When was it recorded? Nov. 3, 1965
When was it first released, and on which album? Dec. 3, 1965 on “Rubber Soul”
Who wrote it? McCartney (with noteworthy contribution from Lennon and Jan Vaughan)
Have I heard this song before? Yes
What my research dug up:
Paul was kind of all over the board in writing “Michelle.” Let’s go back to 1959, when he first began working on the song.
“‘Michelle’ was a tune that I’d written in Chet Atkins’ finger-pickin’ style. There is a song he did called ‘Trambone’ with a repetitive top line, and he played a bass line whilst playing a melody. This was an innovation for us; even though classical guitarists had played it, no rock ‘n’ roll guitarists had… Based on Atkins’ ‘Trambone,’ I wanted to write something with a melody and a bass line on it, so I did. I just had it as an instrumental in C.” — Paul McCartney (Barry Miles, Many Years From Now)
I assumed I’d written about Atkins before, but a quick perusal of my archives show that no, I have not, which is a shame given what a great and influential musician he was.
Chester “Chet” Atkins (1924-2001) was an American musician, songwriter, and record producer active in the industry from 1942 to 1996. He’s credited along with Owen Bradley for creating “created the smoother country music style known as the Nashville sound, which expanded country’s appeal to adult pop music fans as well” (Wikipedia). Atkins is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum. He also won a slew of Grammys and Country Music Association Instrumentalist of the Year awards during his lifetime.
According to Wikpedia, “Atkins did not have a strong style of his own until 1939 when … he heard Merle Travis picking over WLW radio. This early influence dramatically shaped his unique playing style. Whereas Travis’s right hand used his index finger for the melody and thumb for bass notes, Atkins expanded his right hand style to include picking with his first three fingers, with the thumb on bass.”
“Trambone” was released as a single in 1957 while Atkins was at RCA (shortly after the formation of Nashville’s famous Music Row).
Quoth Wikipedia, “The words and style of ‘Michelle’ have their origins in the popularity of French Left Bank culture during McCartney’s Liverpool days. McCartney had gone to a party of art students where a student with a goatee and a striped T-shirt was singing a French song. He soon wrote a farcical imitation to entertain his friends that involved French-sounding groaning instead of real words.” The Beatles Bible notes that the host of these parties was Austin Mitchell, one of John’s professors at the Liverpool College of Art whose surname is suspiciously close to the title of Paul’s finished product.
“Years later, John said, ‘D’you remember that French thing you used to do at Mitchell’s parties?’ I said yes. He said, ‘Well, that’s a good tune. You should do something with that.’ We were always looking for tunes, because we were making lots of albums by then and every album you did needed fourteen songs, and then there were singles in between, so you needed a lot of material.” — Paul McCartney (Barry Miles, Many Years From Now)
So Paul set to work on “Michelle.”
The same year “Trambone” was released, Paul and John were introduced by a mutual friend, Ivan Vaughan. Vaughan visited Paul at Jane Asher’s family home in 1965, along with his wife, Jan, who taught French. Paul, who felt the song’s lyrics needed to keep the French vibes he started it with, asked her for help.
“I said, ‘I like the name Michelle. Can you think of anything that rhymes with Michelle, in French?’ And she said, ‘Ma belle.’ I said, ‘What’s that mean?’ ‘My beauty.’ I said, ‘That’s good, a love song, great.’ We just started talking, and I said, ‘Well, those words go together well, what’s French for that? Go together well.’ ‘Sont les mots qui vont très bien ensemble.’ I said, ‘All right, that would fit.’ And she told me a bit how to pronounce it, so that was it. I got that off Jan, and years later I sent her a cheque around. I thought I better had because she’s virtually a co-writer on that. From there I just pieced together the verses.” — Paul McCartney (Barry Miles, Many Years From Now)
Since John asked Paul to resurrect the tune, he helped on it, too.
“He and I were staying somewhere and he walked in and hummed the first few bars. with the words, and he says, ‘Where do I go from here?’ I had been listening to Nina Simone – I think it was ‘I Put A Spell On You.’ There was a line in it that went: ‘I love you, I love you.’ That’s what made me think of the middle eight for Michelle: ‘I love you, I love you, I l-o-ove you.’ So… my contribution to Paul’s songs was always to add a little bluesy edge to them. Otherwise, y’know, ‘Michelle’ is a straight ballad, right? He provided a lightness, and optimism, while I would always go for the sadness, the discords, the bluesy notes.” — John Lennon (David Sheff, All We Are Saying)
It’s not a straight-up sampling or homage, but I love this song, so for reference…
According to Beatles biographer Ian MacDonald, the band recorded and mixed “Michelle” in nine hours. They got the rhythm track done in a single take.
“Because it was only on four little tracks, it was very easy to mix. There were no decisions to make, we’d made them all in the writing and in the recording. We would mix them, and it would take half an hour, maybe. Then it would go up on a shelf, in a quarter-inch tape box. And that was it. That was the only thing we ever did to ‘Michelle.’” — Paul McCartney (Barry Miles, Many Years From Now)
According to Wikipedia, “Each version of this song has a different length. The UK mono is 2:33 but the stereo version is 2:40 due to an extra guitar solo. The US mono was the longest of all, at 2:43, until ‘The Beatles: Rock Band’ version was released, running at 2:50.” Let’s explore!
(Yikes — the Uncanny Valley is sending out a search party.)
“Michelle” charted in Norway, where it peaked at #1, and Austria, where it peaked at #3. Quoth Wikipedia, “‘Michelle’ won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year in 1967,” and has enjoyed much popularity since its release.
Call me sentimental, but I really like this song. I always have and probably always will. Learning more about the backstory for this one was just icing on the cake.