Another French Girl

In June 1956, Paul McCartney’s father gave him a trumpet for his fourteenth birthday, but he traded it in for a Zenith Model 17 acoustic guitar, because he realized that he couldn’t sing with a trumpet stuck in his mouth.  When he brought the guitar home, he couldn’t figure out how to play it because he was left-handed.  Lefties make up a smaller section of the guitar-playing population, and guitar companies make less left-handed gear, mostly because of supply and demand, so McCartney had the guitar re-strung and he played it upside-down.  Although primarily known for his bass playing, Sir Paul McCartney started his rock and roll career on a six-string guitar.  Ivan Vaughan was a mutual friend to both John and Paul and he introduced them, and the two hit it off quite well, making July 6th, 1957, the day they met, one of the most important dates in music history.  When the 15-year-old Paul met the 17-year-old John Lennon, he impressed the leader of The Quarry Men by knocking out a dead-on version of Eddie Cochran’s ‘Twenty Flight Rock’.  McCartney was soon offered a job with the band and then McCartney nominated his mate George Harrison for lead guitar duties.

‘Michelle’ was written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon and recorded in November 1965, by the Beatles for their Rubber Soul album.  ‘Michelle’ went on to receive the 1967 Grammy award for Song of the Year, one of just four Grammys The Beatles won while they were still active.  McCartney sang lead vocals, backing vocals and rhythm, Lennon did backing vocals and rhythm guitar, George Harrison was also on backing vocals and lead guitar and Ringo Starr played the drums.  Paul McCartney started the song ‘Michelle’ as far back as 1959, when he attended a party thrown by Austin Mitchell, who was tutoring Lennon at the Liverpool College of Art.  Austin Mitchell used to throw these all-night parties where you could meet girls there, which was McCartney’s main aim for attending and he could also get drinks there.

While he was there, another fellow partygoer with a goatee, and dressed in a black turtleneck attempted to be very continental by performing a chanson (a song sung in the French-language).  Though Europop (form of popular music made in Europe for general European consumption) had just begun its ascendancy to cultural relevance, McCartney began crafting a similar tune with nonsense French lyrics as a joke for future parties.  Paul used to pretend that he could speak French, this was his ruse to pick up girls, because French culture was a trend and the French bohemian thing was happening and everyone wanted to be like the French singer and guitarist Sacha Distel or the French actress and chanson singer Juliette Greco.  Paul was trying to be enigmatic so the girls would think, ‘Who’s that very interesting French guy over in the corner?’.  Paul used to talk Double-Dutch French (a fictional mock-French language that he made up which sounded bizarre and incomprehensible to anyone who did not understand real French and thus could not tell that he was a phoney).

The Beatles went on a momentous tour of the USA and Canada including a record breaking appearance at New York’s famous Shea Stadium following the release of their previous album Help!.  The Beatles took a deserved holiday, before they started on Rubber Soul their sixth studio album which was released for Christmas on 3rd December, 1965 just two weeks after final mixing had taken place.  The Beatles were always looking for tunes, because they were making lots of albums and every album needed about fourteen songs, and they also made singles in between, so they always needed a lot of material. John reminded Paul of that French thing that he used to do at Austin Mitchell’s parties, telling him that it was a good tune and saying, “You should do something with that.”

In September of 1965 after their American tour, Paul visited the Portugal holiday home of Muriel Young, a radio presenter for Radio Luxembourg, during their month off.  ‘Michelle’ was just an instrumental with nonsense lyrics and it did not have a title, but Paul wanted to make it into a song.  Paul wrote all of his first songs on the Zenith, including ‘Michelle’ and ‘I Saw Her Standing There.’  While he was at Muriel Young’s house, he sat on the sofa with Jane Asher who he had been seeing for the past two years, trying to find some words for this French song, and he was singing “Goodnight sweetheart” and then “Hello my dear, searching for something that would fit the rhythm.

Paul always thought that the song sounded French and he wanted to stick with that.  Jan Vaughan was the wife of Paul’s childhood friend Ivan Vaughan, and she was a French teacher, so Paul decided to take advantage of this connection.  Paul asked Jan what sort of things he could say that were French and which phrases would go together well.  Paul asked if she could think of a French girl’s name, with two syllables, and then a description of the girl which would rhyme.  He played the rhythm on his guitar for her and that’s when Jan came up with, “Michelle, ma bellewhich translates to “Michelle, my beautiful.  A few days later Paul phoned Jan and asked if she could translate the phrase “these are words that go together well” and she told him that it should be “sont les mots qui vont tres bien ensemble.  Jan told Paul how to pronounce it, so that was it.  Years later Paul sent Jan Vaughan a check because she was virtually a co-writer on that.  From this start, Paul pieced together the verses.

Paul had most of the lyrics worked out, but he was still trying to get a middle-eight.  Paul hummed the first few bars of ‘Michelle’ to John and he asked, “Where do I go from here?”  John had been listening to the blues singer Nina Simone song ‘I Put A Spell On You’, which contained a line in it that went, “I love ya I love you I love you I love you anyhow”, which John changed to “I love you, I love you, I love youand that is how John helped out with the middle-eight for ‘Michelle’.  John was able to add a little bluesy edge to this otherwise straight ballad, thus changing it to a blues-rock song.

A middle 8 is a section in a song that is eight bars in length and tends to happen towards the middle of the song.  The purpose of this section is to break up the simple repetition of a verse/chorus/verse/chorus structure by introducing new elements into the song.  A middle eight (a common type of bridge) refers to a section of a song with a significantly different melody and lyrics, which helps the song develop itself in a natural way by creating a contrast to the previously played, usually placed after the second chorus in a song.  The most common format in modern popular music is introduction (intro), verse, pre-chorus, chorus (or refrain), verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge middle eight, verse, chorus and outro.

‘Michelle’ was only released as a single by The Beatles in some European countries and in New Zealand.  Because of the popularity of the song on the radio, Capitol saw fit to affix stickers to the front of the albums to let buyers know that this was the only way that they could get a copy of the song ‘Michelle’.  This marketing ploy became a major contributing factor to the album selling six million copies in the US alone, which was double their previous album Help!.  Many Beatles fans did not realize that Paul was singing in a foreign language, and they started translating the phrase as “someday monkey gone play piano song”, or “Sunday monkey won’t play piano song”, or some things that were even worse!

Paul always loved the Chet Atkins song ‘Trambone’, and this inspired him to create a song with a lead guitar and lead bass line, playing simultaneously.  ‘Trambone’ featured a repetitive top line, which was an innovation at the time, even though classical guitarists had played it, no rock ‘n’ roll guitarists had played it.  The first person known to use a finger-pickin’ technique was Chet Atkins, and Colin Manley, one of the guys in the Remo Four in Liverpool.  Later John learned how to do it folks style from Donovan or Gypsy Dave, which he used on ‘Julia’.  Paul wanted this in his song and he knew that he had to learn how to do it.  ‘Michelle’ was one of McCartney’s first attempts to play with a finger picked guitar style, and this signalled a desire to experiment beyond the boundaries of rock ‘n’ roll.

In 2010, Paul McCartney, a self-professed fan of U.S. President Barack Obama, performed the song ‘Michelle’ in honor of his wife Michelle when he visited the White House to receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.  President Obama credited McCartney with helping to lay a central sound for an entire generation.  McCartney is the third recipient of the award after Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder were previous honorees of this award which recognizes songwriters “whose careers reflect a lifetime achievement in promoting song as a vehicle of artistic expression and cultural understanding.”  Michelle Obama reportedly later told others that she could never have imagined, after growing up an African-American girl on the South Side of Chicago, that someday a Beatle would sing ‘Michelle’ to her as First Lady of the United States.

The first few instrumental bars of ‘All You Need is Love’ are lifted from the French national anthem.  ‘Paperback Writer’ is supposed to contain a repeated backing vocal refrain to the French nursery rhyme ‘Frère Jacques’, but I was never able to hear it.  Encouraged by the successful foray into French on this song, Beatles friend Donovan sang a verse of his 1968 hit ‘Jennifer Juniper’ in French.

The simple lyrics come across with the sentiment of Shakespeare.  The quaint lyrics simply tell of an English-speaking man who desperately wants to tell a beautiful French-speaking woman that he loves her.  Paul did not developed the story any further than this, as there was no need, because his infatuation with the young French woman makes us see that he is expressing love out of desperation. Understanding each other’s language, does not define feelings and the only thing that is important is saying, “I love you”.  As the song concludes, the listener is left wondering whether he ever did “find a way” to get the message through.

Michelle, ma belle
These are words that go together well
My Michelle
Michelle, ma belle
Sont les mots qui vont tres bien ensemble
Tres bien ensemble
I love you, I love you, I love you
That’s all I want to say
Until I find a way
I will say the only words I know that you’ll understand

Michelle, ma belle
Sont les mots qui vont tres bien ensemble
Tres bien ensemble
I need to, I need to, I need to
I need to make you see
Oh, what you mean to me
Until I do, I’m hoping you will know what I mean
I love you…

I want you, I want you, I want you
I think you know by now
I’ll get to you somehow
Until I do, I’m telling you so you’ll understand
Michelle, ma belle
Sont les mots qui vont tres bien ensemble
Tres bien ensemble
And I will say the only words I know that you’ll understand
My Michelle

Written for FOWC with Fandango – Center.

9 thoughts on “Another French Girl

  1. Who didn’t pretend to speak French, the language of romance, to pick up girls back in the day? That’s the only reason I took French in junior high school.

    As usual, an interesting, informative post.

    Liked by 1 person

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