We Can Work It Out Covers of The Beatles 1962-1966

We Can Work It Out: Covering the Beatles’ 1962-1966 Period

What’s remarkable about We Can Work It Out is how it emphasizes the Beatles’ foundation-shaking effect on culture that occurred almost from the beginning.

We Can Work It Out - Covers of The Beatles 1962-1966
Various Artists
Cherry Red
6 September 2023

How massive and enduring was the cultural impact of the Beatles? This year, more than 53 years after the band split, a “final” single pieced together from a decades-old John Lennon solo demo was a major international event. “Now and Then” reached Number One in the UK and the Top Ten in the US and many other countries. As of this writing, new reissues of the Beatles’ “Red” and “Blue” compilation albums, initially issued a half-century ago, sit at Numbers Two and Three in the UK charts and the Top 20 in the US. This is not just nostalgia. On the contrary, more than any other factor, the quality of the work is responsible for the ongoing and continually renewed relevance. True standards never die out, and they never go out of style.

What’s remarkable and what a compilation like We Can Work It Out really emphasizes is the Beatles’ foundation-shaking effect on the culture that occurred almost from the beginning, after they were signed to a proper record label after some false starts and rejections. We Can Work It Out is not a tribute record that appears long after a revered act has peaked or retired. Most of its 85 tracks were recorded and released contemporaneously with the Beatles’ recording career. Some were even released before the Beatles’ versions. That is the overarching impression We Can Work It Out leaves: The wave the Beatles created crested across multiple audiences, multiple genres, and multiple languages.

More than a few of these recordings were made by acquaintances and associates of the group as well as clients of Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Some were commercial flops, but many were big hits. But to call them “cash-ins” would be overly reductive. It’s impossible to cash in if there is nothing to cash in on. That’s another primary impression left by We Can Work It Out: Independently of the Beatles’ recordings, the impact of John Lennon and Paul McCartney (and, to a lesser extent, George Harrison) as songwriters was massive and far-reaching. Lennon-McCartney was just as much a hit factory as Bacharach-David, Holland-Dozier-Holland, or Goffin and King. One selling point of this collection is a handful of these songs were never recorded or officially released by the Beatles. These include material the Beatles recorded for their Decca Records audition in 1962, which resulted in a rejection. 

Hence, the cultural and historical case for We Can Work It Out is solid. With excellent, often amusing, track-by-track annotation from co-compiler Russell Beecher, the compilation is a finely curated, relatively compact document that is instantly essential for even moderate fans of the Beatles, 1960s music, or pop music in general. It is safe to say that more than a few people have spent hours and hours compiling streaming playlists that aspire to but fall short of what We Can Work It Out accomplishes.

So what of the 85 recordings themselves? At the very least, they present quite a grab bag. Many were well-known at the time: Jan & Dean, P.J. Proby, Cilla Black, and Mary Wells. Some, like the Supremes, Liza Minelli, the Mamas & the Papas, and Count Basie, still come across as “big names”. This is no novelty album like The Golden Throats: Celebrities Butcher the Beatles, which featured the likes of William Shatner tackling “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. Nonetheless, there are tracks from Mae West, Elvis Costello’s father, and Rex Harrison’s son. There is soul, jazz, psych-rock, folk, bluegrass, and a lot of period-specific pop-rock.

Notably, the subtitle 1962-1966 refers to the material the Beatles wrote or recorded during that span. Therefore, the compilation goes heavy on the mostly sugary, skiffle, and rockabilly-based early material. For most listeners, even the originals are now a “best sampled, not binged on” proposition. As the original material becomes more complex and contemporary-sounding, moving into the Rubber Soul and Revolver periods, so do the versions on We Can Work It Out.

Still, most of these tracks amount to straight covers. That means the real standouts take the material in new or different directions, often with stellar results. Basie’s big band take on “Hold Me Tight” is brassy, lively, and impeccably tasteful. Alma Cogan, a one-time paramour of Lennon, turns “Eight Days a Week” into a stunningly stark torch ballad. Italian rockers Dino & I Kings swing the riff of “I Should Have Known Better” just enough to accentuate its subtle edginess and reveal a new wrinkle. Producer and latter-day Beatles engineer Glyn Johns delivers a sublime, fingerpicked “I’ll Follow the Sun” that is so wistful it is amazing Wes Anderson hasn’t used it for one of his films. Blues great Junior Parker takes “Taxman” to the street, delivering the verses in a frank, ticked-off spoken voice as a stammering bass lick drives the frustration home.

These standout moments, and more like them, turn the best of We Can Work It Out into a veritable cornucopia of musical goodies. There is probably a full CD’s worth of material that would still make a fine standalone album today, meriting more than curious, cursory listening. The redoubtable quality of most of the songwriting means there are few outright unpleasantries. But it is a testament to the Beatles’ excellence as musicians and arrangers, along with George Martin’s studio alchemy, that none of these 85 tracks can outshine the original.

The sun has yet to set on the Beatles’ impact and the seismic energy around it, and it may never.   

RATING 7 / 10