"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.