The Beatles, at the height of their fame, were an unstoppable force. Given their supreme fame, the Fab Four would have hordes of screaming girls chasing them around the globe, it would be a contributing factor to the band’s decision to step away from live performances amid the deafening noise. The situation, in truth, defined the meteoric rise that band had enjoyed in their relatively short time in music—but it wasn’t always this easy.
At the start of their budding friendship, Paul McCartney and John Lennon were fully focused on the music. The Quarrymen were evolving into The Beatles and the songwriting prowess of the soon-to-be-formidable partnership was taking shape despite their relatively young age. That said, away from the music, the creative pairing were more than happy to rub shoulders with the who’s who of Liverpool—they were teenagers after all.
John Lennon was a couple of years older than Paul, he was an art-school student who often landed his bandmates invitations to a number of exclusive parties. McCartney, perhaps slightly self-conscious about his charming babyface, felt as though needed to put on an act in an attempt to fit in. Lennon, on the other hand, was at home during these bohemian chic shindigs, leaving Macca and George Harrison rather intimidated by their new surroundings. Instead of showing vulnerability, however, Paul hatched a plan to turn around his situation.
Tapping into his creative self, McCartney began experimenting with his first attempt at a stage persona…albeit an ambitious and wonderfully relatable one. In a bid to build confidence, the young Beatles bassist began to dress all in black, armed himself with a guitar and sat himself in the corner of the room in a bid to create a mysteriously sexy aura—or so he thought.
McCartney had done everything that he could to become part of this exclusive group but, alas, it was unsuccessful. With his new outfit in tow, he then decided to take things one step further and, while perched in the corner of the room, began to sing in fake French. Whilst dressed in all-black, singing in fake French, Paul believed he was the hippest person in the whole of Merseyside. While the plot to entice girls may have failed, and the idea of his plan might make him wince to remember all these years later, it did lead to the birth of a future Beatles hit ‘Michelle’.
‘Michelle’ was one of The Beatles’ oldest songs, one that Paul McCartney had been flirting with all the way back to his teenage years. Those misspent nights of his childhood attending parties that he felt uncomfortable at may have felt like countless evenings wasted but, in truth, it planted the seed for a wonderful medium of artistic expression prompted by his closest confidante John Lennon.
“He used to throw some pretty good all-night parties,” McCartney said in Barry Miles’ Many Years From Now about John Lennon’s art tutor Austin Mitchell. “You could maybe pull girls there, which was the main aim of every second; you could get drinks, which was another aim; and you could generally put yourself about a bit,” he added.
“I remember sitting around there and my recollection is of a black turtleneck sweater and sitting very enigmatically in the corner, playing this rather French tune. I used to pretend I could speak French because everyone wanted to be like Sacha Distel,” McCartney confessed.
“Years later, John said, ‘D’you remember that French thing you used to do at Mitchell’s parties?’ I said yes,” McCartney said while discussing the origins of The Beatles song ‘Michelle’. “He said, ‘Well, that’s a good tune. You should do something with that.’ We were always looking for tunes, because we were making lots of albums by then and every album you did needed fourteen songs, and then there were singles in between, so you needed a lot of material,” Macca added.
There was one slight issue, however, The Beatles couldn’t release a song featuring fake French and meant that Paul had to learn a new language for the song. He decided to make a call to Ivan Vaughan, who was the very person who introduced Lennon to McCartney wat back in 1957 and remained a friend almost a decade later. Ivan’s wife, Jan, taught French and it was an excuse for the pair to visit McCartney at Jane Asher’s family home in 1965 to help him come up with some French lyrics for the track.
“I said, ‘I like the name Michelle. Can you think of anything that rhymes with Michelle, in French?’,” McCartney said to Miles. “And she said, ‘Ma belle.’ I said, ‘What’s that mean?’ ‘My beauty.’ I said, ‘That’s good, a love song, great.’ We just started talking, and I said, ‘Well, those words go together well, what’s French for that? Go together well.’ ‘Sont les mots qui vont très bien ensemble.’ I said, ‘All right, that would fit,’” he continued.
“And she told me a bit about how to pronounce it, so that was it. I got that off Jan, and years later I sent her a cheque around. I thought I better had because she’s virtually a co-writer on that. From there I just pieced together the verses,” Macca added.
All those nights pretending to speak French would ultimately not only end up as fond memories of his youth and would lead to one of the highlights of Rubber Soul with ‘Michelle’. The few words that feature on the track, however, still remain as pretty much the entirety of McCartney’s grasp on the French language.