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The Beatles Songs: Michelle

The history of this classic Beatles song

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The Beatles Songs: Michelle

Michelle

Written by: Paul McCartney (80%), John Lennon (20%)
(credited to Lennon-McCartney)
Recorded: November 3, 1965 (Studio 2, Abbey Road Studios, London, England)
Mixed: November 9 and 15, 1965
Length: 2:40
Takes: 2

Musicians:

John Lennon: backing vocals, rhythm guitar (1964 Gibson J-160E)
Paul McCartney: lead vocal, backing vocals, rhythm guitar (1964 Gibson J-160E), bass guitar (1961 Hofner 500/1)
George Harrison: backing vocals, lead guitar (1961 Sonic Blue Fender Stratocaster), rhythm guitar (1964 Framus 12-string "Hootenanny")
Ringo Starr: drums (Ludwig)

Available on: (CDs in bold)
Rubber Soul (UK: Parlophone PMC 1267; US: Capitol PCS 3075; Parlophone CDP 7 46440 2)
Nowhere Man (EP) (UK: Parlophone GEP 8952)
A Collection of Beatles Oldies (UK: Parlophone PMC 7016)
The Beatles 1962-1966 (UK: Apple SKBO 3403; US: Apple PCSP 717, Apple CDP 7 97036 2)
Love Songs (UK: Parlophone PCSP 721; US: Capitol SKBL 11711)
The Beatles Ballads (UK: Parlophone PCS 7214)

History:

  • "Michelle" was begun by Paul as far back as 1959, when he attended a party thrown by Austin Mitchell, then tutoring Lennon at the Liverpool College of Art. While there, he spotted a fellow partygoer -- goatee, black turtleneck and all -- attempting to be very continental by performing a French-language chanson (song). Though Europop had just begun its ascendancy, Paul began crafting a soundalike (on his first guitar!), with nonsense French lyrics, as a joke for future parties. John reminded Paul of the song during the recording of Rubber Soul, and although it was still just an intro, Paul agreed to complete it.
  • Paul then turned to his boyhood friend Ivan Julian, whose wife, Jan, taught French, and asked her to come up with a girl's name and a rhyming French couplet. "Michelle, ma belle" was therefore the opening line, and when Paul rhymed that with the phrase "these are words that go together well," he asked for the line in French. The result was sont des mons qui vont tres bien ensemble, an almost literal translation. Unfortunately, decades of fans new to the song, not realizing Paul was singing in a foreign language, translated the phrase themselves as "someday monkey gone play piano song," or "Sunday monkey won't play piano song," or worse.
  • Another factor in the development of "Michelle" was Paul's love of the Chet Atkins song "Trambone," which inspired him to create a song with a lead guitar and lead bass line, playing simultaneously. This "contrapuntal" approach would have a major effect on McCartney's playing and composition. (George Martin claims credit for having come up with the lead guitar line, though he does not perform it.)
  • "Michelle" was complete very quickly in the studio. John assisted with the "I love you, I love you, I love you" bridge, which came to him after hearing Nina Simone's 1965 version of "I Put A Spell On You." The basic tracks were laid down in two takes on November 3, 1965; vocals and a lead guitar were then overdubbed.

Trivia:

  • It's been suggested by some Beatle researchers that Paul himself may have played most, if not every, note on "Michelle." Proponents of this theory point to the intricacy of the lead guitar line and the anonymity of the drum performance. If true, this would be a definite first for the group. Paul himself has implied the group played on at least the basic track. It was the only song recorded at the all-day session.
  • The original version of the intro, heard on bootlegs, was in C major. For the recorded version, this was switched to F minor, and the song itself in F major. In the original mono mix of this song, the drums are higher in the mix; the song also has a slightly longer fade on the last guitar solo.
  • "Michelle" won the 1966 Grammy for Song Of The Year, the first and only Beatles song so honored and only the third Grammy for the group (they'd won Best New Artist and Best Vocal Performance in 1964). It also, perhaps predictably, went straight to #1 in France. It remains the second-most-performed Beatles song, after Paul's "Yesterday."
  • McCartney, a supporter of US President Barack Obama, performed the song in honor of his wife Michelle when he visited the White House on June 2, 2010. (The singer was there to receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.) McCartney joked that he hoped the President wouldn't punch him for singing a love song to his wife!
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