his hearing was still good enough to produce in ’93/’94. Although I do think Jeff Lynne did an excellent job.

      1. Robert

        I read somewhere that George refused to do any new recording for the Anthology project unless Lynn produced – Paul wanted George Martin, but Harrison refused – it’s what I read – I think in the new Peter Doggett book.

    1. Nicola

      Apparently, George Martin conceded that his hearing was NOT as good as it should have been (logically enough due to his age ) and was a noble gent who told McCartney that he did “not want to undertake a project of such importance” if it could not be the BEST that it could be.A class act to be sure.

      1. mr. Sun king coming together

        He couldn’t produce but he could have created all the new mixes and edits of The Anthology albums and Love? Gimme a break. They claimed his hearing was shot to avoid a pr disaster .

        1. newyorkjoe

          One of course can only speculate about this, but, speculatingly… agreed.

          It’s a beautiful song that poetically, metaphorically addresses John’s death and absence without being maudlin. George’s vocal is particularly strong.

          It is unfortunate that George Martin wasn’t producing. As nice a song and effort as it is, and as fulfilling as it is to hear all four beatles playing and singing (minus Ringo) together again at long last… at the end of the day, it sounds like a Jeff Lynne song. There is no escaping his production signatures, particularly what he does to drum sounds. Ringo’s drums on FAAB sound just like the drums on Tom Petty’s Lynne-produced album et al. Listen to them, and then listen to Ringo’s drums on Abbey Road… I know which I prefer.

  3. MrBig

    Paul played a 5-string bass on this: http://www.macca-central.com/macca-archives/bassplayer.htm

    “Wal 5-string bass. I said, ‘Oh, that’s cool: low B, great.’ So I got one too, based on his recommendation, and I really like it. “My favorite thing I’ve done recently on it was the new Beatles record we’ve made ['Free Like a Bird'], which is really cool. I don’t want to build it up too much because we’ve got to sit on it for a while, because it’s for this big TV series The Beatles Anthology.”

    ” I played the Wal, and what I liked was I played very, very normal bass, really out of the way, because I didn’t want to ‘feature.’ There are one or two moments where I break a little bit loose, but mostly I try to anchor the track. There’s one lovely moment when it modulates to C, so I was able to use the low C of the 5-string-and that’s it, the only time I use the low one, which I like, rather than just bassing out and being low, low, low. I play normal bass, and then there’s this low C and the song takes off. It actually takes off anyway because a lot of harmonies come in and stuff, but it’s a real cool moment that I’m proud of. That’s my Wal moment.”

  4. pat

    When I first heard the Shangri Las “Remember” I thought “Hey, that melody sounds familiar. But I couldn’t remember from which song I knew it…until I heard “Free as a bird”. The complete Bridge or Chorus or what you might call it is EXACTLY the same – even the original lines John had written for the song’s bridges/choruses “Whatever happened to…and so on”. I mean John often used lines from other people’s songs for his own material (for example in “Run for your life”), but also stealing the melody…I wonder why the “Beatles” weren’t sued in 1995 by the Shangri Las or whoever owns the rights of this song. I think they should have mentioned in the booklet of Anthology 1, that the melody of the bridge of “Free as a bird” originally is the one of “Remember” – if they had done so, they wouldn’t have took that risk. Don’t get me wrong I really like “Free as a bird” (but not the way it was produced) and also “Remember”; I only think that musicians who are (were) as gifted as Lennon and McCartney really don’t need to actually STEAL other groups’ melodies – that’s way below their own talent. If they do so, maybe as a (conscious) quote, they should have the guts to be honest about it. But not even mentioning it at all is pretty “grutty” – because really noone who has heard both songs can deny the resemblence or the equality of the melodies. Does anybody know if this was ever an issue in the Beatles camp during the re-making of “Free as a bird” or in the time that has passed since the song was released?

    1. Joseph Brush

      That’s a stretch.
      There’s only so many notes that can be used.
      How many MODERN SONGS come from classical music? Such as Whiter Shade Of Pale.

      Shadow Morton hasn’t sued the Beatles because Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand) UNDOUBTEDLY came from somewhere else.

      FOR INSTANCE, if you listen to the Back To Black single (AMY WINEHOUSE)
      it ALSO sounds like Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand).
      WINEHOUSE HAS NOT BEEN SUED.

      Lennon had nothing to do with the release of this song. John and Paul ARE (NOT WERE) still gifted songwriters.
      UNLESS YOU ARE A MUSICOLOGIST YOU SHOULDN’T ACCUSE SOMEONE OF STEALING A SONG.

    2. EucalyptusTea

      Didn’t Lennon once say something along the lines of the Beatles being the biggest thieves in the business? I swear I heard somewhere that he did a radio show once showing the original compositions and then playing the corresponding Beatles song that stole from it. An example would be “Watch Your Step” to “I Feel Fine.”
      That said, my opinion is “who cares?” I mean, the Beatles came out a genre where most songs were practically just re-writes of other 12 bar blues songs. And in many cases the Beatles song containing a “stolen” snippet of melody or music is far and away the better of the two compositions.
      For another song on the Lennon Dakota Beatle demos boot, the liner notes even point out that John’s laughing in the middle of the song is due to his realization that the melody he is singing closely resembles “September Song.”
      And in the overall sense, I actually find it fascinating to see how all these songwriters, from different eras and musical genres, draw inspiration from one another to weave this tapestry of music through the years.

  5. Beatlesguru

    This song is NOT THE BEATLES and should not be referred to as an authentic Beatles song. While it has nice production values and contains hints of Beatles melodies… it just sounds like a whole lot of people tried very hard to make something from very little. The worst part is the bridge (“Whatever happened to…” song by Paul). Obviously it’s been added and has nothing to do with the original song (and the lyrics only have context as a nostalgic yearning for the Beatles in their prime). I’m sure John would voice his opinion on this (if he were still around) and it would be “rubbish”.

    1. Julian

      Actually, in the original demo John had the lines “Whatever happened to the life that we once knew”. From “Can we really live without each other” to the end of the bridge it was Paul, so don’t say that all of this is written by Paul.

    2. Vince

      You’re right on the issue of nostalgia, but that middle 8 makes it sound like a Beatles song… with endearing lyrics perfectly appropriate to the time and situation. And you’re also right that if John were still around, he’d probably have his two cents to add, but he’d also have his ego and human insecurities. Today, he’s part of the omniscient ether, thus I’d think he’d say, “Beautifully done, Paul.”

      Vince (Lennon-fanatic)

  6. Cameron McIntosh

    I must disagree that this is not a Beatle song. All four Beatles literally worked on this song and played on it. It is a beautiful song, as Paul said; it is what the Beatles would sound like today. I have to say, I wish we could go to a parallel universe where John and George are still alive and the Beatles got back together some how some way. Sorry to go Star Trek there folks…. just wishful thinking.

  7. ????

    Well?I’m a young listener from china.
    One thing about this song confuses me a lot.
    Did Paul write the bridge?or John wrote some lines of it .Paul just recreate it?
    I mean,what’s the original version sounds like.
    Thanx all. Sorry for my English.Wish u could get it

    1. dave

      Free as a bird was written by John Lennon in 1977. Paul McCartney wrote the section you hear him singing. If you want to hear the original version go to YouTube and put in John Lennon demo Free as a bird.

  8. pat

    The original demo-version is just John on piano (it’s great, I like it even more than the finished version). In the bridge John sings “whatever happened to the life that we once knew” and then he sings the melody without proper lyrics, going “doo doo doo”. The lyrics after John’s original line were written by Paul AND George (“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…” – these lines go DEEP and add a lot to the emotional impact of the song). The bridge has an almost eerie feel to it. When they sing those lines one can hardly escape the feeling that they refer directly to John or the breakup of the Beatles. Especially George’s vocal has this mournful tone, as if he’s crying.

    1. JP

      I completely agree! Those parts of the song are very emotional – everything comes to the forefront – John’s loss, the magic the band had and produced and how it affected so many people. I personally love the song and was grateful that something, anything “new” came from them so long after their breakup and John’s tragic death.

  9. apple_jam

    If I had my way: George and Paul record their vocals on a cheap recorder as Lennon had. Would have made Lennon’s `filtered’ vocal sound less jarring. Love the record though… very touching.

    1. pat

      @apple_jam: Great Idea! You’re right, adding a 90s pro studio sound to a cheap no-fi homerecording that was done in the 70s (and they didn’t even use the original recording, Lynne said it was “at least a couple generations down”) HAS TO sound horrible. Maybe they did this for commercial reasons. I don’t think that the “average listener” would have been too pleased with a low-fi record (and one has to think of millions of fans around the world here).

      @Jammy_jim: it’s so hard to imagine what John would have done with this song. I think basically he wanted to be authentic and really just play it like it is (and to me the essence of this is his “plastic ono band” album – totally stripped down), but he realized that these “naked” records wouldn’t sell and so he drowned everything in corny violins and horns. To me, starting with the “Imagine” album, every single demo or stripped down version is actually better than the finished product. I think besides considering record sales, John was very insecure – he hated his voice, he didn’t think of himself as a great guitarist (he thaught Paul was a better guitar player than him!) and he never spoke with great enthusiasm of his own songs. This wall of sound production that all his records after “Plastic Ono Band” have was a way for him to hide. His voice is often hardly audible, all the instruments are brickwalled and tend to sound the same. And finally EVERYTHING gets lost in the mix (this happens when one tries to mix 25 instruments down to mono – in the end there’s not much left). This was always a mystery to me: how could he be so unsure of himself? (But maybe it was this feeling that drove him).

  10. Charles_in_UK

    The John Lennon 1998 Anthology Box Set did for Lennon what The Beach Boys Box Set did for Brian Wilson: it confirmed that, despite many poor production choices, the music is, quite simply, that of a genius. His vocals on the Box Set version are wonderful. Also, I have the MSFL versions of POB, Imagine, and Mind Games and his voice is fantastic! There’s a quality in his voice that cuts right through your soul. Quite lovely.

  11. Jules

    I feel really ashamed, does George Harrison actually sings on this song? Like all alone? and not on chorus? I believe John sings at the start, then Paul sings the bridge, than John sings again and then the second bridge is sang by George, am I right?

      1. Michael A. Ventrella

        I wish they had used Ringo too just to make it a real group effort. The first time through the bridge is twice as long and Paul sings two lines, then the second time George sings one. That’s three lines total. Each should have had one. :)

  12. robert

    You know, to me this sounds pretty much nothing like a Beatles song. It’s sounds like a Jeff Lynne tune for sure. His production sound is all over this. My understanding (as I said earlier) is that George wouldn’t work with George Martin and I have a suspicion that Harrison never forgave Martin for being dismissive about his work (something G Martin acknowledged, to his regret, that he did). So I think Harrison was highly anti-Martin.

    What strikes me is why did they do this record (or Real Love for that matter) at all? Dogget’s book (I think it’s Dogget’s book) claims that the whole Anthology project was resurrected to help George out financially and yet George created all the conditions on the project.

    Why did McCartney go along with it? What was Paul’s motive? McCartney’s vocal sounds very solo like and not at all like his Beatles sound.

    Really, to me, nothing on this record sounds Beatley – George’s slide is his distinct solo sound (especially with Lynne producing).

    So while I realize this may have been more like what their ‘reunion’ playing could have been like, I still don’t think it was. Other than the massive hype around the song, it really sounds more like a weak Beatles wannabe record – which in a way it is.

  13. Juan

    The footage of John and Yoko dancing are from the I Me Mine section on Let It Be? Also, the car in the last part could be a reference of Two Of Us (“two of us riding nowhere”)

  14. Isabel

    Do you know what does the music “free as a bird” refers to? Did the other three beatles add some verses on the lyrics? I always thought of that music as if John was talking about the Beatles, and it makes me satisfied, but I know I can’t take conclusions by myself, so…

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