As the Beatles fulfilled their previous commitment to playing Hamburg’s Star Club, they were probably thinking about returning to England to begin work on their debut album. Few audiences had heard John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s original compositions, as the band still leaned heavily on cover versions of familiar rockers.
By December 1962, Lennon and McCartney embarked on their unprecedented run as songwriters, already penning impressive songs like “I Saw Her Standing There,” the previously released “Love Me Do,” and “P.S. I Love You.” Their major breakthrough single “Please Please Me” was less than a month away from release, and would propel them to stardom.
While that song does not appear on the Star Club album, the 45’s flipside does: “Ask Me Why,” a blend of Motown and doo wop that features Lennon, McCartney and Harrison’s impeccable harmonies. They seemingly executed these vocals perfectly — not a surprise, since they had recorded the track just a month earlier.
Lennon and McCartney wrote “Ask Me Why” in spring 1962, reportedly after hearing the 1961 track “What’s So Good about Goodbye” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. According to the Beatles Bible, Lennon adapted the guitar motif introducing “What’s So Good about Goodbye” for the riff weaving throughout “Ask Me Why.”
As McCartney told Barry Miles for the biography Many Years from Now, Lennon brought the idea to McCartney, and the duo “both sat down and wrote it together, just did a job on it.”
While the Beatles recorded six takes of the song in November 1962, they had actually attempted it previously during their first session at Abbey Road on June 6, 1962. Unfortunately no tapes of this session exist, as EMI reportedly erased all the master tapes from that day.
They did perform the song for BBC during that time, however, demonstrating that this earlier attempt must have differed little from the November sessions. By the time the Beatles took the Star Club stage, they had obviously rehearsed “Ask Me Why” frequently, which explains their smooth performance.
Featuring heavier drums than on the studio version, “Ask Me Why” sounds more polished than the other Star Club performances. Harrison, Lennon, and McCartney execute flawless harmonies, with Lennon turning in a typically impassioned vocal.
Unlike their June 1962 and subsequent BBC appearances, the Star Club rendition finds Lennon in a more aggressive mood. Here, he sounds raspier, alternating between shouting and crooning. This technique adds more drama to such lines as “you’re the only love that I’ve ever had” and “That I know that I-I-I-I should never, never, never be blue.” The lyrics convey the pleasure and sometimes anguish of new love, with the narrator admitting to often crying in happiness. Yet, he seems to fear that this love could vanish overnight, with Lennon’s voice dropping in volume and range as he sings “I can’t believe it’s happened to me; I can’t conceive of any more misery.”
Harrison and McCartney occasionally join in on words and phrases, as if to highlight the uncertainty to the narrator’s experiences.
Despite his rawer sound, Lennon also convincingly delivers the song’s more tender lines, such as the following romantic verse:
My happiness still makes me cry.
And in time you’ll understand the reasons why
If I cry it’s not because I’m sad
But you’re the only love that I’ve ever had.
Harrison and McCartney join in on the title phrase as well as key lines such as “I love you” and the word “misery,” effectively propelling the song’s story. Starr’s drums are a great presence, echoing Lennon’s more unrestrained singing style.
While the instrumentation is solid, the lead vocal and harmonies are the stars here. The earlier BBC version of “Ask Me Why” is lovely, as is the subsequent Please Please Me album rendition. But the more unrestrained sound at the Star Club coaxes out the deeper, complex emotions expressed in the track’s heartfelt lyrics.