In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The Beatles – “We Can Work It Out”
HIT #1: January 8, 1966
STAYED AT #1: 3 weeks
Were the Beatles bored with being pop stars? Or were they excited by the unexplored possibilities of pop music? Maybe they were both. Maybe they realized that they were the one band who would sell shitloads of records no matter what, so they were free to toy around with different ideas and approaches. They could, for instance, take a simple-enough tune about a romantic disagreement and use it as a way to futz around with organ sounds and time signatures — to keep things interesting for themselves, or maybe to let their audience grow with them. Did that adventurousness make them better? Plenty of people think so. I’m not sure. But whatever the case, it’s remarkable to look back on those first few years of Beatles records, on all the ways that the band pushed things forward in the tiny window of time that they still existed as a band.
“We Can Work It Out” came from the Rubber Soul sessions, but it doesn’t appear on any Beatles albums. It’s a standalone single, one that was only ever meant to be heard as a single. The song does, however, exist in conversation with its B-side, the Lennon-written ripper “Day Tripper.” “Day Tripper” is the better of the two songs. It rocks harder, playing around with the ferocity that the Beatles’ new competitors the Rolling Stones were bringing. It’s got a big, heavy riff and a few shy allusions to sex and drugs. Lennon wanted to make it the A-side, but the band ultimately decided to go with the safer, friendlier song. (“Day Tripper” ultimately made it to #5 on its own.)
“We Can Work It Out” is one of those Beatles songs written as a true collaboration. It’s probably 60% a Paul McCartney song, inspired by an argument with his at-the-time girlfriend Jane Asher. But Lennon wrote the “life is very short” bit, and George Harrison had the idea to put the middle section in waltz time. Lennon played the overdubbed-in harmonium, the instrument that widens the song’s scope and gives it, at the end, a weirdly religious feel.
Those playful and unorthodox touches — the harmonium, the waltz change — are fun to think about, but I don’t think they make the song better. They’re extra fripperies for a song that didn’t really need them. I’d argue that this was a great Beatles song, an urgent and heartfelt jangle, before the band started playing around with the composition. McCartney cajoles passive-aggressively, pleading for his significant other to see things from his perspective in the same breath as he threatens to bolt out the door. And his voice comes in, hurt but commanding, just after the first guitar note. He has shit to say, and he’s impatient to get it out. (I’d love to hear a song about Asher’s side of that argument, just to complete the picture.)
There is one extra element of the song that I absolutely love, and it’s the tambourine. “We Can Work It Out” is a pretty slow Beatles song, at least for that era of the band, but Harrison’s tambourine fills it out, giving it a sense of rhythmic play and swing. If anyone was dancing to “We Can Work It Out,” the tambourine is the reason. (There was tambourine all over “Day Tripper,” too.) The Beatles were at their best when they kept a beat intact, and the beat is very much there on “We Can Work It Out.”
BONUS BEATS: Here’s New York Hare Krishna hardcore greats Shelter’s 1995 cover of “We Can Work It Out”: