Based on a 1977 demo recorded by John Lennon in New York, ‘Free As A Bird’ was completed by the other three Beatles 17 years later and released as the lead single from the Anthology project.
The song was originally a simple piano demo recorded by Lennon at his home in the Dakota building, New York City. Never completed in the studio, it was one of a number of songs he taped on cassette during his ‘househusband’ period between 1975 and 1980.
In subsequent years the Anthology project slowly gathered pace, and by the early 1990s Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr were considering recording some incidental music as a trio. This idea was discarded in favour of new songs, but agreed that they could only reunite musically as The Beatles if Lennon was on the recording.
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.
On 19 January 1994 Ono met McCartney in New York, for Lennon’s posthumous induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. McCartney presented the award, which was accepted by Ono on Lennon’s behalf.
That night Ono gave him cassette tapes containing four songs: ‘Free As A Bird’, ‘Real Love’, ‘Grow Old With Me’ and ‘Now And Then’. The occasion marked a reconciliation between the pair, whose relationship had often been tainted by animosity over the years.
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.
Although touched by the songs, McCartney was initially wary about adding to them.
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.
‘Free As A Bird’ was the first new recording released by The Beatles since ‘The Long And Winding Road’ in 1970. It received mixed reviews, with many commentators judging it a pale imitation of their 1960s work.
In the UK, the single sold 120,000 copies in its first week, entering the UK Singles Chart at number two. It remained in the charts for eight weeks, but was kept off the top spot by Michael Jackson’s ‘Earth Song’.
In the US, ‘Free As A Bird’ reached number six on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming The Beatles’ 34th Top 10 single in America. The song later won the 1997 Grammy award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.