Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ask Me Why

Some Beatles songs are inevitably going to be more or less popular than others, but frequently mediocre songs ("The Fool on the Freaking Hill") are celebrated far more than they ought to be, when far superior songs ("Old Brown Shoe") languish, seemingly friendless. And then there are songs like "Ask Me Why." In my years of reading books and internet forums, I'd say that "Ask Me Why" is rated anywhere from just-OK to unlistenable. And, you know... yeah. The masses have pretty much given it the correct assessment. Though I'd put it closer to OK, myself.

I mean, not to be a downer. When we say that "Ask Me Why" is only OK, that's relative to the entire Beatles catalog, which means that "Ask Me Why" is still more pleasant to listen to (for me) than the vast vast VAST majority of music created in the pop music universe, EVER. Whenever I'm critical, it's only in this context.

But here's the thing: I am very, very tired. I am fending off illness and trying to stay well for a concert that my choir is singing this Sunday. (Want to come? Of course you do! It's going to be spectacular!) I am swamped at work. Much as I regret it, I don't have heaps of time to listen to the Beatles today. So let's just listen to "Ask Me Why," which doesn't demand much of me.

This is a very early song written by John, one of his first in a self-consciously Smokey Robinson style (which he'd dip into later for songs like "This Boy"). As is typical for the early Lennon style, there's some beautiful vocal harmonic stuff and lyrics that sound convoluted, cheeky, and possibly vulnerable all at the same time. Actually, to be fair, the lyrics in this song are a little sillier than usual, but it's an early effort. Structurally, it's actually kind of interesting and unpredictable-- or clumsy, depending on how you hear it, but I quite like the weird bend into the middle-eight, which to me might be the strongest part. And then, of course, the band is awesome and gives it their all-- John is throwing himself into his vocal, and Paul is smooth as hell on the bass, and George cha-cha-chas merrily along. It's all fine. It's a cute song, much as I hate to say it, but that's kind of how it comes off. Competent, but cute.

They had been performing "Ask Me Why" for a while before they put it into the set they used to audition for George Martin at Parlophone. A version of this song actually made it onto the British version of Live at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany 1962, a strange album released in 1977 from recordings made during their brief stint at the Star-Club right before they were famous. (I highly recommend you check out Beatles Discography's excellent but brief telling of the bizarre story of how this album came to be, as I learned several interesting details just now reading it.) Now, Live at the Star-Club is notorious for its horrible sound quality, so I would normally never bother to link to it, but here I will, only because I think in this context the song comes off as a little less precious. Imagine the crowds of German sailors and hookers in the Star-Club dancing to it, and it sounds a bit different, doesn't it?

I find myself quite liking this version, although in many ways it differs very little from the album version (a testament to the Beatles' professionalism as a live band)-- it's just the roughness of the recording somehow makes the edges pleasantly ragged for me.

But whatever. It's a pleasant song either way, and it made a fine B-side to "Please Please Me." Better songs would follow, but this quirky little song holds up fairly well, considering its exalted company.

"Ask Me Why," released in the U.K. as B-side to "Please Please Me," January 11, 1963; in the U.S., as B-side to Vee Jay's "Please Please Me" February 7, 1963.
I am indebted for all discography information to the tremendous Beatles-Discography.com.

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