152) The Beatles – “We Can Work It Out”

Key to the Beatles mythology is the perceived difference of temperament between Lennon and McCartney: Paul as the romantic classicist to John’s sardonic experimentalist, the wide-eyed optimist to his steely-eyed realist, the “it’s getting better” to his “can’t get no worse.” And what clearer illustration of this disparity between the two than “We Can Work It Out,” with Paul chirping “We can work it out! We can work it out!” in the chorus, crosscut with John’s memento mori in the middle eight: “Life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting, my friend.”

But to read “We Can Work It Out” as an attempt at friendly reconciliation misses the point: Paul has no interest in compromise. “Try to see it my way,” he repeats throughout the song, but he never adopts the opposite point of view. “Do I have to keep on talking till I can’t go on?” he snaps, followed by a threat: “Run the risk of knowing that our love may soon be gone.” Even when he tries to appear conciliatory – “only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong” – it’s obvious which camp he thinks he’s in. “Think of what you’re saying,” he seethes, “you can get it wrong and still you think that it’s all right.” Paul’s rigged it so there’s no way his opponent can win: either she concedes, or the relationship’s over.

The real difference between the two Beatles’ contributions to the song, then, is that John makes these threatening undertones explicit. He arranges his segment in a minor key, beginning each line by hammering at the same note over and over (“life-is-ve-ry-short”). In contrast, Paul either doesn’t recognize his own selfishness, or is wily enough to hide it under a jaunty melody. Likewise, John and Paul harmonize on the bridge, their voices sharing equal time and space. Two vocal tracks can be heard on the verses and chorus as well – but they’re both Paul’s.

Even within the middle eight, there’s a battle between time signatures, alternating between 4/4 (“I have always thought … ”) and 3/4 (“ … ask you once again”). John’s harmonium (foreshadowing the band’s use of odd instruments from Revolver on) is reminiscent of the calliope on a carousel, circling endlessly but never going anywhere. When the song returns to the waltz-time harmonium for the last few measures, it hints that the struggle is still unresolved – or that there will be many more arguments to come.

This push-and-pull extended beyond the confines of the record. John’s (and sometimes George’s) insistence on releasing the harder-rocking “Day Tripper” as the band’s next single instead of “We Can Work It Out” led to the two tracks being bundled together as the first-ever designated double A-side. While “Day Tripper” is the better record, featuring one of the band’s mightiest guitar riffs, it only reached #5 in the US. “We Can Work It Out” is no second-rate release, though. It’s a compelling psychological dissection of an irresolvable argument, from the tunnel vision focus to the frustration at hitting an impasse. Just as “Help!” exposed Lennon’s desperation and neediness, “We Can Work It Out” outs the controlling, unsympathetic side of the cute Beatle, whether he intended it or not. 8

Hit #1 on January 8, 1966 for 2 weeks; repeaked on January 29, 1966 for 1 week; total of 3 weeks at #1
152 of 1016 #1’s reviewed; 14.96% through the Hot 100


Filed under 08, 1966

2 responses to “152) The Beatles – “We Can Work It Out”

  1. bob stanley

    Heather Mills could’ve done with you in her corner! Excellent stuff, I’d never thought of how passive aggressive – or just outright aggressive – Paul’s part is; it does sound so persuasive couched in that melody.

  2. speedwell54

    Sally you make a great point on the common misunderstanding of Paul’s apparent conciliatory lyric. He is really clever with his ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ lines. I think they possibly voice his feelings about his girlfriend Jane Asher and their relationship* and also the “push-and-pull” within the band.(*from Ian McDonald’s “Revolution In The Head” he talks of Paul’s northern desire for Jane to be at home, against her middle class independence.)

    In the middle, the deliberate change of pace and the personal versus the more abstract (“we,my,I,you” versus “life”) does give the feeling of two voices. If John wrote “life is very short…”, his cleverness is ending his part with “I will ask you once again”, inverting the subject when Paul comes back with”Try to see it my way” (i.e YOU try to see it MY way) Is this a little dig back? Barry Miles in his ’98 book “Paul McCartney- Many Year From Now” quotes McCartney as saying he wrote the versus and the middle was a collaboration, so maybe not.

    If you take the piece as a whole it is unsympathetic, but it does sound like a response and a desire for agreement, albeit on his terms. The controlling aspect comes across like he is taking on a trade union; inviting them to the table, but putting nothing on it. A fait a compli. The dynamics of the band did change around this time and Paul did stay with Jane until 1968 so some success.

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