Wonder Week

The Greatest Beatles Cover Is Stevie Wonder’s “We Can Work It Out”

He may be the only musician to play a Beatles song better than the Beatles.

Photo collage of Stevie Wonder and the Beatles.
Stevie Wonder, real name Steveland Judkins; the Beatles leaving the London airport for a U.S. tour in August 1964. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Hulton Archive/Getty Images and AFP/Getty Images.

As has already become clear during Wonder Week, Stevie Wonder is pretty much better than all other pop musicians at all the stuff that pop musicians do. Concept albums? Stevie did ‘em the best. Funky jams and schmaltzy love songs? Yeah, he nailed ‘em both. Oh, you thought it’d be fun to dabble in drumming? Self-taught Stevie only became, like, the best drummer on Earth.

And, of course, everyone covers the Beatles. Everyone. But it’s notoriously hard to cover the Fab Four, because they tended to perform definitive, unimprovable versions of their own tunes. The only exception? Stevie Wonder and his cover of “We Can Work It Out,” not only the best Beatles cover of all time but the only one that is definitively better than the Beatles’ original.

Like many Motown artists, Stevie Wonder was a Beatles fan—of sorts. “Stevie loved the Beatles, mostly Lennon and McCartney for their writing,” Wonder’s childhood best friend John Glover says in Mark Ribowsky’s Stevie biography Signed, Sealed, and Delivered. “That was where he saw their genius, not their performing—in fact, he didn’t think they performed some of their songs as well as he could do it.” That’s a sentiment that requires a lot of chutzpah, but Wonder backed it up on 1970’s “We Can Work It Out,” a track that so thoroughly reimagines the Lennon–McCartney classic that it feels like an entirely new piece of music.

“Stevie communicates joy unlike any other artist I can think of,” said music writer Oliver Wang in the Slate Academy Pop, Race, and the ‘60s.” And it’s joy that Wonder’s cover of “We Can Work It Out” conveys most clearly, unlike the Beatles’ beautiful but pensive original. The Beatles’ straightforward acoustic guitars and wheezing harmonium are replaced by Wonder with an infectious clavinet, a jubilant harmonica solo, and stabs of electric guitar. And where the Beatles’ version feels very much like a kind of suite showcasing the contrasting styles of their two chief songwriters—McCartney’s sunny optimism on the verses and chorus, John Lennon’s world-weariness on the bridge—Wonder’s cover is propulsive, cohesive, its energy never flagging even for a second.

As Jack Hamilton points out on that same Slate Academy podcast, Wonder recorded “We Can Work It Out” at about the same time in 1970 that he was negotiating with Motown’s Barry Gordy to take a stronger hand in his own career. The deal he eventually made allowed him to launch his “classic period,” and “We Can Work It Out” serves both as a sonic prelude to that period and a kind of explanation for how it ever could have happened. It’s a masterpiece of exuberant funk that expresses through rhythm, through lead vocal, and through those background “Yeah!”s (delivered by Stevie himself) a kind of relentless happiness at how effectively music can combat uncertainty. It’s been the ideal soundtrack for me through difficult times and will continue to be so forever. It’s perfect. Go listen to it right now. Life is, after all, very short.