In ‘We Can Work It Out’, Paul did the first half, I did the middle eight. But you’ve got Paul writing, ‘We can work it out, we can work it out’ – real optimistic, y’know, and me impatient: ‘Life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting, my friend.’
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
Recorded over two days in sessions amounting to 11 hours – The Beatles’ longest time spent completing a song to date – ‘We Can Work It Out’ bore the distinctive hallmarks of both its songwriters.
It was 1965. Things were not going so smoothly between Jane Asher and me. Everyone has mild arguments where you think, ‘God, I wish they could understand where I’m coming from’ or ‘I wish they could get it.’ They obviously don’t; they think I’m some kind of idiot or tyrant or something. It was just normal boyfriend-girlfriend stuff where she’d want it one way, I’d want it another way and I would try to persuade her, or she would try to persuade me. Most of the time we got on really well, but there would be odd moments where one or other of us would get hurt.
Time has told me that millions of people go through these little squabbles all the time and will recognise just how common this is, but this particular song was not like that; it was, ‘Try to see it my way.’ When you’re a songwriter, it’s a good thing to just go off and get your point of view in a song, and with a Beatles song, if it’s going to be heard by millions of people, you can spread a good message: ‘We can work it out’. If you wanted to say it in one line, it would be, ‘Let’s not argue’. If you wanted to say it in two lines: ‘Let’s not argue/Listen to me’. Obviously that is quite selfish, but then so is the song.
I started writing the song to try to figure my way out of feeling bad after an argument. It was really fresh in my mind. You can’t write this kind of song two weeks later. You have to do it immediately. Writing a song is a good way to get your thoughts out and to allow yourself to say things that you might not say to the other person.
The Lyrics: 1956 To The Present
McCartney’s contribution was written at Rembrandt, the house in Heswall, Cheshire he had bought for his father in July 1964. In the dining room of the large mock-Tudor house was a piano, which McCartney often used to work out new songs on. However, ‘We Can Work It Out’ was written on an acoustic guitar in one of the bedrooms.
I had the idea, the title, had a couple of verses and the basic idea for it, then I took it to John to finish it off and we wrote the middle together. Which is nice: ‘Life is very short. There’s no time for fussing and fighting, my friend.’ Then it was George Harrison’s idea to put the middle into waltz time, like a German waltz. That came on the session, it was one of the cases of the arrangement being done on the session.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
Unlike its single counterpart ‘Day Tripper’, ‘We Can Work It Out’ never became a fixture of The Beatles’ live repertoire. They did, however, make three promo films for the song on 23 November 1965, at Twickenham Film Studios in London, in which they mimed to the song.
The black-and-white clips were immediately distributed to broadcasting organisations. The most commonly-used version of ‘We Can Work It Out’ was a straightforward performance piece with the group wearing black suits; in another the group wore their Shea Stadium gear, and the third opened with a shot of John Lennon with a sunflower over his eye.
In the studio
When we took it to the studio, George Harrison suggested we try the waltz pattern, with suspended triplets, that ended up giving the song a profound sense of friction and fracture.
But the fracture was real, and we did ‘fall apart before too long’. Sadly, Jane and I did break up. And that meant breaking up with her mother too. Margaret Asher was a real mumsy type and, since I’d lost my mum, she had filled that role for me. Now I’d lost a mother for a second time.
The Lyrics: 1956 To The Present
In a four-hour session The Beatles rehearsed and then recorded just two takes of the rhythm track.
They then spent nearly five further hours overdubbing instruments, including John Lennon’s distinctive harmonium in the verses. The vocals took up much of the evening session, and were completed during a two-hour session on 29 October.
The other thing that arrived on the session was we found an old harmonium hidden away in the studio, and said, ‘Oh, this’d be a nice colour on it.’ We put the chords on with the harmonium as a wash, just a basic held chord, what you would call a pad these days.
John Lennon disagreed, and fought to retain ‘Day Tripper’ as the lead song. The result was the single being marketed as the world’s first double a-side, which was released on 3 December 1965 in the UK – the same day as Rubber Soul – and three days later in the US.
Of the two songs, ‘We Can Work It Out’ was more commonly requested by record buyers, and was likewise favoured by radio stations. In the UK it entered the chart at number one five days after its release, where it remained for five weeks and sold over a million copies.
‘We Can Work It Out’/’Day Tripper’ also topped the charts in the US, and became The Beatles’ fastest-selling single since ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’. It was with this release that Lennon’s dominance of The Beatles began to cede to Paul McCartney, who was steadily becoming more influential as a musical leader of the group.