So, do we need a break from the political and societal uncertainty that has begun to surround us the past week? Yeah?! You know what? So do I! So, let’s fire up “Allison’s Jukebox” once again, with a song that, when you think of it, can serve as a soothing statement to the strife we’re going through right now.
The song is “We Can Work It Out.” And, no, I’m not talking about The Beatles’ original from 1965. Well, okay, for comparison sake, let’s talk about that version a little bit. Recorded and released in 1965, the original version (which you young folks can hear a performance of here) finds Paul McCartney on lead passionately pleading to his love that the two of them can find a way to patch differences in their frayed relationship, while John Lennon interjects at the bridge, singing in a waltzy B minor about how “life is very short” and all that (he’s got a philosophical thing going on there, I’m thinking).
But that was 1965. Five years later would be 1970, when Stevie Wonder would get his hands on “We Can Work It Out.” How’d it go? Well, just listen for yourself.
For one thing, you notice that Stevie is bringing the funk to the song. That groovy organ! Those shotgun-like drums! That distinct harmonica! This version of the song came at the dawn of the 1970s, when Stevie was starting to leave behind that teenybopper-like style of pop soul (think My Cherie Amour) for the flat-out funk sound and social consciousness that would serve as his calling card during the decade of the 70s. His “We Can Work It Out” feels like a bridge between those two styles.
But while the funky sound is one thing, listen to Wonder’s vocals. There’s a sense of his urgency in his spirited singing. The late 60s/early 70s were a time of civil issues (white vs. black, young vs. old, conservative vs. progressive, etc.). And just as it feels here at the end of 2016, nobody seemed to see eye to eye back then. But Wonder, by not changing any of Lennon and McCartney’s lyrics, aims the song to be the start of a tête-à-tête. This point has to be stressed: Wonder turns what had been a song about frayed love and the need to talk things out into one about frayed society and the need to talk things out without changing a single lyric from the original. Obviously, you can’t know for sure if Wonder sought that angle in recording “We Can Work it Out,” but you do get that sense here. It’s almost as if he’s saying about The Beatles’ version, “Hey, Paul, go patch things up with your girl; I’ve got more significant fish to fry.”
One other thing you do sense in comparing the versions is the level of confidence. In the original, McCartney sings in a tone that is, as this A.V. Club article from several years ago puts it, passionate yet not holding out any hope. Wonder, however, is “all about the hope… a promise, not a plea.” Hope, for sure, but I’d also say confidence. I recall hearing Wonder’s “We Can Work It Out” for the first time while working out in the high school gym during a physical education class in freshmen year. I was struck by not only the groove but the confidence in Wonder’s voice at the end of each verse. A side-by-side comparison with the original for emphasis:
Beatles: “WE can work it out. WE can work it out.”
Wonder: “WE CAN work it out! WE CAN work it out!”
All in all, Stevie Wonder’s version of “We Can Work It Out,” dare I say it, blows The Beatles’ original version out of the water with its groove and its tone of self-assured success. Seriously, it’s mindblowingly good. Hopefully, a remake from 4-1/2 decades ago of a song from just over half a century ago can help inspire sides to come together in 2016.