The idea for this retrospective first came up in 1970. Apple Corps collected as much archive footage of the band as they could from around the world. Neil Aspinall then assembled a 90 minute documentary tentatively titled "The Long and Winding Road". Plans for the completion of the project lay dormant until 1980 when all four of the former members of the Beatles agreed to a television special which was to have featured a mini-concert at its conclusion. The project was to have been broadcast sometime in the early 80's. However these plans where interrupted when John Lennon was murdered on December 8, 1980.
The two new songs, "Free As A Bird" and "Real Love", were originally John Lennon demos. The three surviving Beatles added instrumentation to the demos and released the songs as singles in conjunction with the release of the special. In addition, John hadn't filled in the middle eight section of the demo for "Free As A Bird", so the surviving Beatles wrote a new section for that, which, according to Paul, was one of the reasons for choosing the song. It allowed them some input.