The Beatles' "Michelle"

The History of 1967's Song of the Year

The Beatles sheet music for the song Michelle
The original US sheet music for the Beatles' "Michelle". rarebeatles.com

Written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon and recorded in November 1965, the Beatles' "Michelle" went on to receive the 1967 Grammy award for Song of the Year. Featuring McCartney on lead vocals, backing vocals and rhythm, Lennon on backing vocals and rhythm guitar, George Harrison on backing vocals and lead guitar and Ringo Starr on brushed drums, the 1965 track is a love song seemingly about a french girl named Michelle.

The actual history and origin of the song are a bit cheekier, though.

What's in a Name?

McCartney started "Michelle" 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," or song. Though Europop had just begun its ascendancy to cultural relevance, McCartney began crafting a similar tune with nonsense French lyrics as a joke for future parties. Lennon reminded McCartney of the song during the recording of their album "Rubber Soul" and although it was still just an intro, McCartney agreed to complete it.

In a conversation with his boyhood friend Ivan Julian's wife Jan, a french teacher, he asked her to come up with a girl's name and rhyming French couplet. "Michelle, ma belle" therefore became the opening line, and after 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!

"Michelle" was completed very quickly in the studio. Lennon 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. The track then went on to great commercial success.

Musical Style

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. 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.

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.

Legacy and Impact

"Michelle" has gone on not only to win The Beatles' only Song of the Year Grammy award but also to be one of their most famously covered tracks. Over a hundred artists have released versions of this hit including The Overlanders, Billy Vaughn, Wayne Newton and Andy Williams. In 2010, Paul McCartney, a self-professed fan of U.S. President Barack Obama, performed the song in honor of his wife Michelle when he visited the White House to receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.