Tell Me Why

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Cover versions and notes on The Beatles' song "Tell Me Why".

Provenance
Written By: 
Lennon/McCartney
Year: 
1964
Primary Recording
By: 
The Beatles
Lead Vocal: 
John Lennon
Cover Versions
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Image of Tell Me Why
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Alan W. Pollack's "Notes On"

Notes on "Tell Me Why" (TMW)


KEY D Major

METER 4/4

FORM Intro -> Refrain -> Versey -> Refrain -> Verse -> Refrain -> Bridge -> Refrain -> Outro (w/complete ending)

GENERAL POINTS OF INTEREST


Style and Form

- Superficially speaking, "Tell Me Why" is not one of the more conspicuously forward looking songs on the Hard Day's Night album. The very limited, conventionalized set of chords, and the antiphonal vocal arrangement seem particularly familiar, if not predictable. Nonetheless, the bracing, confrontational tone of the lyric, and the subliminal way in which "the blues" are conured even in absence of the 12-bar form, mark this song as one very much if its place in time and context.

- The form is also unusual both in thet way it leads off with a refrain, but even more so in the way that the lone bridge section is saved for very near the end.


Melody and Harmony

- The melody of the refrain is in a pentatonically Major mode and is rhythmically stretched out, whereas the verse emphasizes the bluesy minor third of the scale and is rhythmically chattier and more jumpy. This subtle kind of melodic differentiation between sections is a trait which we've seen in several other songs of tohe period, two of the best examples of which may be found on both sides of the "Can't Buy Me Love" single, b/w "You Can't Do That".

- The harmonic diet is pretty much limited to the I-vi-ii-V cliche chord progression. This set of chords is used in both the refrain and verse sections but the melodic differences spelled out above, as well as the use of a walking bassline in only the refrains, make those sections sound and feel more different than they really are.

- The song contains a much higher than average number of dissonant 7th and 9th chords by virtue of the correspondingly high number of appoggiaturas and "escapes". I wouldn't dream of spoiling the fun of your discovering these on your own :-).


Arrangement

- This song provides a fine example of how a rhythmic motif may serve as a full-fledged "hook". In this case we have. in the intro, refrains, and outro, a triplet drum fill that precedes the downbeat, followed in the next measure by a wrenching syncopation on the eighth note between the second and third beat (i.e. on "two-AND").

- Falsetto singing also appears as a leitmotif. Had it only been used for that magic moment in the bridge, its appearance there would seem somewhat arbitrary. The casual, repeated use of falsetto in the refrains therefore creates a context in which the big moment of the bridge feels better motivated.

- We haven't been consistently checking mono versus stereo versions of songs over the course of this series, but this one features a couple of particularly noticeable differences. On the mono CD pressing, John's solo vocal sounds single tracked in the verses and the bridge, wthereas the stereo LP pressing sounds as though the vocal in those sections had been double or even triple tracked. The stereo version also has an extra second or two at the very end; just long enough to hear someone running a hand down the neck of a guitar to dampen the remaining reverberation of the final chord.

- SECTION-BY-SECTION WALKTHROUGH


Intro

- The four measure intro presents an instrumental, quadruple rote repeat of the ii -> V chord progression (e7 -> A7) that is arranged around the rhythmic 'hook' described above.

- Notable are the non-I harmonic start as well as the manner in which the rhythmic hook for drums alone starts the whole thing off.


Refrain

- The refrain is twelve measures long. It consists of two parallel phrases equal in length, each of which is subdivided into a four-measure main phrase followed by a two measure "connector":

         ---------------------- 2X ---------------------*
        |D      |b      |e      |A      ||D  b  |e   A  |
D:       I       vi      ii     V        I  vi   ii  V

- We've seen this chord progression earlier in "This Boy", in which context we commented on the feeling of inevitably that it conveys following from the fact that most of it lies along the circle of fifths. It also happens to be a tonally open-ended progression with its ending on V, and this sense of it is emphasized by the way in which the connector sub-phrase recapitulates the entire progression of the first four measures in harmonic double time.

- The walking bass contrasts with the stretched out melody and creates an illusion that the chords change more rapidly than they actually do.

- And of course, the unifying rhythmic hook always appears at the end of the each six-measure phrase.


Verse

- The verse is eight measures long and, similar to the refrain, is built out of two parallel phrases equal in length:

         ----------------------------  2X ------------------------------

        |D              |b              |e              |A              |
D:       I               vi              ii              V

- Again, the bassline contrasts with the melodic line; this time, though, it's the bassline that is the more stable agent working at cross-currents to the rather nervous, declamatory tune.


Bridge

- The ten-measure bridge consists of two four-measure phrases followed by the two-measure connector, which has become quite familiar by this point in the song from the several repetitions of the refrain:

        |G      |-      |A      |-      |
         IV              V

        |b      |-      |e      |A      ||D   b |e   A  |
         vi              ii      V        I   vi ii  V
 

- This section is setup via a small modification made to the end of the refrain that immediately precedes it. Instead of repeating the I-vi-ii-V progression in the final two measures of that refrain, we are given instead a plain sustaining of the D chord for the full two measures. The longer that this chord is prolonged it begins to "ripen" to our ears from plain 'I' into a V-of-IV. We saw the same effect in "This Boy".

- In addition to the unique falsetto outburst of the second phrase, this bridge is also made dramatic by the sudden slowing down of the harmonic rhythm, the two full measures of drumming triplets, and a foolish-consistency-avoiding elimination of the syncopation in this repeat of the connector phrase.


Outro

- The four-measure outro is entered as a deceptive cadence coming off the V chord that ends the preceding refrain:

        |b              |B-flat         |A4 -- 3        |D              |
         vi              flat-VI        |V               I
 

- It is entirely instrumental, built out of what is, in context of the rest of the song, a novel chord progression, and contains a hard syncopation in every measure. In gesture, it is reminiscent of the codas to both "Please Please Me" and "It Won't Be Long". Here, because literally every phrase of every other section ends on V, the song accumulates a going-in-circles kind of forward inertia that requires a sort of radical intervention in order to bring things to a halt.

SOME FINAL THOUGHTS

- Although one of the more confrontationally bitter songs of the period, this one somewhat uniquely incorporates no small measure of the sad, desparate frustration seen in some of John's other work.

- And just as we've seen in some of those other cases, no amount of studying the lyrics necessarily pierces the surface ambiguity that surrounds the circumstance in which the song would appear to unfold.

- To say that we're eavesdropping in real time on an actual moment of truth feels, somehow, too pat. In spite of all ranting, I think I'd more readily assume it's the rehearsal-like soliloquy in advance of a Showdown, or perhaps even, merely the muttering under his breath for self-comfort, after the moment for a face-to-face clearing of the air had, alas, long since passed.

Regards,
Alan (awp@bitstream.com OR uunet!huxley!awp)

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"If there's anything I can do ..." 033192#52
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Copyright (c) 1992 by Alan W. Pollack
All Rights Reserved This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.