The Beatles “joke” song that was inspired by Nina Simone and “Double-Dutch French”
The Beatles back catalogue is certainly big enough to get lost in. On their multitude of albums the Fab Four, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, created some of the most eclectic pop music the world had ever seen.
Starting their life as high-charting writers of perfect pop fodder soon enough Lennon and McCartney were looking outside the usual rock ‘n’ roll tropes for inspiration. By the time the band had reached Rubber Soul in 1965, they were dead set at pushing the envelope.
Much of that among aficionados is seen as the band’s enjoyment and experimentation with drugs, at this point in their careers, mainly marijuana. But while that certainly is true, much of their newfound direction was suggested by their moral compasses as they were desperate to move toward a purer artistic output.
It meant that songs could be influenced or inspired by any number of things, often using many facets of everyday and outlandish life in the same verses. One such song that saw the duo work through a variety of themes was ‘Michelle’. The track, as McCartney confirmed in 1977, “was like a joke French tune for when you go to a party or something. That’s all it was. And then after a while you say, ‘Well, that’s quite a good tune. Let’s put some real words to it.'”
It’s something that Lennon had suggested closer to the song’s release in 1966: “Paul has had this idea about writing a bit with some other language, with French in it. And he just sort of had a bit of a verse, and a couple of words, and the idea. I think he had some other name or something.
“He used to talk Double-Dutch French, you see, just to sing the bit. (imitates singing mock-French) He just brought it along and just sort of started fiddling around trying to get a middle-eight. We pinched a little bit from somewhere and stuck it in the middle-eight, and off we went.
As so often was the case with the songwriting duo, though they would compose the bulk of the song by themselves they would often seek out the other members of the group for the final flourishes. The same can be said for ‘Michelle’, a song in which Lennon contributed the bluesy middle eight. But though Lennon can be credited with helping to get the song over the line, it was also inspired by another singer—Nina Simone.
Speaking with Playboy in 1980 Lennon said: “He and I were staying somewhere and he walked in and hummed the first few bars, with the words, and he says, ‘Where do I go from here?’ I had been listening to (blues singer) Nina Simone. I think it was ‘I Put A Spell On You.’
“There was a line in it that went, ‘I love you, I love you.’ That’s what made me think of the middle-eight for ‘Michelle.’” It’s a contribution that completes the track and turns a “joke” song int something beautiful and raw, it acted as the perfect counterpart to McCartney’s sweet and light style.
As Lennon confirms later in the interview, “So, my contributions to Paul’s songs was always to add a little bluesy edge to them. Otherwise, ‘Michelle’ is a straight ballad, right? He provided a lightness, an optimism, while I would always go for the sadness, the discords, the bluesy notes.”
It may not be one of the most glorified songs of the dynamic partnership but it is a perfect example of the fine balancing act the duo worked out during their time together.