When was it recorded? 1977 + Feb.-Mar. 1994
When was it first released, and on which album? Nov. 20, 1995 on “Anthology 1”
Who wrote it? Lennon (with noteworthy contribution from Harrison, McCartney & Starkey)
Have I heard this song before? Yes
What my research dug up:
I remember feeling underwhelmed the first time I heard “Free as a Bird,” but looking at my research now, I think this is probably one Beatles song where context is key.
John originally wrote and demoed “Free as a Bird” sometime in 1977 (after the Beatles had broken up). He recorded this piano-only demo on cassette at his home in NYC.
The song was never recorded or released professionally during John’s lifetime.
In the early 1990s, Paul, George, and Ringo reunited to work on incidental music for the Beatles’ Anthology project.
“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.” — Ringo Starr
The trio decided they could only properly reunite if their recording somehow included John. (I can’t find the direct quote now, but George has a good quote about how if one of them wasn’t in the band, said member would not be replaced, period.)
According to Yoko Ono, George and former Beatles road manager Neil Aspinall were the ones “who initially asked her about the concept of adding vocals and instrumentation to Lennon’s demo tapes” (Wikipedia). On Jan. 19, 1994, John was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. After the ceremony, Paul visited Yoko’s home, where she personally gave him John’s cassettes.
“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.” — Yoko Ono
Work on “Free as a Bird” began in Feb. 1994 with British producer Jeff Lynne. Despite being ranked in 2008 as the fourth greatest music producer of all time, Lynne is probably know for his work as the lead (and only constant) member of Electric Light Orchestra. A singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist, he also co-founded the Traveling Wilburys with George, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty.
I’ve written a number of times already that John recorded these demos on cassette tapes. (Everyone here remembers how cassette tapes work, right?) As such, his vocals and piano were on the same tape track, i.e., not separable. So those elements had to remain constant throughout. The sketchy nature of the recording, however, actually allowed the remaining members more input on the finished track.
“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. …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 Beatles’ former engineer Geoff Emerick was also involved in mixing the track.
According to Songfacts, “Before their breakup, The Beatles won just four Grammy Awards, but they picked up three more in 1997 when ‘Free As A Bird’ won for Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal and Best Music Video, Short Form, and ‘Anthology’ won Best Music Video, Long Form.”
“Free as a Bird” entered British music charts at the #2 position, which was its peak position. The single peaked at #6 on American music charts. “Free as a Bird” also:
- Was the first “new single containing new material had been released under The Beatles’ name”(Wikipedia) since “The Long and Winding Road” in 1970
- Was the Beatles’ 34th Top 10 single in the US
- “[S]ecured the group at least one Top 40 hit in four different decades (1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s)” (Wikipedia)
Not too shabby.
You can guess how psyched I was to learn “Free as a Bird” has a music video. Directed by Joe Pytka, it “depicts, from the point of view of a bird in flight, many references to Beatles songs” (Wikipedia). The bird is never seen the video because no one could agree what type it should be. Seriously. Apple Corps claims there are 80 Beatles career shout outs total, but fans have found close to 100. The Beatles Bible page linked below has a list of explicit references for those eagle-eyed viewers.
That is one lovely music video.
“Free as a Bird” has definitely grown on me. I do like the finished product a lot, but I think I actually favor John’s original demos. The intimacy heard there is almost breathtaking. I do have to share my favorite listener quote, found in the comments of the SongFacts page:
“I know John wrote most of this song on his own and may have wrote it as a song for Yoko or his family, but by some weird fate it ended up with the remaining Beatles and became an ode to the lifestyle of the greatest rock artists in the world. It is, as a Beatles song, the closing to a storied and tumultuous past, with the bittersweet reminder of their lives lived together.” — David, San Francisco, CA