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The Beatles‘ “Michelle” isn’t one of the Fab Four’s more memorable tunes, but it and its inspiration will always be in Paul McCartney‘s memory. He claims the song came about because he used to sing faux French songs at parties just to look cool.

The Beatles filming 'Help!' in the Bahamas in 1965.
The Beatles | REPORTERS ASSOCIES/Getty Images

The Beatles’ ‘Michelle’ came from one of Paul McCartney’s memories of singing faux French songs

In his book The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present, Paul wrote that John Lennon, who was older and in art college, used to take him to school parties.

He remembered going to one distinct party and sitting in the corner with his black polo-neck sweater on, trying to look “interesting” to the older crowd around him. He played a French-sounding tune with his acoustic guitar and made guttural noises. Paul half hoped that someone would think he was French, possibly even “a French intellectual.”

That’s where the basis for The Beatles’ “Michelle” came from, Paul’s memory of playing a faux French song. Later, in The Beatles, Paul and John were looking for new song ideas. John remembered Paul’s faux French tunes. He said to Paul, “Remember that daft French thing you used to do at parties?”

Paul also thinks he must have been influenced by Édith Piaf’s “Milord,” a 1959 hit. Paul calls “Milord” out of the left field because you weren’t sure what genre it was.

However, the same can be said of “Michelle.” In 1965, “Michelle” was an unusual song for The Beatles. No rock songs used French words.

The Beatles’ ‘Michelle’ uses ‘naughty’ chords

On top of being an unusual rock song, The Beatles’ “Michelle” also uses a couple of naughty chords. One of them is used in “Milord.” It’s an “old trick” of slowing down during the tune. Paul wrote that he must have had a memory of that in “the hopper.”

Another chord Paul used came from a guy Paul and George knew called Jim Gretty, who worked in Hessy’s guitar shop in Liverpool. The bandmates really admired Gretty’s skills. He taught them the F chord, which Paull called “lush.”

Gretty used “two more of his fingers to cover the first two strings up on the fourth fret, which would be A-flat and E-flat, so there was an extra component to the F chord,” Paul wrote. He and George called Gretty’s F chord “F demented.”

Along with the “F demented,” Paul added a second “naughty chord,” he said it’s maybe called the D diminished. However, none of The Beatles knew how to read music.


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An old schoolmate’s wife helped Paul come up with ‘Ma belle’

While Paul was working on The Beatles’ “Michelle,” he met up with his old schoolmate, Ivan Vaughan, who introduced him to John in the late 1950s.

Vaughan had been to University College London to study the classics. He and his wife Jan lived in Islington, and Paul used to visit them. Jan taught French, which worked out because Paul was writing a French tune. So, the Beatle asked Jan if she could think of a rhyme for “Michelle” that was two syllables. She said, “Ma belle.”

How could he say, “these words go together” in French? “Sont les mots qui vont très bien ensemble.” Paul had trouble with “ensemble” because he always said it with a silent b.

So, Paul had his naughty chords and a melody he’d made up as a teenager to get girls. He “grunted along like a cod Frenchman, and there was ‘Michelle,'” he said. The tune was one of the most different Beatles songs at the time.