Sunday, July 04, 2010

"We Can Work It Out" / The Beatles

Every once in a while, a Beatles song comes on the radio and I listen -- I mean really listen, as if I'd never heard the song before -- and I'm gobsmacked all over again by their musical genius.

Take "We Can Work It Out." We're driving home from a brief vacation to Martha's Vineyard, spinning some CDs on the old car stereo. I throw on Beatles One -- by no means my favorite Beatles CD, just a hodgepodge of their big radio hits, and we all know that the best Beatles stuff was the album tracks, right? But then this number comes on -- the B-side to "Day Tripper," though it was really more like a double-A side, since this track got just as much radio play. And we all just held our breaths and listened . . .

Maybe it's because we were in the middle of one of those "this one's Paul and this one's John" conversations, but the artistry of this particular track suddenly bowled me over. The economy of the thing is breathtaking -- there's no intro, just one down chord and, bam! Paul earnestly entreats, "Try to see it my way," and we're off to the races.

The jaunty syncopation, the skipping melody, are sheer upbeat Paul-ness. He's so certain that a little give-and-take is all this couple needs to solve their romantic problems. (Oh, to be Jane Asher in 1965!) Of course, notice that behind all that glib charm, it's really his way or the highway: "While you see it your way / Run the risk of knowing that our love may soon be gone . . . Think of what you're saying / You can get it wrong and still you think that it's alright . . ." Working it out, apparently, means going along with Paul's viewpoint -- but really, look at that video, who could resist circa 1965 Paul McCartney?

But just when you're ready to say, "Oh, that's a Paul song," the key goes minor and a spooky harmonium steps up, creating a dark circus-y mood. As John joins in, singing a lower harmony to Paul, his voice takes over. (Someday we should do a poll about which harmony you always sing -- for me it's always the low part on this chorus). In this video, crafty John mugs away, stealing the limelight from Paul. But on the record, there's no comedy -- only darkness and edge. That's how the Lennon-McCartney collaboration worked at its best, counterbalancing Paul's brightness with John's cynicism and gloom, and vice versa.

The chorus's melody is characteristic John, ominous and brooding, with repeated notes and chromatic shifts: "Life is very short / And there's no ti-i-i-ime / For fussing and fighting, my friend." (Love the alliteration, and the northern gutturals on "fussing".) John doesn't coax, doesn't turn on the charm -- he seems irritated by the conflict (such a Libra). "I have always thought / That it's a cri-i-i-i-ime / So I will ask you once again" -- get that a knife-twist of a threat at the end. (I'm telling you one last time....) It's only a step from here to the truly unpleasant threats of "Run For Your Life."

Apparently George threw in the last master stroke: The switch from 4/4 to 3/4 time at the end of the chorus, turning the whole thing into a woozy haunted house waltz, with chords spiraling downward. It's like a foretaste of "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite," one of my favorite Beatles tracks ever. Somehow it makes me feel desperate -- this relationship's going out of control, it's doomed, wrists will soon be slit.

And then -- with two brisk beats, we're back in hopeful Paul land, trying to see it his way. Whew! The darkness is pushed underground, and all we have to deal with is sunshine and sincerity again. Of course we can solve it all. Just be reasonable, and . . .

Of course, "We can work it out" is a great philosophy until the day when you can't work it out anymore. We now know that Paul and Jane Asher eventually did go their separate ways. Even sadder, in just a few years the Beatles themselves would be wracked by internal disputes, unable to work anything out. Paul's sunniness and determination ran up against John's corrosive despair, and there weren't enough key changes in the world to save them. Well, partnerships dissolve all the time -- but a band this good? It ended way too soon.


Mister Pleasant said...

Excellent analysis Holly, and it seems to me that the dark tinge in the chorus is a holdover from the blackness of Beatles For Sale. That meter change is so ingrained in my brain that I never really think of it. The Beatles were masters of odd time signatures but never really get much credit for it. Thanks for reminding me what a truly magnificent song this is.

Alex said...

One of the many things that made the Beatles great was how musically strong their songs were -- the album tracks as well as the hits.

Maybe we all just took the hits for granted; for decades, they were everywhere -- all over the radio all the time. Still, when you take the time to listen, those Beatle hits are just remarkable.

By the way, is it just me or is George saying the chords to himself as he's playing around 1:30? George, it's a lip-synch -- you don't have to get the chords right!

mervap said...

Gotta admit, I have fallen victim to that same "heard this a million times" virus...sometimes when a band is so uniformly great, one loses sight of the brilliance. Time and time again, the Lads were under the gun to churn out another album, another single...and each time, they not only answered the bell, they excelled. Thanks for the reminder! My fave band, by far. It's not close. :)

Who Am Us Anyway? said...

What Alex said about the hits being as good as the hidden gems: unheard of! And on a macro level, the same feeling of unreality enveloped the dawning recognition that a band could be as wildly popular and commercially successful as the Beatles while ALSO being this good ... it's downright counter-intuitive. The Beatles were underestimated by many "serious" and otherwise knowledgeable music critics for years precisely because of Beatlemania.

That the lads could not only release double A sides like this every time we turned around but ALSO have so much other new material that they didn't need to include either side on their LPs -- and as Mervap notes, wrote much of their best stuff under ridiculous touring & deadline conditions -- 40-plus years later it all still beggars belief, and I always wanted to say "beggars belief."

The switch from 4/4 to 3/4 time at the end of the chorus, turning the whole thing into a woozy haunted house waltz, with chords spiraling downward. -- yes, thanks, I'd never fully appreciated that before reading this but you're exactly right, Holly, exactly.

What a great post.

Holly A Hughes said...

Alex, kudos for spotting George counting off his chords -- that's too funny! (Really, even when they lip-synched, they were so ambitious, such over-achievers.) I just have to keep looking at this video, enthralled by Paul's puppydog charm and John's snide "look, I'm behaving myself!" wit.

I'm still humbled by the fact that I got to experience the Beatles phenomenon in real time. The crazy mad success, the way they upended all notions of what pop music could be, the ridiculous prolific talent ("Give us a song for the title track, John, please" -- and in an hour or so they're back with "A Hard Day's Night," scribbled between takes on the movie set). It beggars belief, indeed.

Anonymous said...

hey holly...just found out nick lowe And his band is playing around the northeast in october..tried to leave a message on the previous sexsmith post, but not sure if it went through..SOOO excited!!!