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The Beatles in a scene from the movie "A Hard Day's Night"

"TELL ME WHY"

(John Lennon - Paul McCartney)

The reason for the outstanding durability of The Beatles career has been explained by many to be the positive message they continued to portray in their songs.  The innocence and fun of their lyrics, especially in 1964, were no doubt the catalyst to their irresistible charm.  "Can't Buy Me Love," "I Saw Her Standing There" and "She Loves You" were just happy songs that made you feel good.

Many times, though, if you really listened, the message wasn't all that positive.  On the surface, the song "Tell Me Why" appears to be an energetic rocker with all the ingredients of a feel good Beatles song.  It will usually take a suggestion from someone to listen carefully to the lyrics for them to realize that the song actually depicts a man complaining to his girlfriend (or wife) about the aggravation she is causing him.

 

The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show during their first American visit, February 1964

Songwriting History

"'Tell Me Why'...They needed another upbeat song and I just knocked it off.  It was like a black, girl-group New York song."  This statement from John Lennon in 1980 isn't much to go on, but it does narrow down events to specify February 1964 as the time of writing.

Knowing that they had to start writing songs for their upcoming movie, that had a piano brought in to the George V Hotel in Paris where they were playing an extensive 18-day residency at the Olympia Theatre.  During this January stay, the first batch of songs were written, including "Can't Buy Me Love," "You Can't Do That," "If I Fell," "And I Love Her" and "I'll Be Back."  Also written during this stay was a song entitled "One And One Is Two," which ended up not being thought good enough for use in the movie.  This was given to a fellow Liverpool group "The Strangers" to record.

During their first American visit in February, they must have been informed by someone that they needed to come up with more "upbeat" songs, so that's where the remaining songs used in the movie were written, namely "Tell Me Why."  The title track didn't come until April when it was decided what the film would be named, so the song "A Hard Day's Night" would be the exception here.

Saying that he "just knocked it off" referred to how Lennon and McCartney would create filler songs ("work songs" or "hack songs" as they would refer to them) that were just meant to fill a need, in this case, a slot in the movie.  Since there is no record of the Beatles ever performing the song on stage, nor for radio or television, they obviously had no other aspirations for the song

With regard to the song's inspiration, it's easy to hear the "black, girl-group" sound emanating throughout the track.  The irresistible swing beat can easily be traced back to songs such as "Chains" by The Cookies, as well as songs more recent at the time, such as Martha & The Vandellas "Heat Wave" and "Quicksand."

One undisputed fact that is corroborated by both Lennon and McCartney is that "Tell Me Why" was entirely written by John.

Recording History

February 27th, 1964 was the third pre-scheduled day that The Beatles met in EMI Studio Two to record tracks for use in their first movie, which was to begin shooting on March 2nd.  The early recording session of the day, from 10 am to 1 pm, first had them finally complete work on Paul's "And I Love Her," which took them three days to nail down.  With that finally out of the way, they started on John's new composition "Tell Me Why," which started at approximately 11:30 am.

The group ran through eight takes (not all complete) with all four Beatles playing their usual instruments and singing three part harmony simultaneously.  There was a degree of frustration in getting all their parts down perfectly as evidenced in take four, which didn't get much passed the introduction before everything fell apart and tempers flared.  Nonetheless, by take eight the song was done to everyone's satisfaction.  The only overdub they performed was double-tracking John's lead vocal, which was done on an isolated track on the four-track tape.  By 1 pm, the song was done and it was time for lunch.

The afternoon session this day, from 2:30 to 5:30, was put aside to work on an earlier Lennon / McCartney collaboration "If I Fell," which they knew needed much TLC to get right.  This may have been the catalyst to get "Tell Me Why" over with in the morning session, so as not to have to return to it later in the next session.  The group was especially proud of "If I Fell" as can be seen by their including it in their set list during their first world tour later in the year.  "Tell Me Why" was not afforded such a luxury.

The mono mix of the song was made on March 3rd in the Studio One control room by producer George Martin and engineers Norman Smith and A.B. Lincoln.  None of The Beatles were present, as they were busy filming the movie on this day.

It's interesting to note that George Martin decided to use the track that contained John's double-tracked vocal sparingly on this mono mix.  His intentions were to have the verses appear single-tracked to have a personal direct sound when John sang alone while the refrains would be double-tracked to add a fuller dimension when the harmonies kicked in.  Since that meant turning the fader for that track up and down manually during the mix, a couple of flaws can be heard.  When the first verse begins, you can hear John sing the first three words "well I gave" double-tracked before George Martin realized he needed to turn the fader down.  Also, throughout the bridge, they left the track up slightly so, if you listen carefully, you can hear John's vocal double-tracked in the distance.

On June 9th, 1964, George Martin, Norman Smith and 2nd engineer Ken Scott convened in the control room of Studio Three to create mono tape copies of all of the songs to be used in the film "A Hard Day's Night," which included "Tell Me Why."  There were now two copies of the mixes to send to both United Artists Records (for use on their soundtrack album) and Capitol Records (for use on their album "Something New").

At the last minute, as usual, stereo mixes were made of the entire "A Hard Day's Night" album.  On June 22nd, George Martin, Norman Smith and 2nd engineer Geoff Emerick met in the control room of Studio One for a long tedious day of creating mono and stereo mixes for the album.  "Tell Me Why" got its' only stereo mix on this day.  Since it was done in such a hurry, they left the double-tracking track up for the entire song, which makes a noticeable difference between the mono and stereo mixes.  The vocals appear sloppy wherever John didn't get the phrasing exactly the same as he did on take eight.  For instance, in the second verse, Lennon sang "if you don't" when double-tracking but sang "and if you don't" on the original take eight, which sounds awkward and jumbled on the stereo mix.

Song Structure and Style

"Tell Me Why" follows a pattern not unlike what we've heard before in the Lennon/McCartney catalog (namely "It Won't Be Long") which incorporates and highlights the use of the refrain.  The full run-down in this pattern is 'refrain/ verse/ refrain/ verse/ refrain/ bridge/ refrain', which would become ababaca.  No solo section occurs in the song, so rhythm guitars rule the day.

The song starts out with a four measure introduction which begins with a tumbling drum fill from Ringo to start the action.  A rhythmic swing back and forth between two syncopated chords interspersed with repeats of the introductory drum fill creates a sense of anticipation for what is to follow.  We are to hear abbreviated versions of this introduction six more times in the song, so the group makes good use of this effect.

Like "It Won't Be Long" before it, "Tell Me Why" begins with the refrain, which in this case is twelve measures long and emphasizes the title phrase with their trademark vibrant three-part harmony.  This refrain is actually made up of two nearly identical five-measure melody lines that are repeated.  After each melody line we hear a one-measure repeat of the introduction, which brings the measure count to the full twelve.

While the song is fully based in a 'swing-style' as to beat and melodic phrases, we see the bluesy vocal style appear in the eight-measure verse that next occurs in the song.  Lennon relates his story personally in the first and third line of the verse, yet Paul and George harmonize the second and fourth lines with him as if to add weight to the personal argument that John is waging with his girl.

This segues directly back into a repeat of the refrain, which sets the pattern to be followed afterward in a quite predictable, yet effective, manner.  As we enter the third refrain, we see that they forgo the final introductory syncopated phrase in order to play a transitory chord that leads into the first and only occurrence of a bridge.

This ten-measure bridge is sung mostly by John solo except for the third of the four lyrical phrases ("is there anything I can do"), which is sung by all three vocalists in a 'self-mocking' falsetto.  Then, in an effort to break the monotony, they once again forgo the introductory syncopated phrase for a full measure of triplets from Ringo, which is used as a segue into a final refrain.

The final refrain is identical to the rest except that it is extended to fourteen measures to create a suitable conclusion to the song.  The ending consists of the introductory syncopated phrase repeated three times using chords unheard anytime previously in the song followed by the home chord to create a satisfying resolve to the song.  This conclusion has been used to good effect by The Beatles before, such as in "It Won't Be Long" as well as "Please Please Me."

"I think a lot of these songs like 'Tell Me Why' may have been based in real experiences," McCartney explains, "or arguments with Cynthia or whatever, but it never occurred to us until later to put that slant on it all."

Although Lennon never suggested that as regards to "Tell Me Why," when examining its' lyrics, one can easily see how a disagreement with Cynthia could have been his inspiration.  Accusing her of lying, as repeated twice in every refrain, fits in well with his self-admitted jealousy at the time, which he just wrote about in "You Can't Do That."  The subject matter of John crying, which he brings up endless times in his songwriting career ("Not A Second Time", "I'm A Loser," "I'll Cry Instead"), appears once again as he's "holding back these tears in my eyes."

The lyrics "I gave you everything I had" can also fit the scenario of the time.  "Cynthia wanted to settle John down, pipe and slippers," McCartney recalls.  "The minute she said that to me I thought, Kiss of death, I know my mate and that is not what he wants.  She got a couple of years of that, but he finally had to break loose."  The idea of John working hard within The Beatles in order to give it to secure the life Cynthia wanted in their Kenwood mansion and associated lifestyle caused enough resentment to relate in song.

Although the bite of these lyrics are surprisingly contrasted with the happy-go-lucky swing-style of the song as a whole, this is actually a reoccurrence of a similarly dissatisfied relationship subject matter via a happy sounding melody line as heard in "Please Please Me."  Happily though, the desperation displayed in "Tell Me Why" is finally revealed in the bridge as the result of his underlying feelings toward her.  "Is there anything I can do," John sings, "I'm so in love with you."

Performance wise, Lennon stands tall again with his vocals at the top of his register (sometimes on the verge of cracking).  Even though the sting of bitterness is evident in his vocals, his performance vocally and on rhythm guitar has the overall effect of an effervescent and fun-loving toe-tapper. 

McCartney brings everything he has to the song as he's used to doing, supplying spot-on harmony vocals and smooth, appropriate walking bass lines in the refrains that give the impression that there are more chord changes than there actually are.  Harrison's rhythm guitar work is also stellar in that it punctuates the intricate chords of the song while simultaneously providing a lower harmony part to create the rich Beatles three-part block harmonies that fans love to hear.

Ringo also rises to the occasion with his triplet-based, tumbling drum fills throughout the song as well as a swing beat that has a booming resonance.  For being a song with such a short life-span in their career, all four musicians give the performance of a lifetime.

United Artists' Soundtrack Album

American Releases

America first got to hear the song on the United Artists "A Hard Day's Night" soundtrack album, released on June 26th, 1964.  This highly anticipated album, which sold over a million copies in the first four days of its' release, rushed to number one on the Billboard album charts and stayed there for fourteen weeks.  The album got its' compact disc release on January 21st., 2014, both the mono and stereo versions of the album being contained on a single CD.

Capitol got to take advantage of the film's popularity as well by releasing their album "Something New" on July 20th, 1964.  "Tell Me Why" was contained on this album as well which, while it could only manage a #2 showing on the Billboard charts, went on to sell over two million copies.  This album was also released on an individual compact disc on January 21st., 2014, both the mono and stereo versions being contained on one CD.

In October of 1964, Capitol issued its' third edition of the Compact 33 jukebox discs, this one featuring the album "Something New."  "Tell Me Why" appears as the second song on side two.

On February 26, 1987 the British version of the “A Hard Day’s Night” album saw its’ first American release on CD.  This included the mono mix of the song while the re-mastered version released on September 9th, 2009 contained the stereo mix.

On June 30th, 1992, Capitol released a box set entitled “Compact Disc EP Collection” which contained the mono mix of “Tell Me Why” because of its inclusion on the original British EP “Extracts From The Film A Hard Day’s Night.”

The box set “The Capitol Albums, Volume 1” was released on November 16, 2004.  This set contains both the stereo and mono mix as heard on the original “Something New” vinyl albums of 1964.

The mono mix of “Tell Me Why” was also re-mastered and is contained in the box set “The Beatles In Mono,” which was released on September 9th, 2009.

 

The Beatles at Scala Theatre during the filming of "A Hard Day's Night"

Live Performances

On March 31st, 1964 The Beatles continued filming their movie at the Scala Theatre in London where they simulated a live television concert.  They mimed at least five songs including "Tell Me Why" before an audience of 350 paid actors, which included 13-year-old future Genesis drummer and solo artists Phil Collins.

Although this vibrant, show-stopping song, which has all the elements of Beatlemania, would have been a natural for live performances on stage, on television and on BBC radio, this mimed performance was the only time "Tell Me Why" was ever played before an audience.  This begs the question:  Tell me why?

 

Concert scene from the movie "A Hard Day's Night"

Conclusion

The output from the Lennon/McCartney songwriting team was astonishing.  They knew that their fans were highly anticipating every track on every album, so they didn't skimp as songwriters, even on tracks that they viewed as fillers, or "work songs."  For example, "Tell Me Why" only had the exposure of being on an album or two and featured in their movie "A Hard Day's Night" but otherwise was not released as a single and was neglected by the group as to performances.  But still, many decades later, the song holds up and is held in high esteem by Beatles fans around the world.  Such is the phenomenon of The Beatles.

Song Summary

 "Tell Me Why"

Written by:  John Lennon / Paul McCartney

  • Song Written: February 1964
  • Song Recorded: February 27, 1964
  • First US Release Date: June 26, 1964
  • First US Album Release: United Artists #UAS 6366 "A Hard Day's Night"
  • US Single Release: Capitol #SXA-2108 "Something New" Compact 33 jukebox disc
  • Highest Chart Position: n/a
  • British Album Release: Parlophone #PCS 3058 "A Hard Day's Night"
  • Length: 2:10
  • Key: C major
  • Producer: George Martin
  • Engineers: Norman Smith, Richard Langham

Instrumentation:

  • John Lennon -  Lead Vocals, Rhythm Guitar (1964 Rickenbacker 325)
  • Paul McCartney - Bass Guitar (1963 Hofner 500/1), Harmony Vocals
  • George Harrison - Lead Guitar (1963 Rickenbacker 360-12 Fireglo), Harmony Vocals
  • Ringo Starr - Drums (1963 Ludwig Downbeat Black Oyster Pearl)

 Written and compiled by Dave Rybaczewski

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