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notes on ...

Notes on "Michelle"


Notes on ... Series #82 (M4)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: f minor / F Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Intro | Verse | Verse | Bridge | Verse | Bridge |
                  | Verse (instrumental) | Bridge | Verse |
                  | Outro (Bridge + Verse (instrumental)) (fade-out)
        CD: "Rubber Soul", Track 7 (Parlophone CDP7 46440-2)
  Recorded: 3rd November 1965, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 3rd December 1965 (LP "Rubber Soul")
US-release: 6th December 1965 (LP "Rubber Soul")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note Encouraged as he must have been by the raging success of "Yesterday", Paul provides us in "Michelle" with yet another tender, plaintive ballad; this one in equal part Art Song and neo-schmaltzy fox-trot. The affinities between these two songs are both deep and numerous, as we'll see.
  Next note At the same time "Michelle" surprisingly bears some comparison with the likes of George's "Think For Yourself". And while the notion of direct influence in this case may be debatable, the technical parallels between the two (the shifty handling of the Major/minor modes, a jumpy melody, and equally prowling harmonies) are ironical and instructive.
  Next note The form is on the generous side. Granted, the verses are very short, but the lengthy bridge is repeated three full times, and its second half shows up as both the intro and first part of the outro.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The parallels between "Michelle" and "Yesterday" start right off with the choice of home key, not to mention the single-word title. The only other Beatles' original in their official songbook up to this point in time that's in the key of F other than these two is, "Hold Me Tight". The only cover in this key is (surprise!), "Till There Was You". Does something tell you that Paul's the common denominator here?
  Next note Each verse starts off with an F-Major chord but for all intents and purposes the song's center of gravity is much closer to f minor, as can be seen from the chord choices throughout and the way in which the bridge so unabashedly embraces the minor mode.
  Next note A larger than average number of chords are used, though some of them are more reasonably explained as the prolongation of linear movement of a bassline or inner voice. We have seen relatively few diminished seventh chords in our studies of the Beatles' songs to-date, though in this case, the vii(dim)-of-V is given extensive airtime that brings an exotic influence on the melody in its wake; e.g. the melodic augmented second found in the phrase "go together well" — F -» A-flat -» B-natural -» A-flat -» G.
  Next note The melody is shot through with flat thirds and sevenths, but in absence of a more twelve-bar-oriented harmonic context, these nominally melodic tokens of the blues style here sound exotically modal and minor.


  Next note The instrumental backing is provided by a combined acoustic and electric grouping of the sort that typifies the more-folksy and less-rocky sound of the "Rubber Soul" album, though on this track, they are cleverly arranged and recorded to sound more like a pop-music studio band than anything else. In this respect, the same paradox we saw in "Yesterday", of an exceedingly romantic song being scored for an ensemble not usually associated with that genre, is repeated here but on a much more subtle level.
  Next note The recurrent riff for double-tracked acoustic guitar, first heard in the intro, is a unique reminder that it is the Beatles after all, as much as the solo part that is scored in the baritone range of the lead electric guitar subliminally conjures a Non-Beatles Uptown Pop Style; compare this with the piano solo of "Not A Second Time".
  Next note Paul's lead vocal, single-tracked as demanded by the intimacy of the song's lyrical theme, is supported virtually throughout by the harmonized cooing of George and John, a technique which blends with the backing track to the point of absorption by it, and which is yet another cliché trademark of the underlying pop style being chased here. The trick of dropping out the backing voices to suddenly expose Paul, as at the beginning and end of the bridge, is, on the other hand, pure Beatles.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note The four-measure intro becomes a kind of hook for the song by virtue of its reappearance in the bridge and the outro.
  Next note The essential harmonic game plan of this little section is a simple I -» V progression, but the descending chromatic scale of the first three measures spices things up considerably. I think it's most "correct" (i.e. matches up most closely with your own experience of it as a listener) to parse the first two and a half measures as simply an f minor chord with the scale moving against it rather than try to assign a different roman numeral to each new vertical combination:
     Melody: |C               |-              |
 Inner line: |F           E   |E-flat  D      |
     Chords: |f               |-              |
          f:  i

     Melody: |-   C Bb  Ab    |C              |
 Inner line: |D-flat          |C              |
     Chords: |b-flat          |C              |
          f:  iv 6/5 **        V

   [Figure 82.1]
  [** iv 6/5 here can be alternately parsed as vi 4/3 (D-flat) by virtue of the F in the bass]
  Next note If it were not for the leisurely pace at which the scale unfolds, you'd never even think to parse it any other way; run the exercise of playing this same progression with the scale four times as fast as it appears in the song. Granted, the slower mode creates a very different experience, and is in fact, in context of the textbooks, considered a special effect; I've seen both the terms "prolongation" and "harmonic envelope" applied to it.
  Next note At the very beginning of measure 3, we get a bass note of F that is at least an octave lower than anything yet heard in the song, and I believe this simple event also helps keep your ear attuned to the idea of the f chord sustained on some level from the beginning of the phrase to this point.
  Next note The V chord when it finally appears is in the form of a bare open fifth; an uncanny detail in common with the opening of "Yesterday".


  Next note The verse is only six measures but is formally doubled up only at the beginning of the song. It's really one long phrase in terms of its melodic arch though it can be decomposed into a series of rhetorically short phrases of uneven length; yet another similarity with "Yesterday":
  |F              |b-flat         |E-flat         |B-diminished 7 |
   I               iv7             VII (added 6th) vii-of-V

  |C      B-dim   |C              |
   V      vii-of-V V

   [Figure 82.2]
  Next note The melodic action in this verse has a much higher than average number of non-linear jumps in it, especially for McCartney. These tend to follow the chord outlines and serve to draw one's attention to the harmonic movement that belies the tune.
  Next note The manner in which the optimistic clean opening in the Major key so quickly turns minor ("spring time turning to autumn", to paraphrase a different bard) becomes, through repetition, another subtle hook element of the song. Paul had played a similar trick back in "Yesterday" with the relative minor key, but the use of the parallel minor here is, in my humble opinion, more piquant.
  Next note The progression from iv -» VII threatens to follow 'round the minor key circle of fifths, but the pattern is quickly broken with the dip down to the diminished seventh chord that eventually sets up the cadence on V. The switch over to placing B-natural in the bassline in place of D for the last two iterations of this diminished seventh chord has a neat elegant feel to it.


  Next note The bridge is among the more interestingly (attractively?) built ones that we've seen; ten measures in length, and composed of two subsections — six measures of new music coupled with what we've already seen as the intro:
   |f              |-              |A-flat         |D-flat         |
    i                               V-of-VI         VI

   |C              |f              |----» Intro
    V               i

   [Figure 82.3]
  Next note The melodic and emotional climax of this song comes right at the beginning of this bridge where the protagonist's sudden, frustrated abandonment of all bilingual pretense is matched effectively by the release of carefully saved up high notes. The slow triplets in the tune at this point combined with the "9-8" appoggiatura on the downbeat of the second measure make the pleasure of this climax all the more exquisite, and it is indeed a delight to observe the way that Paul handles the latter detail a bit different in each repetition of this section — adding a spasmodic trill up to a high A-flat the second time around, and in the third bout betraying a bit of worn-out but insistent hoarseness.
  Next note The first half of the bridge with its unambiguous embrace of f minor stands in contrast to the mixed-mode bitter-sweetness of the verse. The second half of it provides an unusually drawn out transition back to the next verse. Indeed, no matter how many times I have heard this song, the F-Major chord at the beginning of each successive verse, surrounded as it is on each side by the minor mode, always catches me slightly by surprise and evokes for me a sense of the persistence of romantic optimism against all odds.

Solo Section

  Next note The otherwise routine solo verse of this song is unusually entwined with the bridges on either side of it.
  Next note In the preceding bridge, Paul finishes up with a unique melodic flip upward that is both modal and interrogatory in tone, and he sustains out the end of this little phrase well into the second or third measure of the solo.
  Next note Similarly, the guitar solo finishes up with a relatively long rush up the scale in fast triplets that overlaps neatly with Paul's vocal pickup to the next bridge.


  Next note The outro begins ("and I will say the only etc.") with one of Paul's compositional master strokes, and I don't say that lightly — turning the intro/bridge-second-half into a "coda" by supplying it with a different tune for a change; one that is both more similar in style to that of the verse itself, and befitting of closure in terms of its melodic shape. If the start of the bridge marks the song's climax, then this moment here is its "crux".
  Next note The song is finally allowed to power down with a verbatim reprise of the instrumental solo section, an unlikely shade of "The Word", and this is repeated one more time, still, into the fade-out.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note The Anglo-Franco lyrics are admittedly a clever touch, but the premise implied by them strikes this curmudgeon as cute-but-contrived; very nearly at, if not over, the bounds of poetic license.
  Next note Perhaps I'm being arbitrary here; heck, I have no such problems for example with "Drive My Car". Or perhaps I even allow my privately romantic verbal, dare I say oral, fixations get the better of me betimes. But I ask you — how can anyone be as desperately in love, as is described in this song, with someone with whom they cannot hold a decent conversation, no less an e-mail correspondence?

An Administrative P.S.

  Next note For those you keep "serious" track of this series and are wondering how "Misery" (M1) jumped all the way to M4 for this one, note that "Money" is M2 and "Matchbox" is M3. The latter two covers, though, were not discussed in their own articles and appeared in Cover Songs on 'With The Beatles' and Cover Songs on 'Long Tall Sally' respectively.
  Alan (052093#82)
Copyright © 1993 by Alan W. Pollack. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.