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A smash reunion?

After five years of announcing and then denying that a recording collaboration would take place, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, the surviving former Beatles, have spent much of the last month recording new music in England.

They have turned down journalists' requests to attend the sessions, saying that the presence of outsiders would put them under too much pressure. They have also sworn those around them to secrecy.

But people close to the project say the sessions began at the Mill, McCartney's home studio in East Sussex, and have moved to Friar Park, Harrison's home in Henley-on-Thames.

And a report to be published Thursday in Beatlefan, one of the more reliable journals devoted to the former Fab Four, says that Starr has told friends in the music business that the sessions have gone "much better than expected."

An executive at EMI Records, the label that released the Beatles recordings in the 1960s and maintains a relationship with Apple, the group's own company, said he understood that some recording had also been done at the Abbey Road Studios in London.

"Everything argued against this working out, which in a peculiar, record-world way is almost a guarantee that it will be quite good," said the executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "And if they are not satisfied, then the recordings will never see the light of day."

One song said to have been completed is Free as a Bird, a slow, graceful John Lennon ballad. After the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies in January, Yoko Ono, Lennon's widow, gave McCartney a set of rough composing tapes, on which Lennon sang Free as a Bird, Real Love (Boys and Girls) and Grow Old With Me, to which McCartney, Harrison and Starr were to add new vocal and instrumental lines, electronically reuniting the Beatles.

Preliminary work was reportedly done on all the songs before the musicians settled on Free as a Bird.

There has been talk of making a video, either to promote the song as a single release or to include in The Beatles Anthology, a 10- to 15-hour autobiographical video series to be released next year.

The Beatlefan report quotes Starr as saying that the sessions were supposed to have lasted a week, but that they have gone on for nearly a month.

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