“Michelle” is a song by the English rock band the Beatles from their 1965 album Rubber Soul. It was composed principally by Paul McCartney, with the middle eight co-written with John Lennon. The song is a love balladwith part of its lyrics sung in French.
Following its inclusion on Rubber Soul, the song was released as a single in some European countries and in New Zealand, and on an EP in France, in early 1966. It was a number 1 hit for the Beatles in Belgium, France, Norway, the Netherlands and New Zealand, while concurrent recordings of the song by David and Jonathanand the Overlanders were similarly successful in Canada and Britain, respectively. “Michelle” won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year in 1967 and has since become one of the most often recorded of all Beatles songs.
The instrumental music of “Michelle” originated separately from the lyrical concept. According to McCartney:
“Michelle” was a tune that I’d written in Chet Atkins‘ finger-picking style. There is a song he did called “Trambone” with a repetitive top line, and he played a bass line while playing a melody. This was an innovation for us; even though classical guitarists had played it, no rock’n’roll guitarists had played it. The first person we knew to use finger-picking style was Chet Atkins … I never learned it. But based on Atkins’ “Trambone”, I wanted to write something with a melody and a bass line in it, so I did. I just had it as an instrumental in C.
The words and style of “Michelle” have their origins in the popularity of Parisian Left Bank culture during McCartney’s Liverpool days. In his description, “it was at the time of people like Juliette Greco, the French bohemian thing.” 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 song remained a party piece until 1965, when John Lennon suggested he rework it into a proper song for inclusion on Rubber Soul.
McCartney asked Jan Vaughan, a French teacher and the wife of his old friend Ivan Vaughan, to come up with a French name and a phrase that rhymed with it. McCartney said: “It was because I’d always thought that the song sounded French that I stuck with it. I can’t speak French properly so that’s why I needed help in sorting out the actual words.”
Vaughan came up with “Michelle, ma belle”, and a few days later McCartney asked for a translation of “these are words that go together well” – sont les mots qui vont très bien ensemble.When McCartney played the song for Lennon, Lennon suggested the “I love you” bridge. Lennon was inspired by a song he heard the previous evening, Nina Simone‘s version of “I Put a Spell on You“, which used the same phrase but with the emphasis on the last word, “I love you“.
Each version of this song has a different length. The UK mono mix is 2:33 whereas the stereo version extends to 2:40 and the US mono is 2:43. The version available in The Beatles: Rock Band has a running time of 2:50.
The song was initially composed in C, but was played in F on Rubber Soul(with a capo on the fifth fret). The verse opens with an F major chord (“Michelle” – melody note C) then the second chord (on “ma belle” – melody note D♭) is a B♭7♯9 (on the original demo in C, the second chord is a F7♯9). McCartney called this second chord a “great ham-fisted jazz chord” that was taught to them by Jim Gretty who worked at Hessey’s music shop in Whitechapel, central Liverpool and which George Harrison uses (as a G♭7♯9) (see Dominant seventh sharp ninth chord) as the penultimate chord of his solo on “Till There Was You“. After the E♭6 (of “these are words”) there follows an ascent involving different inversions of the D dim chord. These progress from A♭dim on “go” – melody note F, bass note D; to Bdim (C♭dim) on “to” – melody note A♭, bass note D; to Ddim on “ge …” – melody note B (C♭) bass note B; to Bdim on … ‘ther …” – melody note A♭ bass note B, till the dominant (V) chord (C major) is reached on “well” – melody note G bass note C.
George Martin, the Beatles’ producer, recalled that he composed the melody of the guitar solo, which is heard midway through the song and again during the fadeout. He showed Harrison the notes during the recording session and then accompanied the guitarist (on piano, out of microphone range) when the solos were overdubbed. In terms of its complementary role to the main melody, musicologist Walter Everettlikens this guitar part to two musical passages that Martin had arranged for singer Cilla Black the previous year: a bassoon–English horn combination on “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and the baritone electric guitar on “You’re My World“.
EMI’s Parlophone label released Rubber Soul on 3 December 1965 in Britain, with “Michelle” sequenced as the final track on side one of the LP. The album was widely viewed as marking a significant progression within the Beatles’ work and in the scope of pop music generally.Recalling the album’s release for Mojomagazine in 2002, Richard Williamssaid “Michelle” represented “the biggest shock of all” to a contemporary pop audience, as McCartney conveyed “all his nostalgia for a safe childhood in the 1950s, itself a decade suffused with nostalgia for the inter-war security of the ’20s and ’30s, the era to which this song specifically refers.”
In a contemporary review for the NME, Allen Evans described “Michelle” as a “memorable track” with a “bluesy French sound” in which McCartney’s vocal was supported by “[the] others using voices as instruments”.Record Mirror‘s reviewer admired the lyrics and said that the song was “just remotely, faintly, slightly similar to ‘Yesterday’ in the general approach” and “another stand-out performance”. Jazz critic and broadcaster Steve Race admitted to being “astonished” by the album and added: “When I heard ‘Michelle’ I couldn’t believe my ears. The second chord is an A-chord, while the note in the melody above is A-flat. This is an unforgivable clash, something no one brought up knowing older music could ever have done. It is entirely unique, a stroke of genius … I suppose it was sheer musical ignorance that allowed John and Paul to do it, but it took incredible daring.” By contrast, Bob Dylan, whose work was especially influential on Lennon and Harrison’s songwriting on Rubber Soul, was dismissive of McCartney’s ballad style. In March 1966, Dylan said: “A song like ‘Yesterday’ or ‘Michelle’ … it’s such a cop-out, man … if you go to the Library of Congress you can find a lot better than that. There are millions of songs like ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Michelle’ written in Tin Pan Alley.”
Although no single from Rubber Soulwas issued in Britain or America, “Michelle” was the most popular Rubber Soul track on US radio.The song was released as a commercial single in several other countries. In May 1966, Billboard‘s Hits of the World listed it at number 1 in Argentina, Denmark, Italy, New Zealand and Norway. As the lead track on an EP release, it was number 1 in France, which continued to resist the single format in favour of extended-plays. At the 1967 Ivor Novello Awards, “Michelle” won in the category of “the Most Performed Work” of 1966, ahead of “Yesterday”. “Michelle” won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year in 1967, against competition from “Born Free“, “The Impossible Dream“, “Somewhere My Love” and “Strangers in the Night“. In 1999, BMI named “Michelle” as the 42nd most performed song of the 20th century.
“Michelle” was the most successful track from Rubber Soul for other recording artists. The song was a UK hit in 1966 for the Overlanders,whose version topped the Record Retailer chart. It also reached number 2 in Australia. Signed to Pye Records, the Overlanders issued their recording after the Beatles had declined to release it as a single themselves in the United Kingdom and the United States. According to author Steve Turner, Pye and the Overlanders were given the Beatles’ blessing because the record label had recently acquiesced to Brian Epstein‘s request that they withdraw a single by Alfred Lennon (Lennon’s estranged father). “Michelle” was also covered by David and Jonathan, whose version was produced by Martin. This recording went to number 1 in Canada and was a top 20 hit in Britain and the US. American singer Billy Vaughn was another artist who recorded the song soon after its release. In his comments on the Lennon–McCartney composition, Steve Race remarked that Vaughn’s arranger had altered the second chord to incorporate an A♭ note, thereby “taking all the sting out” of the unorthodox change. Race said this was indicative of how a formally trained arranger “was so attended to the conventional way of thinking he didn’t even hear what the boys had done”.
Andy Williams covered the song on his 1966 album