Paul McCartney Talks the Famous Beatles Ballad That Started as a Song He’d Play to Impress People at Parties

In the latest episode of the McCartney: A Life in Lyrics podcast series, Paul McCartney discusses the popular Beatles ballad that got its start as a song he’d play as a teenager trying to impress people at parties. Years later, McCartney would play the song specially for a first lady.

The song was “Michelle,” which appeared on The Beatles’ classic 1966 album Rubber Soul.

McCartney said that the origins of the song came from a piece he came up with using a few interesting chords he’d learned from different sources. He first played the chords at parties that John Lennon’s art-school classmates attended.

“I remember going to one [party], and I took my guitar,” McCartney recalled. “So I’m sitting enigmatically in the corner with my black polo neck sweater on, trying to look French, trying to look interesting to this older crowd. And so, one of the weapons that I used was to play this sort of Frenchy-sounding song and sort of make guttural noises, kind of half thinking that someone will think, ‘Well, he’s French, probably.’”

McCartney explained that the chords he used in the song included one he’d learned from Jim Gretty, a guitar salesman who worked at the Liverpool music store Hessy’s, and another taken from The Coasters hit “Along Came Jones.”

On Finishing Writing “Michelle”
McCartney noted that years later, while The Beatles were putting together tunes for what would become Rubber Soul, Lennon suggested he revisit the French-sounding song he’d played at those school parties.

As he worked on finishing the song, McCartney said he thought of the 1959 Edith Piaf tune “Milord.” The rock legend said he liked the sound of the word “milord,” and wanted to use something similar in his song, and he thought of the name “Michelle.”

McCartney also wanted to include some actual French in the song, but he’d never studied the language while in school. He said he had a very close school mate, Ivan Vaughan, who’d actually introduced him to Lennon years earlier, and he knew Vaughan’s wife, Jan, taught French, so he asked her for some help with the tune.

“I said, ‘Jan, what rhymes with Michelle? Two syllables. Can you think of anything?’” McCartney recalled. “She said, ‘Ma belle?’ I said, ‘I love it. What’s that mean?’ … [She answered,] ‘Well, my beauty.’ ‘Oh, okay. Michelle, ma belle. I think that’s lovely!’”

Jan Vaughan also translated McCartney’s line “These are words that go together well” into French, and he put that phrase into the song as well.
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The Recording of “Michelle”
The Beatles recorded “Michelle” very quickly, finishing the track in just an hour and a half.

“Luckily, we came in prepared. We knew it all,” McCartney remembered. “So I played the guitar, did that, George [Harrison] made a lovely solo on electric guitar, and the rest of the guys sort of filled in. And then it came time for me to play the bass on it.”

McCartney said his inventive bass part on “Michelle” and other songs around that time were inspired by Motown session musician James Jamerson.

“Michelle” Won a Grammy
Although it wasn’t released a single in the U.S., “Michelle” was awarded a Grammy for Song of the Year in 1967.

McCartney’s Special White House Performance of “Michelle”
The podcast points out that whereas “Michelle” originally sprung from McCartney’s desire to impress cool kids at parties, in 2010, Sir Paul used it to impress an audience that included the President and first lady of the United States—Barack and Michelle Obama.

McCartney had been invited to perform at the White House in honor of him receiving the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.
Before launching into “Michelle,” McCartney quipped that the song was a tune he’d been “itching to do at the White House.” He added, “I hope the President will forgive me.”

About the McCartney: A Life in Lyrics Podcast
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As previously reported, the McCartney: A Life in Lyrics podcasts incorporate segments of audio interviews that Irish poet Paul Muldoon conducted with McCartney for the 2021 book The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present.

The McCartney: A Life in Lyrics podcast is available at iHeart.com, Pushkin.fm, and on various popular streaming services, including Apple Music and Spotify. The series is co-produced by iHeartPodcasts and the Pushkin audio-production company.

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