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“ASK ME WHY”
(Paul McCartney – John Lennon)
The Beatles were very keen students of popular music. They spent much time foraging through NEMS record department, run by Brian Epstein, as well as listening to radio programs and going to concerts to find suitable music to perform in their “stage act.” They, in turn, became great fans of American music. Among their favorites were the sounds coming from Detroit, Michigan, which were being crafted by the newly formed label known as Motown.
During their early performing days, they had chosen many Motown hits, as well as other R&B classics, to cover. But the influence of that unique sound from Detroit permeated their songwriting as well. One of Lennon’s favorite artists was “The Miracles,” as they were then known. Although this group, which featured the songwriting and singing of Smokey Robinson, were relatively new as of the spring of 1962 (they only had two charted singles at the time, including the huge hit “Shop Around”), it was enough to influence Lennon to co-write “Ask Me Why,” the first of many songs to be credited with The Miracles’ influence.
The Beatles at The Cavern Club, Liverpool, April 5th, 1962
The songwriting takes us to approximately April 1962, with an original Lennon idea presented to McCartney. "It was John's original idea and we both sat down and wrote it together, just did a job on it," Paul stated in his book "Many Years From Now," continuing "It was mostly John's." His reference to doing "a job on it," as McCartney explained, most likely referred to its complicated structure.
According to Mark Lewisohn's book "Tune In," it was one particular Miracles' song that was released in Britain at that time that inspired John to write "Ask Me Why," this being "What's So Good About Goodbye." The book states, "WIth interesting melodic key shifts and a Latin lilt, 'Ask Me Why' was written in the first person: the singer so loves a girl that he could cry with joy. The lyric is corny but tender, never cloying or syrupy, and John's literacy shows in the line 'I can't conceive of any more misery' - not many songs used the work 'conceive.' Several, however, had 'misery'...likely it was from 'All I've known is misery' in 'What's So Good About Goodbye,' which also happened to include the words 'tell me why.'"
Lewisohn continues: "'Ask Me Why' had other echoes of Smokey Robinson's artistry: both songs opened with similar guitar figures and had verses that ended in falsetto. But this wasn't plagiarism; Smokey was just the springboard to John's creativity, his song ending up different."
The Beatles with Pete Best, 1962
Session One: The first time the song was premiered in the recording studio was the first time The Beatles (with Pete Best) were in an EMI recording studio. This was on the historic date of June 6th, 1962. They recorded four songs during this two hour session (6:00 to 8:00 p.m.) and “Ask Me Why” was the last. Brain Epstein had thought, mistakenly, that Martin was impressed by the classic renditions of older songs that The Beatles worked up, but after “Besame Mucho” was performed, it was apparent that originals were what EMI wanted to hear, given that publishers Ardmore and Beechwood were looking to secure publishing deals for original material from The Beatles' first single. This suited the band just fine, being that they wanted to record original material anyway. After an unknown number of takes were performed of “Love Me Do” and “P.S. I Love You,” they then presented “Ask Me Why” for consideration.
George Martin apparently wasn’t present during the complete session this day, but was called in from the studio canteen (where he was taking a tea break) to hear them perform “Love Me Do.” Since Martin then took over the rest of the session, he was present during their unnumbered takes of “Ask Me Why” on that day, which occurred approximately at 7:30 pm. At the conclusion of this session it was determined by Martin and associate producer Ron Richards that the material recorded on this day was not worthy of record release and another session needed to be booked for a future date. Nonetheless, this recording apparently was lost or recorded over shortly thereafter.
Session Two: The second session for the song was actually not a recording session at all. This occurred on September 4th, 1962, which was the second time The Beatles (this time with Ringo) were in EMI studios. They arrived for a rehearsal session at 2:30 pm (which lasted until 5:30 pm) in order to rehearse songs to determine which would grace the B-side of their first single. “How Do You Do It” was already chosen by George Martin to be the A-side, so after rehearing this song, they rehearsed five other original songs. “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me” were performed for sure, but noteworthy sources indicate that “Ask Me Why” was one of the other three.
In the end, of course, Martin chose “Love Me Do,” as the A-side and “P.S. I Love You” for the B-side of their first record, since publishers' disputes argued against releasing “How Do You Do It” on either side of their first single. “Ask Me Why” was then left for consideration for another time.
Session Three: November 26th, 1962 saw the actual recording of the song as we all know it. This three hour session, with the purpose of recording both sides of their second single, started at 7:00 p.m. and ended at 10:00. The group actually arrived at the studio at 6:00 for a rehearsal session.
The first two hours were spent recording “Please Please Me,” which was chosen for the A-side of the single. After a short tea break, they returned at approximately 9:00 to record six takes of “Ask Me Why,” the sixth being deemed the best. This was a completely live performance with no overdubs or edits.
At that time, “Ask Me Why” wasn’t the guaranteed choice for the B-side of their second single. They also recorded an unnumbered amount of takes of a new original song entitled “Tip Of My Tongue.” After several attempts at recording this song, George Martin decided that the arrangement needed to be worked on and said to leave it for another time. This, of course, never happened, and the song was given to Tommy Quickly to record, which he did in July of 1963.
The decision to pass on “Tip Of My Tongue” left “Ask My Why” as the B-side to “Please Please Me.” One thing was for certain; The Beatles wanted both sides of their second single, like their first, to be original compositions.
Mixing: Three mixes were made of the song. The first was a mono mix that was made on November 30th, 1962. This was deemed suitable for the single release, which occurred in Britain on January 11th, 1963.
A further mono mix as well as a stereo mix was done during the control room session for the “Please Please Me” album, which happened on February 25th, 1963. Apparently, George Martin felt that the original mix of the song needed a touch of reverb to match the rest of the album. Since the original session tapes were still available, a true stereo mix could be done. These mixes are the ones available to this day.
Song Structure and Style
This song could probably win an award for being the most complicated and confusing song structure in the early Beatles catalog. It is true that all conventional rules of songwriting went out of the window in later years, such as with “Happiness Is A Warm Gun.” But as for The Beatles songwriting styles throughout their entire career, there are only a few exceptions to the established song structures common in popular music. This truly is one of those exceptions. To an average listener, “Ask Me Why” may seem like just your average early Beatles song with its distinctive harmonies and breaks. But when analyzed, it can easily be determined that Lennon and McCartney hadn’t quite fallen into their songwriting “groove” yet.
This is not to say that the song is “bad” by any stretch of the imagination. Quite on the contrary, “Ask Me Why” has an understated charm. It flows with the precision that comes from extensive rehearsal and performance, being that it had been part of their “stage act” for many months before the recording session. The structure of the song may be confusing when under scrutiny, but The Beatles had all the changes down perfectly. They knew where the song was going and that’s all that counts.
The best analysis of the song's structure shows that it consists of a ‘verse/ altered verse/ bridge/ refrain’ pattern (which we’ll call abcd). But after this pattern occurs, we see a ‘verse/ refrain/ bridge/ refrain’ pattern (which can be shown as adcd). Adding to the confusion is the number of breaks that occur throughout the song, possibly with the intent of creating a transition from one part of the song to the other. This may be hard to follow, but we’ll discuss a play-by-play to make things clearer (or more confusing).
The song first starts out with a two bar instrumental introduction, which includes a break and the opening words of the first verse. The style of having the opening words of the verse come before the first bar of the verse can be heard in many Beatle songs throughout their career, such as “All My Loving” and “All I’ve Got To Do.” The distinctive background harmonies of Paul and George are heard immediately backing John’s lead vocal. The first verse has an odd thirteen bars, which include two breaks.
The song then enters into a second 13-bar verse, which initially sounds identical to the first verse structurally, but is altered at the end to create a suitable transition into the bridge which follows. Only one break occurs during this altered verse.
The bridge has a standard eight bars but ends with a pronounced break which strongly emphasizes the harmonized word “misery.” The song then goes into what appears to be another verse because of it starting with the title of the song in the lyrics, but is very quickly revealed to be a refrain, which ends the series of the song’s components with a proper resolve.
The sequence then appears to repeat, as another 13-bar verse begins, but we are then thrown a curve-ball by repeating the refrain, which could indicate the conclusion of the song. But, no! We then enter into the identical bridge from the first sequence (ending in the pronounced “misery”) and then, for the third time, repeat the refrain again, ending with a small classy guitar flourish from Harrison.
Definitely no fault can be found in the performance, as all vocals are spot-on pitch and all instruments are played flawlessly. Harrison is found to be in especially good form, showing him equally adept at crooner tunes as he is doing Carl Perkins or Chuck Berry. Ringo has all the breaks down perfectly, even though he had inherited this original song from the likes of Pete Best before him. Lennon’s vocals crack at times, but it only comes across as adding character to the vocal performance.
As for the lyrics of the song, it is simply a somewhat cliché-heavy ode to the joys of being in love. McCartney admitted that at times the lyrics in their songs were secondary to the musical structure. This being an earlier entry in the Lennon/McCartney songbook, much better lyrical content was to come. The focus of the song should most definitely be on the song's structural complexity.
Vee Jay's "Beattles" single
This song has the privilege of being one of the first Beatles songs released in America. It appeared as the B-side their first US single “Please Please Me,” which was released on February 7th, 1963 on Vee Jay records (who misspelled the artist as “The Beattles” on the label). The vast majority of the US audience was totally unaware of this appearance since the record failed to make the charts.
The next release of the song was on January 27th, 1964 with the release of the second version of the album “Introducing…The Beatles.” The first version, released on January 10th, contained the songs “Love Me Do” and “P.S. I Love You,” but because of a pending lawsuit, these songs belonged to an EMI publishing company and Vee Jay records was notified to cease and desist printing the album. To remedy the situation, they replaced those two songs with “Please Please Me” and “Ask Me Why.” Since this album sold over 1.3 million copies and made it to number 2 on the Billboard album charts, this was the first time the majority of American Beatle fans got to hear the song.
Another early attempt by Vee Jay records to saturate the US with Beatles product came with the release (on February 26th, 1964) of an album entitled “Jolly What! England’s Greatest Recording Stars: The Beatles and Frank Ifield On Stage.” Vee Jay had temporarily acquired the rights to the catalog of English singer/yodeler Frank Ifield and, as a package deal, The Beatles back in early 1963. The label then released this album to convince Beatles fans that this was a “Live” performance of The Beatles, although, of course, it wasn’t. As a footnote, Vee Jay had done the same thing with their blues artist Jimmy Reed, with a double album entitled “Jimmy Reed At Carnegie Hall.” The title didn’t say Live at Carnegie Hall, and it indeed wasn’t live at all. A picture of him at Carnegie Hall on the cover was enough for Vee Jay to say they weren’t lying. After all, he was there!
Couple this with the fact that only four Beatles songs appeared on the album, including “Ask My Why,” sales ended up being quite dismal. Actually, 50,000 copies were quickly sold, but over half of them were returned because of the fraudulent claims on the album sleeve. The sleeve itself was rather quickly assembled, featuring a drawing of a moustached English statesman wearing a Beatle wig on the front cover. The back cover featured “british” sounding slang, mistakenly, but humorously, calling the album a “copulation” instead of a compilation!
Also sometime in February of 1964, Vee Jay records planned on issuing another single to promote the "Introducing The Beatles" album. Before they decided on "Twist And Shout" as the next single, they considered releasing "Anna" as a single with "Ask Me Why" as the B-side. They pressed a limited number of promotional copies using the catalog number "Spec. DJ No. 8" with the intention of sending these to US radio stations. Almost no one in the US was aware of this extremely rare promotional single since only four copies are known to exist.
March 23rd, 1964, was the next appearance of the song on the Vee Jay EP “The Beatles – Souvenir of Their Visit To America.” This was a quick attempt to capitalize on their first US visit in February. Even though the four-song EP didn’t chart on Billboard, it went on to sell 78,800 copies, which was quite a feat for Vee Jay records.
Vee Jay made "Ask Me Why" the primary promotional focus of the EP. They sent special promotional sleeves with this EP to disc jockeys across the US encouraging them to play "Ask Me Why" on the air, also stating this is "the EP that is selling like a single." Fewer than 10 copies of this sleeve are known to exist.
As Vee Jay’s license to release Beatles material was expiring, they tried three more attempts at cashing in on The Beatles craze. All three of these attempts were albums that featured the song “Ask Me Why.” The first attempt was the album “The Beatles vs. The Four Seasons” which was released on October 1, 1964. This was a repackaging of the “Introducing…The Beatles” album with “'The Golden Hits of the Four Seasons” as a double album. This compilation album only peaked at number 142 on the Billboard charts, selling only 20,000 copies.
The next release was a desperate act in repackaging the “Jolly What” album as “The Beatles And Frank Ifield On Stage,” which was released on October 10th, 1964 but only reached number 104 on the Billboard album charts. This album is considered one of the rarest US Beatles album, reportedly fetching $22,000 in 1995. The last gasp from Vee Jay records was another repackaging of the “Introducing…The Beatles” album as “Songs, Pictures And Stories Of The Fabulous Beatles” on October 12, 1964. It was actually the original “Introducing” album placed in a new sleeve. It peaked at number 63 on the US charts, selling 400,000 copies, this album also featuring “Ask Me Why.”
Capitol records, now acquiring the rights to the early Beatles catalog, releases the album “The Early Beatles” on March 22nd, 1965. This cemented the availability of “Ask Me Why” in the US throughout the next couple of decades. This album then appeared on an individual CD on January 21st, 2014, containing both the mono and stereo mixes on one disc.
Sometime in 1967, Capitol released Beatles music on a brand new but short-lived format called "Playtapes." These tape cartidges did not have the capability to include entire albums, so two truncated four-song versions of "The Early Beatles" were released in this portable format, "Ask Me Why" being on one of these. These "Playtapes" are highly collectable today.
The next release of the song was in 1981 on an album entitled "Live - 1962 - Hamburg Germany" on the Hall Of Music label. The Beatles performed "Ask Me Why" on their final visit to Hamburg during the 1962 Christmas season, which was recorded from the audience on a portable Grundig reel-to-reel tape recorder. This recording surfaced in many forms in the late 70's and early 80's but Hall Of Music was the first label to have the guts to include any Lennon/McCartney songs, due to the possibility of lawsuits.
Collectables Records apparently also had the guts. The next release of the song was the same Hamburg recording released as a short-lived single in 1982, with "Twist And Shout" as the B-side.
The first time the original British "Please Please Me" album was made available in the US was the "Original Master Recording" vinyl edition released through Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab in January of 1987. This album included "Ask Me Why" and was prepared utilizing half-speed mastering technology from the original master tape on loan from EMI. This version of the album was only available for a short time and is quite collectible today.
With the dawning of the compact disc era in the 1980's, music fans were eagerly waiting for the delayed release of the Beatles catalog on CD. K-Tel Records thought to cash in on this expectation by releasing "Live In Hamburg '62" in early February 1987, which was just prior to the release of the first four Beatles albums by Apple Records. Many Beatles fans couldn't resist owning a live CD by their favorite group that featured 20 tracks including "Ask Me Why," not realizing that this was such a lo-fi rough recording as released many times before on vinyl, as detailed above.
On February 26th, 1987, the original British “Please Please Me” album was released on compact disc, featuring the mono mix of “Ask Me Why.” This album was released in the US on vinyl on July 21st, 1987. The album was then remastered and re-released on September 9th, 2009 on CD and on November 13th, 2012 on vinyl, but this time the entire album contained the original stereo mixes.
Sometime in 1991, Sony Music took it upon themselves to release two volumes of the above mentioned 1962 Hamburg recordings, "Live! At The Star Club In Hamburg, Germany; 1962 (Vol. 2)" containing "Ask Me Why." The release of these volumes prompted legal action from The Beatles, Sony discontinuing production of these volumes because of a lawsuit that had been filed. By 1998, The Beatles had won the right of ownership of these recordings, any releases surfacing after this point being illegally produced bootlegs.
Then on June 30th, 1992, Capitol released the box set “Compact Disc EP Collection.” This contained “Ask Me Why” because of the song being originally included on the British EP “All My Loving” released on February 7th, 1964.
The box set “The Capitol Albums, Vol. 2” was released on April 11th, 2006, and contains the song in stereo and in mono as heard on the original "Early Beatles" album.
September 9th, 2009 was also the date that the box set “The Beatles In Mono” was released. This features the original mono mix re-mastered for excellent clarity.
On November 11, 2013, the album "On Air - Live At The BBC Volume 2" was released, which featured an unheard version of "Ask Me Why" that was recorded on September 3rd, 1963 for the radio program "Pop Go The Beatles."
The Beatles at the Cavern Club
"The Beatles learned 'Ask Me Why' in a private afternoon rehearsal in the Cavern," states Mark Lewisohn's book "Tune In," adding, "and though it didn't go into the regular set just yet, there's an unconfirmed suggestion it was played in one of their last pre-Hamburg shows, at the start of April (1962)." The song was then premiered for producer George Martin during their EMI audition on June 6th of that year. And then five days later, on June 11th, they performed it for the BBC radio show “Here We Go,” which was broadcast on June 15th, the first Lennon/McCartney composition to be heard on the radio. Pete Best was still in the band at this time.
From July through December 1962, the song was performed in their “stage act” at the Cavern Club in Liverpool until their final trip to Hamburg for New Years Eve. This is confirmed by its inclusion on the "Live - 1962 - Hamburg Germany" album mentioned above, which was recorded during the 1962 Christmas season.
All of the above performances of “Ask Me Why” occurred before the record was released on the Parlophone label in Britain, which happened on January 11th, 1963 as the B-side of “Please Please Me.”
On January 16th, 1963, The Beatles again performed the song on the BBC show “Here We Go” which aired on January 25th, this time with Ringo on drums. Surprisingly, also on this same day, The Beatles mimed a live performance of the song on the Granada TV show "People And Places" along with the song's A-side "Please Please Me." The BBC radio show “The Talent Spot” saw its next performance, which was recorded on January 22nd and aired on January 29th.
They were still performing it in July of that year, as they recorded it on July 2nd for the BBC radio show “Pop Go The Beatles,” although it never aired. September 3rd saw what was apparently their last performance of the song, which was also for the BBC show “Pop Go The Beatles,” which didn’t air until September 24th, 1963. The available playlist for their performances from this point on did not include “Ask Me Why” anymore, since they had two other British number one songs by this time as well as being in the process of recording their second British album. They were no doubt looking ahead to the future by this time.
It’s rather unfortunate that this fine Lennon/McCartney composition has suffered the fate of obscurity, even shortly after its initial release. It’s obvious that The Beatles thought quite a lot of “Ask My Why” at the beginnings of their recording career. They decided to pass up auditioning other original compositions, such as the three Lennon / McCartney songs they auditioned for Decca a few months before, in order to premier this newly written gem for George Martin in June of 1962. Martin was impressed enough to finally give his approval for it to be recorded as a B-side. The performance alone, played with confidence and expertise, is proof enough of the pride they felt for the composition.
This didn’t last for long, as their songwriting progressed by leaps and bounds. They soon became quite aware of what they were capable of as songwriters and, as evidenced by the research done for this article, hardly a mention has been made by Lennon or McCartney throughout all these years about this song. It has only been referred to in passing.
Even the public as a whole seems to be indifferent to the song, if not ignorant of its existence altogether. If mentioned, people might think you’re referring to the similarly titled “Tell Me Why” from the “A Hard Day’s Night” soundtrack. But there it is, bigger than life, available for all to hear in The Beatles catalog as it always has been. “Ask Me Why” may not capture the essence of Beatlemania as we’ve come to know it, but perhaps it’s time to give credit where credit is due.
“Ask Me Why”
Written by: Paul McCartney / John Lennon
- Song Written: April 1962
- Song Recorded: November 26, 1962
- First US Release Date: February 7, 1963
- US Single Release: Vee Jay #498 (flip side to “Please Please Me”)
- First US Album Release: Vee Jay #VJLP 1062 “Introducing…The Beatles”
- Highest Chart Position: n/a
- British Album Release: Parlophone #PCS3042 "Please Please Me”
- Length: 2:24
- Key: E major
- Producer: George Martin
- Engineer: Norman Smith
Instrumentation (most likely):
- John Lennon - Lead Vocals, Rhythm Guitar (1962 Gibson J160E)
- Paul McCartney - Bass Guitar (1961 Hofner 500/1), Background Vocals
- George Harrison – Rhythm Guitar (1957 Gretsch Duo Jet), Background Vocal
- Ringo Starr – Drums (1960 Premier 58/54 Mahogany)
Written and compiled by Dave Rybaczewski
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