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The Beatles - "Ask Me Why"

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Friday, Oct 10, 2008

“Ask Me Why” was one of four songs that the Beatles played at Abbey Road Studios during their first recording session on June 6, 1962. Afterward, George Martin judged that this abundantly tender song wasn’t best suited for the Beatles’ debut single. That distinction would fall on “Love Me Do”, which is more instantly appealing and pop-wise than “Ask Me Why”. Conversely, the latter is a contained and low-impact affair that draws strength from the intricacy of its vocal arrangements.


On first contact, “Ask Me Why” comes off as little more than an earnest and submissive proclamation of love. Backed by an unassuming interaction of light guitar jangles, ticking percussion, and a lead guitar part lifted from a Miracles song, John Lennon, on vocals, anxiously plays the fool for his dearest: “Now you’re mine / My happiness still makes me cry.” Why the tears, John? “It’s not because I’m sad / But you’re the only love that I’ve ever had.” Evidently, he’s fallen hard for this girl. The one line that doesn’t seem vividly in sync with the lyric’s feverish tone is the opener—“I love you / ‘Cause you tell me things I want to know”—which, far from being an indifferent sentiment, is just clumsily romantic. Otherwise, it’s all over-the-moon devotion. As if to reinforce the song’s intent, John and Paul even wrote its second half as a mere reprise of the first, only without one of the verses and plus an additional chorus.


What elevates the lyric above maudlin fluff is the vibrancy of its actual expression, mainly undertaken by John and Paul. Indeed, the technical prowess and invention of its vocal patterns, which also borrowed from the work of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, keep “Ask Me Why” crisp and pleasantly buoyant.


It breaks down this way: The opening verse begins (I believe) with John, Paul, and George all in unison: “I love youuuu.” I’m not sure who sings exactly what, but at the end of “you”, both a straight “uuuu” and a “wu-wu-wu” are held out concurrently. Then, after John performs the verse’s next line by himself and a similar unison part follows, he does a different and longer section (“That I-I-I-I…”), flanked by “oooos” from Paul and George. Within just that half-minute, the vocals have already nimbly shifted here and there. Next comes another verse, succeeded by an exquisitely subtle bridge. On the first line—“I can’t believe”—John’s part is either doubled or Paul sings unison and blends in seamlessly. From there to the end of the bridge, the pair fade in and out of harmony, with Paul performing a series of “spot” harmonies: first on “it’s happened to me”, then on “of anymore”, and finally on “misery” (the latter two are in succession but Paul seems to alter his vocal between them, which makes for distinct parts). As I learned from a very helpful comment on a previous post, the “spot” harmony was a significant innovation that the Beatles brought to pop music. Lastly, the chorus features a unison vocal on “Ask me why” and, again, a couple of lines from John paired with backup “oooos”.


Beyond the draw of its changing patterns, what’s so rewarding and almost endearing about the vocal proficiency of “Ask Me Why” is how it exists in such small moments. Looking at the bigger picture, isn’t it remarkable to consider that part of the Beatles’ historic stamp on the pop world could unveil itself in the singing of just one word, like “misery”?

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