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Alphabeaticles. Part 20: Ask Me Why.

Pete Best could smell fame. ‘I knew the Beatles were gonna go places. I knew we were going to be a chart group’, said Best, looking back over his shoulder years after you know what happened. ‘To be kicked out on the verge of it actually happening upset me a great deal.’

All evidence suggests that he never quite got to the bottom of what brought about his expulsion from the group, instead landing on the belief that there had to be something more to it than simply ‘not being a good enough drummer’. It had taken three brash, outspoken Liverpudlian lads nearly two years to make the damning judgement, after all.

Reluctant to speak to his former band mates from the day of the historic meeting with Mr Epstein until the opportunity was removed, it’s easy to relate to Best’s lack of resolution.

I felt like putting a stone around my neck and jumping off the pier head - Best.

Ask Me Why revealingly, is both the question and the answer to why Best was sacked from the Beatles. By the time the 6th June 1962 rolled around - their first tentative meeting with George Martin at EMI studios - the Beatles had been atop the Merseybeat tree for nearly the entirety of Best’s tenure. Departing their home town as rank amateurs on the 17th August 1960 for a punishing round of forty eight near consecutive all-night sets of drugs and sex and rock & roll on Hamburg’s Reeperbahn, they returned to home turf an act transformed.

They shocked audiences that either didn’t recognise them or had never noticed them before by the tightness and ferocity of their playing. As the age old pop adage goes, the Beatles were an overnight smash, several years in the making.

‘Suddenly we were a wow! Mind you, 70% of the audience thought we were a German wow, but we didn’t care…’Christ, they speak good English!’ Which we did, of course, being English’, explained Lennon, describing their first post-Hamburg English show, at Litherland Town Hall on the 27th December, 1960. Part of this transformation, history neglects to tell, was the evolution of Best’s drumming. Having been through a range of temporary, part-time (or worse, resentful) drummers, namely Norman Chapman, Tommy Moore and Johnny ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson of the Big Three, who all had spells in the group during 1960, they’d finally latched onto the quiet son of the owner of their favourite West Derby music spot and teen hangout, the Casbah. Through the necessity of being contracted as a five-piece act and being in possession of a set of drums, Pete Best became a Beatle on the eve of their first trip to Hamburg.

German audiences, as the band soon discovered, were much more demanding than Liverpool ones. The five young musicians who’d barely had to play for more than half an hour at a time before absconding, found themselves having to entertain a rag tag mix of organised criminals, strippers and war veterans - and eventually disparaging pseudo-intellectual German teenagers - for up to eight hours at a time, night after night. Initially not meeting the required standard to put bums on seats at the Indra Club, Bruno Koschmider famously had to ‘mach Schau!’ a more vital performance out of his steeds.

Best & the Beatles, Hamburg 1961

John took to jumping ‘up and down like a gorilla’, performing the splits and death defying stunts of bravado and endurance, egging the band on, to and often past their limits. The only problem being their new drummer couldn’t really keep time. As John later said of Best, ‘we trained him to keep a stick going four in the bar. He couldn’t do much else, but he looked nice and the girls liked him’. The writing was on the wall from the start.

Best’s THUD THUD THUD THUD four in the bar avalanche drove the band forward. It was the bedrock of their stomping, frothing at the mouth Hamburg style that steamrollered the Litherland Town Hall audience and gave the band the nucleus of its unique, pre-fame stage persona. The first glimpse the youth of Liverpool had of the new Beatles was as McCartney burst into Long Tall Sally whilst the curtains were pulled open, revealing the leather clad rockers in full St. Pauli stride. Best describes the scene: ‘They stopped dancing…and surged forward in a crowd to be nearer to us…to scream. People did’t go to a dance to scream! This was news.’

That Best’s drum style was more or less the equivalent of Lennon’s guitar technique at the time was lost on John. His rock and roll Little Richard piano-style shuffle that he cut his playing chops on was also all mostly bluster and little finesse at this point, but he was the man with the voice and that nose, so it went unmentioned…but John’s creativity made demands on his hands that forced them to keep up. The same couldn’t be said of Pete.

Eleven months later and that same thud also made a great impact on Brian Epstein when he trotted down the 19 steps from Mathew Street into the Cavern to catch the Beatles in a lunchtime performance on the 9th November, 1961. By now the band was firmly established as the frontrunners on the Merseybeat scene, setting trends, attracting an avidly loyal following and packing out show after show after show. Pete Best was as key to this early success as any of the other three. As Eppy said himself, ‘I was immediately struck by their music, their beat and their sense of humour’. THUD THUD THUD THUD. Brian was in love.

The Beatles though were fading. They were bored, long feeling they’d reached their ceiling and with no obvious way out they ran the risk of allowing boredom to creep in, which for rock & roll is death. John’s mind had also started to wander, and that usually meant trouble. Stuck playing the same venues for the same money, whilst being priced out of or banned from many local venues and promoters, the band only had two major outlets for their ambition and creativity. Finding new material, or writing it.

Liverpool is proud of its working class heritage and its people are fierce defenders of it. They’re also equally quick to remind those who think they’d risen above the daily grind or, start to affect heirs and graces, of their place. For the songwriting Beatles (George was yet to try his hand) this created a problem: they did have songs and they had risen above the grind.

In this context, the band was likely reticent to showcase their original material for fear of alienating their audience. But in the back of their minds they must have been aware that Best wasn’t able to deviate far from his signature time and ambition must have been thwarted. So, for the most part they hid their love away and carried on smashing out four in the bar Chuck Berry numbers, new American R&B, girl group covers and original arrangements of traditional songs to please their audience, daring to play more demanding, diverse cover material much less frequently than McCartney, Lennon and Harrison would surely have liked.

By the time the magnet in Studio Number 2, St John’s Wood had been turned on, John and Paul had a cache of new numbers stashed away. The time had come to start developing them and sneaking them into sets. Songs like I Saw Her Standing There (known as Seventeen) and Love Me Do (hardly a show stopper) and One After 909 had had some airtime to a mixed reception, as had Ask Me Why. These alongside early Motown numbers like Money (that’s what I want) or Arthur Alexander’s Soldier of Love and Where Have You Been had rolling, groove laden rhythms and more complex arrangements that demanded feel and lightness of touch. Unfortunately, 25% of the band would struggle to deliver what was required.

Ask Me Why, a Lennon song inspired by the Miracles number What’s So Good About Goodbye, both of which employed an exotic shuffle, is not unlike Smokey Robinson’s other Lennon/Harrison favourite You Really Got A Hold On Me. Both also employ liberal falsetto passages and contain the lyric ‘tell me why’, but where Lennon’s song differs from Smokey’s is the odd meter, structure and lyricism. Despite sounding rather elementary, Ask Me Why is, under the surface, irregular to the point of bizarre.

Kicking off with a two bar instrumental passage (a trick Lennon revisits with All I’ve Got To Do) the first verse (an unusual 13 bars) includes extended vowels (yo-oo-oo-uu) and two breaks and differs to the second verse; it being altered to allow a transition to the bridge, landing on an E, rather than the previous F#7/B transition. Oh, and it only includes one break. You with me? Right.

After the middle eight, the song appears to drop back into another verse, but instead retreats into a shortened chorus (ask me why, I’ll say I love you…). It pulls this trick again, the listener (and likely Best) expecting the song to revert back into a verse/chorus structure but instead heads back into the refrain. Musicologist Alan Pollack points out that Ask Me Why contains three differing variants of the verse, and also contains ‘jazzy parallel sevenths’ and has a ‘live ending’, which refers to Harrisons lovely colourful flourish at the songs fade. If George Martin hadn’t wondered if he had something very interesting in his hands by now, one wonders when that realisation kicked in.

On the band’s debut EMI session, in front of King Maker in waiting Martin, Pete Best had to pull something out his kit bag that he’d never managed before: a good studio performance.

Pete had suffered the ignominy of having half his kit taken away from him due to considerable timing concerns when recording My Bonnie, The Saints, Ain’t She Sweet and more during the Tony Sheridan sessions with Bert Kaempfert and again at the Decca test on January 1st, 1962. Left standing behind a high hat and a snare, Best must have been getting used to hiding blushes.

He didn’t fare any better in Studio 2 under the watchful gaze of Martin. Instead, the producer allowed the band to play out their ‘recording test’ - which was little more than a run through of the highlights of their live repertoire, putting their best efforts into creating some professional excitement with Love Me Do, PS I Love You, Besame Mucho and Ask Me Why. He simply (eventually) fed back to Epstein that if they were to continue to record with him, he’d want to supply his own session drummer. Unfortunately for us, the June 1962 tapes for PS I Love You and Ask Me Why were destroyed, but the recordings of Love Me Do and Besame Mucho survive, issued on 1995’s Anthology 1.

An interesting technical breakdown of Best's Love Me Do performance can be found here:

What we do have is direct comparison of Best’s and Starr’s attack on the song. On 7th March, 1962 the Beatles made their BBC debut at the Playhouse Theatre, Hulme in Manchester. With Pete Best on the stool, they played Dream Baby (Roy Orbison), Memphis Tennessee (Chuck Berry) and the very first Motown song played on British radio, Please Mr Postman. They recorded again for the BBC eleven weeks later at the Playhouse Theatre in Manchester and this time played Ask Me Why, A Picture Of You (Joe Brown and the Bruvvers) and Became Mucho.

Best’s version of Ask Me Why isn’t structurally different to Starr’s, but sounds rather like Pinocchio doing a Ringo impression. All wooden heart, the groove is stiff, the fills exact devoid of swing and the snare sounds like it’s being struck with a piece of lead pipe. The same can be said of all Best recordings with the Beatles. What he did have was a hard hitting, on the beat style that elevated the band above all but Johnny ‘Hutch’ and the Big Three, who incidentally turned the Beatles down upon Best’s departure, liking the band but not liking their ‘shit music’.

Compare this to another live recording, found on the 2011 On Air - Live at The BBC Volume 2 album. The tempo almost identical, Ringo’s swing gives the impression of a slower near waltz through the arrangement. Best’s feels faster, but isn’t. Ringo manages to copy crotchet for crotchet what his predecessor did, but alter the feel and vibe of the song.

The original material that Lennon and McCartney would produce from here on in wasn’t about to get less complex, though this track stands out amongst early Beatles originals. It’s not perhaps until 1964’s I’ll Be Back that the band break so many structural rules again, though they were always happy when toying with chordal and melodic expectations.

Dissatisfaction from John and Paul and now George Martin coupled with George Harrison’s machinations to weedle Ringo into the group spelled the end for Pete Best in the Beatles, but his importance to how they got to the point where they felt it necessary to dispense with his services could perhaps have only been achieved with him in the back seat.

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