Saturday, July 25, 2009


I really hate to think ill of Paul McCartney, especially when I've been so excited about what he's up to lately, what with the Letterman and the Fireman and the fact that he's playing Fenway Park in less than two weeks. So I want to get today's song out of the way, so the rest of the year can hopefully be filled with positivity for Paul.

Because, look, I know a lot of people really like "Michelle." Especially if you're named Michelle. Or if you're French-- in France, I understand, this was always one of the most popular Beatles songs, and it made it onto one of the Odeon EPs that pepper the Beatles' French discography. Maybe Paul adorably singing to you in a butchered version of your native language was just irresistible, which, hey-- I've been there. Even so, though, I can't get into "Michelle." It's kind of-- I don't know. Icky?

Maybe "icky" is too strong a word. Because compared to my other least favorite Beatles song, "Michelle" at least has some degree of harmonic sophistication and cool chromatic motion. (It's worth reading the illustrious Alan W. Pollack on this one, because he breaks it down very nicely, as always.) It's another one of these songs with a verse in major and a middle eight in minor, which, in a two and a half minute pop song, always lends a nice dose of color. And I'm not so set against the song that I can't acknowledge that the guitar solos at the middle and end are very deftly played, and even lovely in their own way. In fact, a lot of the guitar work is very good. It's all played by Paul, by the way-- George and John are only singing backup, and Ringo might not even be on the track at all. I've read different opinions about whether Paul is handling drums here too, and my ear can't really tell one way or the other.

But none of this saves the song from overwhelming mawkishness for me. It sounds like Paul is too self-consciously trying to charm us, even though he's at his most charming when he's not trying so goshdarned hard. Maybe this shouldn't be surprising given the song's history. Paul wrote the riff from "Michelle" very early on, perhaps in the late '50s, when he and John used to go to parties thrown by John's friends from art school. The art school kids were doing the late '50s bohemian thing, and I guess being French was super-hip, or something, and so was sitting in the corner at a party wearing a black turtleneck and strumming a little quasi-French tune to yourself on your guitar. Paul has described his actions here partly as a ploy to make fun of these people (he would sing the melody to nonsensical French-sounding grunting), and partly as a very serious and, apparently, successful attempt to get laid. More power to him. But is anyone surprised to learn that "Michelle" was originally written for the very transparent purpose of trying to get laid? Alas, it never evolved into anything more interesting than that, at least not in my humble opinion.

Anyway, it was apparently John who, years later, suggested that Paul resurrect the old Frenchy melody and try to write a song out of it, and it was also John who suggested the "I love you, I love you, I love you" hook for the middle eight, basing it on a Nina Simone song that was popular at the time. Also providing help on this was the wife of Ivan Vaughan, the mutual friend of John and Paul who did the universe the biggest favor ever by introducing the two of them when they were all teenagers. Ivan's wife was a French teacher, and helped Paul rhyme "ma belle" to "Michelle" and gave him the French line that he sings. (Paul apparently sent her a check later, which was wicked decent of him if it's true.)

So that's how we got "Michelle," and how it ended up on Rubber Soul, an album that, while certainly groundbreaking, seems marked by songs that the Beatles really had to dig up from the past. Consider this one from way back in the '50s, as well as "What Goes On" and "Wait" and so forth-- plus "In My Life," which is a great song that also has a nostalgic hint to it. Definitely an album that looks backward as well as forward-- the cusp album, I guess. (Still and all, I wouldn't have minded "Michelle" being left off too much, I think.)

Oh, one more thing-- I think I would be more okay with "Michelle" if EVERYONE ELSE IN THE WORLD didn't think it was so great. Doesn't that kind of thing just piss you off, when everyone around you is just wrong? One of the people who clearly thinks it's great is Paul. Here he is singing it just last year in Quebec. Oh no, kids, he NEVER misses a chance to perform "Michelle" in front of a French-speaking audience. In this performance he actually adds an accordion. GAH.

"Michelle," released in the U.K. side A track 7 of Rubber Soul, December 3, 1965; in the U.S. side A track 7 of the crappy Capitol Rubber Soul, December 6, 1965.


  1. Geez, Meg, I'm a little apprehensive to post a comment today. I was so totally out of sync with both you and Troy yesterday on Tomorrow Never Knows. BUT, i have to disagree with you again. I like Michele a lot. I love the simplicity of both the lyrics and the music. They complement each other nicely. I like the sentiment expressed. It is universal. And what a lovely melody. This is one of those songs that you can hear once, and keep in your head forever.

    And, what difference does it make how much time passes between when a song is written and ultimately finished and recorded? Lots of songs start out as a few lines, or a riff, noted in a workbook, and then months or years later it is finished.

    Your negative comments on Rubber Soul leave me slack jawed in disbelief. RS is a fabulous album. I think it represents the beginning of the change that is more fully realized in Revolver. But, we all have different tastes.

    Bottom line: Count me in with the crowd that loves this song.

  2. You're fine to disagree with me on this, Frank-- most of the world does. But I definitely didn't mean to say anything bad about Rubber Soul! I LOVE Rubber Soul. But I think it's interesting that the party line on Rubber Soul is that it's one of the most groundbreaking albums, when in fact there are some really retro moments on it. That's all. I would never diss Rubber Soul, ever. (Oh, except that I skip "Michelle"-- but that was probably already clear.)

  3. With Megan. I don't like this, and I don't much like Girl, and I'm not even crazy about In My Life. I think the album would be awesome without those three songs:

    Drive My Car
    Norwegian Wood
    You Won't See Me
    Nowhere Man
    Think for Yourself
    The Word
    What Goes On
    I'm Looking Through You
    If I Needed Someone
    Run for Your Life

    Then again, I don't like Here, There, and Everywhere or For No One, so don't go by me.

  4. Troy ... Reading your list amending RS, reminds me of other discussions about the White album and certain "border line" songs. At least today, with either CDs or MP3 you can easily jump past a song. Think of listening to records where if you really hated a song, you had to lift the needle arm and guess where to drop it to land cleanly for the next one you want to hear. A skill, indeed.

    Megan ... Guess i was reading something between the lines that wasn't there regarding your take on RS.

    It's funny, given a choice of listening to ballads or straight acoustic songs, and loud three-chord lick butt rock, I'll go with the loud every time. But, i do have a weakness for any genre or style song that hits me in an emotional spot. I'm vulnerable. Michele and In My Life both do it for me. I'm sure, Troy, and Meg, you both have songs that work for you in that manner, that you may not even be able to explain WHY they work, yet cause other folks to roll their eyes.

    In that doc I mentioned Friday, the critics talking on camera could not agree on Yesterday.

    Cheers ...

  5. Ah ... that's suppose to read "Kick Butt Rock n Roll, not lick. Geez ...

  6. Absolutely, Frank. I am constantly wondering why I like some songs by Paul that I think are not very different from other songs of his I can't stand. You might fix me with the same disbelieving stare I was giving you yesterday when I tell you I really dislike Hello Goodbye. I'm just old enough to have figured out that your not liking a song that I like means only that we have different taste, and not that you're wrong.

    Although I'm still shaking my head over Tomorrow Never Knows ... :)

    For what it's worth, I wasn't reading Meg's post to diss Rubber Soul. I mean, Christ, how could she? Meg's like Mikey. She'll eat anything (Beatles).

    And as for this song specifically, I'm guessing you are more willing to give Paul the benefit of the doubt as to ... I don't know what the word is. Authenticity? That's not quite it. To be touched by this song, you have to think he means it. Maybe that's my issue with it, and why I like I Will, which sounds heartfelt, but not Honey Pie, which is vampy. So maybe I'm just projecting, but if you think Paul's just goofing (on who- or whatever), it's harder to take it to heart. No accident, I don't think, that his best song was written for someone he cared about, and that Let It Be is thought to be about his mom, true or not. I also like Two of Us, said to be about Linda, and Martha My Dear, about Martha.

  7. See, Troy put it well-- Paul doesn't sound like he means it in "Michelle." The whole thing has an inauthentic, sentimental ring to it that I find off-putting. And I'm as sentimental as the next girl, which is why, unlike Troy, I freaking love "Here, There, and Everywhere" and "In My Life" and especially, especially "Girl." I've read some critics who talk about "Michelle" and "Girl" as companion songs by Paul and John-- they are similar in mood, in arrangement, yada yada-- but when you think of it that way "Michelle" suffers all the more for me.

    And Troy, you don't like "For No One"? Compared to "Michelle", that's a paragon of restraint.

  8. Ya'll both express yourselves so well here. I am always humbled by how well you write about these songs, your thoughts and feelings about them. I'll have to think about the "sincerity" aspect, that you mention, Troy. I mean Honey Pie is suppose to be vampy, by style and delivery and intent. Two Of Us does sound quite heart felt. So, i see what you are saying in terms of how they come across, but i don't see how, on these two songs, that makes a difference. Michele is another matter. Hmmmm. Like i said, let me think on this. I don't know; I don't think i can follow you on this one. I'm going to stay pat.

    The thing about Paul is he can write a song by "wiling" himself to do so. And many songs are probably done that way as opposed to being truly heartfelt inspired. But, he is so talented he can pull them out of his hat. One is craft, the other is art. You seem to prefer only his art. Which is fine. I do understand that and can't argue it. You hold him to a high standard. HIgher than he holds himself, by the evidence of some of his post-Beatle songs.

    So, following the sincerity scale, you like Yesterday, right? I mean, it sounds heartfelt to me.

    Meg, I'm with you on Here, There and Everywhere - Love it, and In My Life, as well.

    BTW, I've had Michele on the brain all afternoon. Going to crash now. Hopefully, it will not follow me to bed. I like it, but there are limits!

  9. Well, I certainly respect Yesterday, and I used to like it, but it didn't stand up to hundreds and hundreds of listens for me the way other songs have.

    But I think you're right on with art vs. craft, at least as regards these less-rocking songs. I mean, I think a lot of the more uptempo stuff on For Sale and Help was supposed to be what they called 'work' songs that were needed to fill out the album, but I bet I like some of those a lot.

    But sincerity will only take Paul so far. I'm pretty sure he sincerely meant both The Long and Winding Road and Fool on the Hill, and I don't think of him any more highly for that.

  10. Troy ... With you on The Long and Winding Road (what a bore) and Fool on the Hill.

  11. Two hundred-something songs. No reason we can't disagree on a few of them. ESPECIALLY if we agree on those two.

    By far, the best part of having a 4-year-old drag you out of a Paul McCartney show after three songs is that you don't have to hear The Long and Winding Road or My Love.