Stevie Wonder and The Beatles’s “We Can Work It Out”; The Link Between Cover Versions and Sampling

Stevie Wonder gives a popular Beatles tune more soul and adds new punch and feel. Although a cover is not sampling per se, it’s exactly what transformation is all about.

The art of sampling is not a (complete) reinterpretation of someone’s work in the same way that a traditional cover version is. In sampling, snippets and phrases of sound recordings (usually old songs) are digitally extracted, then recontextualized and refashioned into a new musical work. Still, there is a link — subtle as it may be — between sampling and the ways in which one musician is inspired to reinterpret the work of another. This point is illuminated when you consider that the art of sampling is rooted in the long-held tradition of versioning (in my book The Art of Sampling I cover this connection extensively).

As a beatmaker, particularly one with a strong affinity for the art of sampling, I appreciate it when great musicians do their own versions (i.e. covers) of equally impressive musicians. I’m interested in how one musician converts the work of another into their own style, feel, and scope without losing the core themes and structures of the original. And I’m impressed when one musician’s version (interpretation) remains respectful to the original and adds new nuance and dimension to it as well. This is the case with Stevie Wonder’s remake of The Beatles’s hit “We Can Work It Out.”

As far as creative license goes, Stevie Wonder takes grand liberty with his version of one of The Beatles’s most popular hits. There are numerous instances where rock groups have dipped into the blues/soul well, pulling out tunes and reworking them with “rock pop magic.” But with his version of “We Can Work It Out,” Stevie Wonder is doing the reverse. He’s taking a rock number—in this case, a 1960s folk pop tune—and dipping it back into the blues/soul well. And what emerges in Stevie’s version is a song that respects the original while going beyond, adding an entirely new scope, essence, and vibe.The-Beatles-Muhammad-AliWhile Stevie Wonder shadows the basic structural framework of the Beatles’s original, there are a number of new dimensions that he adds for his version. Stevie’s remake starts with a 3-bar organ intro (a signal that Stevie’s signature will be all over this version), then the drums crash in. And while the original actually has a nice rhythmic pattern, albeit tucked low in the mix, Stevie Wonder’s version amps up the drum scheme, making the drums, as well as the entire piece, sound more meatier than the original. The kick and snare drums punch and pounce, springing off of each other, while the hi-hat and tambourine shuffle throughout.

For the rest of the arrangement, Stevie Wonder makes two other standout changes. First, he strips the strings that stream through the original. This tightens up the groove of “We Can Work It Out,” effectively making the Stevie Wonder cover edgier and rendering the original almost tranquil by comparison. Second, Stevie incorporates a milky bass line that “walks” in deference to the priorities of soul more than it does to rock. This, along with the drums as described earlier, also adds to the urgency and aggressiveness of Stevie Wonder’s version, which makes the original, folksy as it is, sound much more passive aggressive. Here, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also highlight Stevie’s harmonica solo at the midway point of his version.

Finally, Stevie Wonder’s treatment of the vocal arrangement is as impressive as everything else in his cover of “We Can Work It Out.” Six bars into Stevie’s cover, and we hear a voice belch out “Hey!” This “Hey!,” an added background vocal element that’s non-existent in the original, alternates in pitch, giving Stevie’s cover a unique swing nuance not found in the original. And when the rising gospel background vocals turn up in the latter half of Stevie’s cover, the tune slides briefly into the Black American church music tradition.

Then, of course, there’s Stevie’s lead vocals. A comparison of Paul McCartney’s or John Lennon’s vocals to Stevie Wonder’s is perhaps unfair or misleading at best, inasmuch that Stevie Wonder and the two Beatles front men are approaching the song from two different traditions with two different vocal priorities and styles of vocal inflection. Still, it’s worth mentioning that Stevie’s soulful reworking of the original — no doubt powerful in its own glory — makes “We Can Make It Out” sound more searing and converts it into a freedom song/black power amalgamation.Stevie-Wonder-stevie-wonder-live-drummerStevie Wonder’s version of “We Can Work It Out” is nothing short of a magnificent transformation. Also, to some extent, you could say Stevie Wonder “flipped” the Beatles original. Does this all mean that Stevie Wonder’s version of “We Can Work It” is better than the original? I’m still thinking that through. Both the original by The Beatles and Stevie Wonder’s version are great music works; each shine in their own regard, and each travel along the paths of their creative priorities and influences.

Thus, a more interesting question at this point would be what is it that enables any musician to pull off a quality version of a another musician’s work? I believe it comes down to this: music performance skills, a broad based knowledge of music history, various musical processes, and music forms, and a fundamental respect and reverence for the musician(s) whose music you’re inclined to rework. Stevie Wonder includes all of these variables and that’s why his version works so well. Further, his version demonstrates, on many levels, how reconceptualization works in sampling. Which ultimately serves as a reminder that hip hop is a continuum of soul, funk, and jazz music.

Stevie Wonder – “We Can Work It Out”

The Beatles – “We Can Work It Out”

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