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 Quarrymen.
‘Michelle’ was one of McCartney’s first attempts 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 something with a melody and a bass line on it, so I did. I just had it as an instrumental in C.
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.
Ivan Vaughan, who introduced Lennon to McCartney in 1957, was still a friend to the group and lived in Islington, London in the mid-Sixties. Vaughan’s wife Jan taught French, and assisted McCartney 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.
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.
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’.