Single: “Please Please Me”/”Ask Me Why”
Released: 11 January 1963
So–how to follow up with your big (or in this case, somewhat modest) debut single? For George Martin, he was still adamant to have the band release “How Do You Do It”, but the Beatles stood on their principle of releasing their own songs as singles. There was a good couple of months’ worth of time between their previous session and this next one, however, and they didn’t rest on their laurels. They had an extremely busy tour schedule, not only in Liverpool but elsewhere in the country, as well as a two-week stint in Hamburg at the Star Club with Little Richard. The Beatles were no longer a bar band…they were a professional band now, playing venues and going on radio shows and keeping their name out there–thanks to manager Brian Epstein who had become their official manager just that January. They might have had only one single (technically two) out there, but they weren’t about to let these moments pass them by. They finally reconvened at Abbey Road on 26 November to record two more songs for a follow-up single.
Interestingly enough, this next single catapulted them to the number one spot on a lot of British charts, including NME’s, but–it’s not considered a true number one, because Record Retailer at that time was considered the “official” UK chart (sort of like Billboard for the US in a way), and it only hit #2 there. This would also explain why the song is not on the 1 compilation.
A much more uptempo song for them, and a good thing. Sources state that the original version written by Lennon was a slow ballad not unlike Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” (which he has stated was an inspiration), but after Martin’s suggestions, the pace was quickened and the mood made livelier. It’s a fun song, really–it showcases a lot of their best moves at the time. Starting off with another of John’s harmonica lines, this one is less countrified than on “Love Me Do”, and is used more as background. John and Paul deliver the main verses as a duet not unlike the Everly Brothers, John singing the main melody and Paul harmonizing up top. Then there’s a little something unexpected–a guitar and drum fill played to ‘rev’ up to the next line. Even better is that quick stop and reverse-melody guitar fill taking us into the climbing chorus. And that’s just in the first thirty seconds! And there we are, about halfway through the song: the middle eight. The Beatles were masters at the middle eight, that bridge where the melody is counterpoint to the rest of the song, where the plot of the song hangs in the balance before coming back to the familiar verse and chorus again. There’s also the different repetitions within the song–the singsong harmonica line, the wordplay of the title itself, and the the triple repeat of the final line of the chorus at the end of the song. And to top it all off–none of this is overtly noticeable. It retains its simple catchiness.
All this was of course old hat to them by then, as they’d written countless songs over the last few years, inspired by the countless bands they’d toured with and seen Hamburg and elsewhere, as well as all the American records they’d gotten their hands on. But to British ears, this was new and fresh–something so much different than the crooners and the poster boys. There were a lot of new bands out there doing this at the time (the Rolling Stones, for one), but the Beatles were one of the first to break through to major success, and this song was the first one to do it in the UK.
Side B: Ask Me Why
This one’s obviously a filler, a typical “I love you” song (they even use the phrase as the first line) inspired by the soul of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. A relatively newer track written earlier in the year and played primarily on stage, they used this as part of their June EMI audition and used up the remaining recording time to bash out a few takes of this song. They gave it a jazzy spin, hitting all kinds of minor chords and sevenths. John and George pretty much play the same thing, yet with different styles: John plays straightforward for the backbone, while George embellishes his strumming in a cabaret sort of style. The vocals are impeccable here, John taking up the lead and Paul and George providing backup. There is a bit more experimentation in the stop-start melody trick here, something they’d use a few more times in these early releases, but again, nothing that really stands out. It’s not their most exciting song to date, but as with their work ethic at the time, they put enough dedication into it to be released as a flipside.
Next up: Please Please Me, the debut album