Saturday, 2 May 2020

Why did Paul McCartney write part of Michelle in French?

Nam Ngô
"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.[5]
Creating beautiful melodies came naturally to Paul McCartney. With words he had to work harder, often finding inspiration from unlikely sources.

While writing Michelle, Paul instinctively vocalized his dummy lyric in cod French. At first glance, the seems eccentric - finger-picking Chet Atkins had no obvious Gallic connection. For McCartney, however, the jazzy chord sequence awoke memories of  'Juliette Greco, the French bohemian thing',  This was something that McCartney had experienced at one remove during his mid teens.

Les mots qui vont très bien ensemble

During the first years of the Quarrymen, John Lennon was nominally a student. at Liverpool School of Art.  Paul, who had slid out of education, entered his new friend's world by proxy, attending the parties if not the classes. Perhaps to impress his new social set, Paul sometimes would pretend to be French. His props included a stripy t-shirt and a string of onions. 

What he didn't  have was the French language, which he had never studied. Undaunted, he set about transforming his dummy French words into real ones, starting by consulting his friend Ivan Vaughan.

'I need a French girl's name and a rhyme."

Ivan managed to supply the title, Michelle  and a plausible rhyme ma belle.

Moving up the language proficiency levels, Paul now needed a translation of 'these are words that go together well'. This was provided by Ivan's wife, Jan, a teacher of French at a local school. She suggested sont les mots qui vont très bien ensemble which worked brilliantly in musical terms, even if it did sound odd to native French ears.

Lennon provided the 'I love you' bridge, drawing on Nina Simone's version of I Put a Spell on You. 

Recorded versions 

 'Rubber Soul' was released in December 1965 and Michelle was the track with the heaviest radio play on US stations. It was then released as a single in several countries including Hong Kong and Italy, but no single from the album was released in the two major markets: the US and the UK. This was probably a commercial decision - part of a long term move to nudge record buyers towards albums. But it is known that Lennon considered Michelle  to be too 'soft' to represent brand Beatles in the singles charts.

Michelle proved a popular song for other artists, with 32 officially released covers, including this French version by The Atoms:

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