Oh, Michelle… ma belle, the words that go together so well. It’s been almost 50 years since Sir Paul McCartney was searching for ways to win the heart of his fictional flame. But really, he only needed one phrase, and a translator, to make her understand: “I love you.”
Recorded on November 3, 1965, the song “Michelle” was featured on The Beatles’ Rubber Soul album, which was released on December 3, 1965. Composed primarily by McCartney, “Michelle” stands apart from other Beatles recordings because some of its lyrics are sung in French. In 1967, the song won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year.
The instrumental music of “Michelle” came about separately from the lyrics and was a breakthrough for the band because it featured a finger-picking style that had not yet been used in rock-n-roll. “Michelle” was a tune that I’d written in Chet Atkins’ finger-style picking … This was an innovation for us; even though classical guitarists had played it, no rock-n-roll guitarists had played it,” McCartney said in the 1998 book Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now.
The lyrical content, as well as the style, resulted from the popularity of French Left Bank culture while McCartney was living in Liverpool. While at a party attended mostly by art students, McCartney encountered one particular student, in true française fashion, with a goatee and striped shirt singing a French song. Not long after, McCartney wrote an imitation of what he had heard, which was more parody than actual song, and used it to entertain his friends. That version didn’t have any real words but instead it included French-sounding groaning.
In an interview with The Guardian, McCartney said, “…we’d tag along to these parties, and it was at the time of … the French bohemian thing … So I used to pretend to be French, and I had this song that turned out later to be “Michelle”. It was just an instrumental, but years later John said: You remember that thing you wrote about the French? I said: Yeah. He said: That wasn’t a bad song, that. You should do that, y’know.”
While developing the lyrics, McCartney asked a friend’s wife, a French language teacher, to find a French name and a phrase that rhymed with it. And so, ‘Michelle, ma belle’ became the lyrical base for the song. A few days later McCartney asked that the line “these are words that go together well” be translated into French, which reads, “sont les mots qui vont tres bien ensemble.” In A Hard Day’s Write: The Stories Behind Every Beatles Song McCartney is quoted as saying, “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.”
After McCartney had played the song for John Lennon, Lennon suggested that he add the “I love you” bridge. In Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, author and British music critic Ian MacDonald wrote that “Michelle” was made in nine hours, the majority of which seems to have been played by McCartney himself using overdubs. He also speculated that McCartney may have even sung backing vocals, and played the drums.
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