Michelle

Rubber Soul album artworkWritten by: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: 3 November 1965
Producer: George Martin
Engineer: Norman Smith

Released: 3 December 1965 (UK), 6 December 1965 (US)

Paul McCartney: vocals, acoustic guitar, bass
John Lennon: backing vocals, acoustic guitar
George Harrison: backing vocals, lead guitar, 12-string acoustic guitar
Ringo Starr: drums

Available on:
Rubber Soul

One of Rubber Soul’s most memorable songs, Michelle was written by Paul McCartney with a little help from the wife of an old schoolfriend.

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The song was one of McCartney’s oldest, having been started in around 1959. He composed the tune on his first ever guitar, a Zenith, which he still owns.

It was OK as a first guitar. Being left handed, I would play it upside down. Everyone else had right-handed guitars, but I learnt some chords my way up: A, D and E – which was all you needed in those days. I started writing songs, because now I could play and sing at the same time…

All my first songs… were written on the Zenith; songs like Michelle and I Saw Her Standing There. It was on this guitar that I learnt Twenty Flight Rock, the song that later got me into the group the Quarry Men.

Paul McCartney
Anthology

Michelle was one of McCartney’s first attempts by McCartney to play with a fingerpicked guitar style, signalling a desire to experiment beyond the boundaries of rock ‘n’ roll.

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 sosmething with a melody and a bass line on it, so I did. I just had it as an instrumental in C.
Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

The French element, meanwhile, was inspired by parties held by Austin Mitchell – one of John Lennon’s tutors at the Liverpool College of Art, and potentially the inspiration behind the song’s title.

He used to throw some pretty good all-night parties. You could maybe pull girls there, which was the main aim of every second; you could get drinks, which was another aim; and you could generally put yourself about a bit. I remember sitting around there, and my recollection is of a black turtleneck sweater and sitting very enigmatically in the corner, playing this rather French tune. I used to pretend I could speak French, because everyone wanted to be like Sacha Distel…

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
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

Ivan Vaughan, who introduced Lennon to McCartney in 1957, was still a friend to the group. Vaughan’s wife Jan taught French, and when the pair visited McCartney at Jane Asher‘s family home in 1965, he asked for some help with the lyrics.

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
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

Jan Vaughan wasn’t the only contributor, though. John Lennon wrote the middle section, inspired by a 1965 Nina Simone hit.

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, 1980
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

In the studio

The Beatles recorded the rhythm track for Michelle in a single take, using all four available tracks on the Abbey Road tape machines. It has been suggested that McCartney may have performed most of the instruments alone thereafter.

The initial recording took place between 2.30 and 7pm on 3 November 1965. From 7pm until 11.30pm The Beatles overdubbed extra guitars and their lead and harmony vocals.

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
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
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27 Responses to “Michelle”

  1. SD

    They played three acoustic guitars on the basic tracks:

    - Epiphone Texan acoustic (Paul)
    - Framus 12-string acoustic (George)
    (both on the right channel)
    - Ramí­rez nylon-string acoustic (John)
    (left channel)

    Paul overdubbed the bass part and George the solo on his Casino

    Reply
  2. Richard

    Michelle! Title song of the 1st girl I made love to!
    Everytime I hear this song, even now, my eyes tear up. I think there’s only a few groups, at time who’d even ‘dare’ to record a song like this. That’s why the album “Rubber Soul”, was pivotal in ‘The Beatles career. Yes, there would be more ballads but “Michelle” stands way ahead of the rest! Thank you John, Paul,George + Ringo! What a lovely memory for ‘all’ of my life, for all to love forever!
    (My Beauty!)….

    Reply
  3. Carissa

    Correction: Ivan Vaughan introduced John and Paul in 1957, not 1956.

    Just a lovely, lovely song… it was my mom’s favorite and always reminds me of her.

    Reply
  4. Michelle

    I was named after this song – growing up my older siblings used to play it and sing it to me – felt so special to have my “own” song :) The fact that my hero came up with “I Love You I Love You I Love You” just makes it all the more special

    Reply
  5. Coffee Shop

    I read somewhere that George Martin claimed to have composed the guitar solo. George Harrison was having trouble conceiving a decent sounding solo so George Martin came up with the line we hear today.

    This makes sense to me; the guitar solo is very thematic and sounds like a horn line. It’s unlike any other Harrison guitar part.

    Reply
    • Deadman

      Sir George, on the Swedish television show, “den femte Beatlen,” claimed that he composed the guitar solo which George Harrison played: “… You know, the guitar solo in Michelle is my composition. I actually, I wrote down the notes, and I played it. ‘George, you can you do, do these notes with me on guitar; we’ll play in unison.’ That kind of thing.”

      Reply
  6. Annie

    little correction : “sont des mots” instead of “sont les mots”

    sorry, I’m french so it’s a little annoying!

    That’s a great song, though! (with a cute accent)

    Reply
    • Joe

      Thanks for the clarification Annie. I won’t change the text, as it’s a quotation by Paul, but it’s useful to know!

      Reply
  7. David

    Being a bit of a pedant, I’ve often been struck that if the singer is struggling even to say “I love you” to this girl it’s a bit far-fetched that suddenly his French stretches to “sont des mots qui vont très bien ensemble”! Oh well, poetic licence!

    Reply
  8. Chelsea

    my mom used to sing this to me and replace michelle with chel. this is definitely my first beatles song, and i’m glad of that.

    Reply
  9. Jocelyn

    In 2004 I had a premature baby girl — I was only 24 weeks pregnant and she was just a tiny little thing. I have always loved the name Michelle and so that’s what I named her. She passed away one week after she was born, and The Beatles’ “Michelle” will always be “her” song for me. It is hard for me to sing it without tears…but I love it.

    Reply
  10. chrism823

    Notice the unique (and effective in its surprising unobtrusiveness) second chord of the verse: Bb7. It’s the dominant seventh; it contains D natural. If you listen closely, that note is there in the backing vocal ‘ooh.’ Against this chord, Paul’s lead vocal contains Db, suggesting Bb minor. It’s both major and minor!

    Reply
    • Brian

      I wouldn’t look at that as actually making the chord different. I would look at the chord as what is being played/sung by the harmonies and the lead line as being simply a bluesy note s opposed to the expected major third. This sort of thing is always happening in blues where you can always choose to play or sing either the minor third or major third against the root of a chord (usually the tonic chord but possibly others as well). It is sort of the mystery of the blues, at least to me, how that actually sounds good. But it does. I suppose you could look at the chord as being every note being played/sung by anybody, but I prefer to think of the melody as more of a separate line on top of the harmony. Of course, there is a chord for when you have both the minor and major third at the same time, usually with the major third in the lower register. It is the dominant 7#9 chord. Most often used in jazz and in rock most well known to be used by Jimi Hendrix such as the Purple Haze and Foxy Lady sounding chord.

      Reply
    • Rachel

      Many Years from Now should have been titled What’s Mine is Mine, What’s Yours is Mine.

      Oh well, at least Paul has the comfort of knowing that his groundbreaking Wings material has his name alone attached to it.

      Reply
      • paulsbass

        Rachel, just try and keep your bias under control.
        What contribution excactly did he forget?
        The article says it was written by Paul alone in 59. He DOES mention John’s inspiration for the “French stuff”.
        What’s your problem?!

        Reply
        • paulsbass

          Ok, you talk about the middle eight.
          Please quote Paul to verify your claim: Where does he claim that he wrote Michelle alone, including the “I love you” part?

          Reply
  11. apple_jam

    Who cares if George Martin `wrote’ the guitar solo. It could have been played many different ways. They way George plays it is perfect: lovely, warm, flowing.

    Reply
  12. Mean_Mr_Mustard

    The soulful part Lennon wrote (“I love you I love you I love you…” etc.) is a HUGE part of this song. Break down the lyrics and find that McCartney’s part consists only of “Michelle, ma belle, these are words that go together well, my Michelle” – which, really, mean nothing. “Michelle” is just as much Lennon’s song.

    Reply
  13. Sid Bagga

    A friend of mine who speaks french said that the “bien” was pronounced in canadian accent french in this song. Is this true?

    Reply
  14. Xavier Gélard

    As I was younger I thought the two first chords of the melody would be E7 Am, but it’s definitively E7 A7. Isn’t it ? It kind of changes the perception of the tune, which acquires a “bluesy” feel that the arrangement does not suggest. The guitar solo plays a do against the A7, but not in a bluesy way. Anyone is in my tree on that ?

    Reply

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