We Can Work It Out

We Can Work It Out single - United KingdomWritten by: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: 20, 29 October 1965
Producer: George Martin
Engineer: Norman Smith

Released: 3 December 1965 (UK), 6 December 1965 (US)

Paul McCartney: vocals, bass
John Lennon: vocals, acoustic rhythm guitar, harmonium
George Harrison: tambourine
Ringo Starr: drums

Available on:
Past Masters

We Can Work It Out was released as a double a-side single with Day Tripper in December 1965. It was recorded during the sessions for the Rubber Soul album, and released on the same day.

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The lyrics might have been personal. It is often a good way to talk to someone or to work your own thoughts out. It saves you going to a psychiatrist, you allow yourself to say what you might not say in person.
Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

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.

Paul McCartney wrote the upbeat verses and chorus, reportedly after a disagreement with Jane Asher, while John Lennon had the idea for the pessimistic "Life is very short" counterpoint.

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.'
John Lennon, 1980
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

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.
Paul McCartney
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

The basic track of We Can Work It Out was laid down on 20 October 1965, while the group were recording Rubber Soul. 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 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.
Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

Chart success

Day Tripper was originally intended to be The Beatles' final single of 1965. However, We Can Work It Out was felt by the group and Brian Epstein to be the more commercial song.

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 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. It was 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 McCartney, who was steadily becoming more influential as a musical leader of the group.

51 responses on “We Can Work It Out

    1. AlbertCunning

      “We can work it out/ We can work it out” is the chorus, and was written by McCartney. You’re referring to the middle eight, which John wrote/helped Paul write.

      I wouldn’t agree that John’s voice is more prominent, though.
      John only sings harmony to Paul’s lead throughout the middle eight, although his voice MAY be slightly LOUDER.

      1. vonbontee

        When there are two voices singing the same words, the line between who sings “lead” and who sings “harmony” is rendered meaningless, if not eliminated altogether. If John’s voice is louder during the “Life is very short” bits then it IS more prominent. Which is not to call it a “lead” vocal, since there IS no single lead, just two voices harmonizing – although it might be called a twin-lead or something.

        Interesting how all this disagreement has to do with just the TERMINOLOGY, since everyone agrees whose voice is whose! If I were doing the write-up, I’d credit Paul with “lead and harmony vocals” and John with just “harmony vocals”. I don’t think George sang on any part of this (Carlos and Lansdale can’t hear him either), but I’ll defer to Joe’s claim that he “obviously” sang backup.

  1. Sebastian

    I’m agree with Albert Cunning, John only sings harmony. The lead vocalist is paul. In the middle, paul is leading too with john singing below him.
    This kind of things are the reason why paul talks everyday to defend his beatle legacy, because everyday people tries to rewrite (changing small bits than become big when you take all) the histoy in john’s favour.

  2. Joseph Brush

    Paul has to defend his Beatle legacy every day! How interesting.
    I would think that with books and interviews, he has already defined his position on who did what.
    Who else of importance could dispute him?
    In matters concerning partnerships, it is usually the deceased person who has to be defended against revisionism.

  3. Sebastian

    Yeah, but you see a lot people in beatles forums and the media complaining about paul “rewriting the history” only because his version is different from lennon`s, which by the way had the bad habit to change his recollections about the beatles as much his clothes.

  4. Joseph Brush

    Since Lennon was a Beatle, he earned the right to say what he felt whether he changed his clothes or not.
    Paul’s recollections doesn’t seem to be that much different from Lennon’s with a few exceptions.
    Remember that both of them are talking about recollections that occured over 40 years ago.
    Naturally, more fans would defend someone who has been dead for almost 29 years and nothing is going to change that.

  5. Sebastian

    There are a lot of differences between Paul’s version and John’s version about “who wrote what”. It’s not only the eleanor rigby and in my life disagreements like some experts claim, they have quite different recollections about who was the composer of a considerable quantity of songs: There’s place, ticket to ride, this boy, do you want to know a secret, you’re going to lose that girl… And the list goes on. We can work it out is a minor example of that, paul says the middle was co-written, but lennon said that was his. I don’t who is right, because obviously I wasn’t there with them, but most of the people doesn’t take Paul’s version as seriously as john’s, even when the discussion is about a song like this, which is mainly McCartney’s.
    Returning to the “we can work it out vocal debate”, it’s your decision to change the mistake about john sharing the lead, because of course this is your “bible”, but I tell you most, if not all, the books and websites about the Beatles coincide with what I’m saying. I mean, I had read a lot books about The Beatles and all mentioned Paul as the only lead vocalist in We can work it out.
    If you’re going to give john a lead vocal credit in we can work it out only because his voice sounds a little bit more prominent in the middle(which I think is not the case), you might as well do the same with Paul in mean mister mustard (his harmony vocal sounds louder than john’s voice for a great part of the song) or in Norwegian wood (Paul’s voice sounds louder than john’s in the middle section , and according to the musicologist Ian McDonald ,McCartney sings the melody in that part). If you’re writing the Beatles “bible” you have to be bit more objective and fair. I would like to see you change the mistake about john singing lead with paul on we can work it out, but I think probably it’s not going to happen.
    All said, I think your website is great.
    Ps: forgive my English, my native tongue is Spanish.

    1. Joe Post author

      Both Lennon and McCartney were listed as having sung ‘vocals’. I preferred not to distinguish between lead, harmony and backing vocals here (although George obviously does the latter) as evidently there’s some conjecture surrounding their roles.

      I’ve listened to the remasters a bit more closely, though, and I think you’re right – Lennon is doing harmony vocals, McCartney is on lead.

      Goodness me, the mono version has a lot more bass in it than the stereo.

      Glad you like the site Sebastian, and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    2. JNagarya

      Paul and John agreed on who wrote what — in a two -part article in “Hit Parader”. There were, surprisingly, little to no differences between them.

      To put it simply but accurately: one can tell who wrote what by who sings it — even if it’s only a line or two, such as the bridge in, “A Day in the Life” — “Woke up, fell out of bed . . .” — Paul wrote it, Paul sings it.

  6. Joseph Brush

    I did not say that John was the lead vocalist for any part of We Can Work It Out.
    I stated that “Lennon’s voice is the most prominent” for one section of the song.

  7. Jean Erica Moniker

    What was so fascinating about the Beatles’ vocals was that whether Paul was singing lead or harmony, his voice was virtually always the higher (pitch-wise, not volume-wise) part. So if it was a John song, Paul’s harmony would almost always be the higher of the two – and generally the highest or middle parts when George harmonized with them; John generally singing the lowest part be it lead or harmony. In some cases Paul’s harmonies would be louder than John’s or more distinct in the mix owing to the higher pitch; however the writer almost always sang the lead part on their own songs.
    Additionally, sometimes the harmonies were so unique that they became almost a ‘counterpoint’ lead vocal due to both the structure of them as well as their relative volume to the lead vocal.

  8. Jean Erica Moniker

    Also…on the new remastered version of this song, I could swear there’s a banjo or second guitar on the 2nd bridge, and for that matter, a second guitar on the verses. I’m sure I’m wrong about the former and it’s just John picking the strings of the guitar with lots of compression; but if there isn’t a second guitar on the verses, then they’ve ADT’d John’s guitar.

  9. Day Tripper

    Lead vocal, harmony vocal . what shalls? Its one of their best songs, because of their vocals and it doenst intrest me, if Johns vocal is a lead vocal or a harmony. I never eben thought about it.

    The “Life is very short” is Johns baby and its the counterpoint to the part of Paul.

  10. BeatleMark

    When I was younger, I always had me favourite Beatle songs and me least favourite Beatle songs. “We Can Work It Out” always got a fast-forward from me. I never much cared for it….often regarded it as “McCartney Fluff”.

    Now that I am older I find this song more appealing to my ears, especially John’s bluesy middle eight. It’s very haunting to me, sound wise. Whenever I hear this song now, rather than skip over/FFWD, my old ears wait and relish in the middle eight.

  11. Jon S

    Yesterday and Today was my first Beatles Album. I loved it! I got it in about 1967 when I was six. Lennon and McCartney had some of the best vocal harmony’s in R&R. Their harmony in the chorus of We Can Work it Out is my personal favorite. Johns voice in that song was perfect.

  12. carlos

    I don´t think George has a vocal harmony part, it´s John´s double track, as well as Paul lead vocal is double tracked too(there wasn´t ADT at that time), George only playing tambourine ? I don´t think so. I´ve also read somewhere that Paul played acoustic guitar and George the bass (??????) Any idea ?

    1. Lansdale

      I agree that I have never heard George in the harmony’s here. The middle 8 is probably my favorite Beatles harmony and I’ve listened to it closely many many times. My question to all is I cannot tell the difference between the vocals in the two middle 8 sections. The harmony is so close I believe that the same vocal recording was used for both sections? Can anyone tell a difference?

  13. 2much4mymirror

    I was quite surprised to learn that it was John who played that distinctive harmonium which contributes so much to the feel of this song. Music writer Ian MacDonald, who seems to be a bit of a Paul partisan, nonetheless had this to say about that: “[Lennon’s] passages are so suited to his Salvation Army harmonium that it’s hard to imagine them not being composed on it. The swell-pedal crescendos he adds to the verses are, on the other hand, textural washes added in the studio, the first of their kind on a Beatles record and signposts to the enriched sound-palette of Revolver.”

  14. Jake

    “Since Lennon was a Beatle, he earned the right to say what he felt whether he changed his clothes or not.”

    That’s obviously true. It becomes a problem when he’s lying through his bloody teeth, as in the Rolling Stone interview, which of course came out as a book, which sold a lot of copies, which is STILL the source of Beatles information for a distressingly large number of people.

  15. JPT

    I believe they played this song live only on their December 1965 UK tour. Would be interesting to hear, but lamentably no recordings exist from that tour…at least I’ve never come across any!

  16. winwardk

    What is the accordion type instrument throughout this song? It really adds an additional layer to the instrumentation and IMHO a heading out to sea pub song type feeling. 🙂

  17. DarrenS

    This is an enjoyable one to play on the guitar. The drastic key change from D to Bm as you get to the middle 8 is cool. I do somewhat disagree about the differences in the words between the Lennon and McCartney parts. While Paul’s part does have a more uplifting sound to it, it is the more fiesty and adversarial lyric. He’s saying “Look, you need to do things the way I say, or we’re going to break up. Keep doing your thing, and it’s over.” John’s part is complementary to this, basically saying these little fusses aren’t worth the time, since life is short. Really, they are both saying to stop arguing, with Paul going a bit further by saying things should be tried his way. So, I think John’s quote about being impatient is dead on, but the part about Paul being optimistic is a bit simplistic, since he only believes they can work it out if she sees things his way.

    1. BeatleBug

      It is indeed! I have played it many times… even in my dreams :)… and the middle eight switch gives a thrilling tension. But I don’t think it’s really a “drastic” key change. D Major to its relative minor, nothing crazy. But the feel of the song does change pretty drastically there– from bright-and-breezy to almost comically tragic. Then it goes waltz, which furthers the effect.
      When I first played it, though, the thing that knocked me out the most was the C chord (in the key of D!) under the verses (“..keep on talking till I can’t go…” is the first one). I thought it was sheer (mad) genius. Now I’ve grown accustomed to the notion. But, really, I love every bit of it to pieces.
      If I were asked which song I wish I’d written, this might be it. As it is, I’m so glad Lennon-McCartney did it.

  18. captain_guitar

    “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.”

    So if George did not play, how was he in on the session?

  19. higherthanfi

    What I find amazing is how ‘off hand’ the comment is made about George coming up with the waltz bit. I find that bit of arranging arguable what makes the song incredible. It’s an absolutely brilliant suggestion and a contribution equal to almost anything else in the song.

  20. Beatleken

    I think its Paul on acoustic,John on harmonium and George on bass. He did have a Burns bass at the time. not a complicated bass part and it was easier for Paul to play the acoustic part since he wrote most of it. either way its a great song. don’t nitpick

  21. Bruce

    Sometimes I think I can hear an electric guitar very deeply buried in the mix. If you listen to just the left channel with the drums, acoustic and bass, it seems even more true on the last chord.

  22. Johan cavalli

    The beginning “…try to see it my way…” with its short notes is McCartney´s. The beginning I think, works more like a prelude to the heavy bit, the middle part by Lennon “…Life is very short..” very typical Lennon with 1. l o n g notes, and 2. the use of only o n e note. Lennon said he did the middle part. The waltz-time was Harrison´s idea. McCartney said, after Lennon´s death, they wrote the middle part “together”. One never knows what McCartney means with “together”. He helped Lennon with the lyric? or the harmonies? or the melody? If he meant the melody he would have said it. But the establishment interpreted it as a co-composition, and that was McCartney´s purpose. In all literature this song is called a McCartney-composition. How often hasn´t Lennon´s music been called McCartney-composition? Does it exist o n e s i n g l e song, or part of a song, McCartney has composed, but Lennon got the credit of? No.

  23. Johan cavalli

    George Harrison came with the idea of putting in the waltz-time after the middle part. But he never boasted of it. If it had been McCartney´s idea in a Lennon composition, he would have said it is a co-composition, and that the waltz-time is the mainpoint in the song. And all music writers would forever have written the same thing.

  24. Graham Paterson

    Great song, with a poignant message. A real Lennon-McCartney collaboration. It is one of the great double A sides, with “Day Tripper” on the other side.

  25. David

    Of course, the song is about Paul and Jane. But watching one of the promo films just now (the black suit one), where Paul on bass and John on harmonium are in picture together a lot, it really does seem to presage the split between the two of them. Even John singing “life is very short…”

  26. tomchristie11

    There’s some lovely nuances in Lennon’s vocal harmony – in the first bridge, he steps up on ‘ti-ime’ and ‘cri-ime’, whereas he goes straight to the top notes on those words in the second bridge, half a beat earlier. It seems fairly likely to me that this was intentional.

    The way Lennon sustains ‘time’ differently on the second bridge is also nice, with his volume dipping in the middle of the word.

    I’m sure intricacies like this could be found all over the Beatles’ catalogue – I’ve only studied this one in particular so closely because it’s one of my favourite sections in any Beatles song. Simple but sublime.

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