#563: Norwegian Wood/Michelle by The Beatles
Peak Month: February 1966
4 weeks on Vancouver’s CFUN chart
Peak Position #3
Peak Position on Billboard Hot 100 ~ did not chart
YouTube.com link: “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”
“Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” lyrics
YouTube.com link: “Michelle”
Paul McCartney was born in Liverpool in 1942. He attended the Liverpool Institute High School for Boys and met fellow classmates George Harrison on a school bus. When Paul was 14 his mom died from a blockage in one of her blood vessels. In his early teens McCartney learned to play trumpet, guitar and piano. He was left-handed and restrung the strings to make it work. In 1957, Paul met John Lennon and in October he was invited to join John’s skiffle band, The Quarrymen, which Lennon had founded in 1956. After Paul joined the group his suggested that his friend, George Harrison, join the group. Harrison became one of the Quarrymen in early 1958, though he was still only 14. Other original members of the Quarrymen, Len Garry, Rod Davis, Colin Hanton, Eric Griffiths and Pete Shotton left the band when their set changed from skiffle to rock ‘n roll. John Duff Lowe, a friend of Paul’s from the Liverpool Institute, who had joined the Quarrymen in early 1958 left the band at the end of school. This left Lennon, McCartney and Harrison as remaining trio. On July 15, 1958, John Lennon’s mother died in an automobile accident.
John Winston Lennon was born in Liverpool in 1940. His middle name was after Britain’s current Prime Minister Winston Churchill, during World War II. In 1957, Lennon wrote his first song titled “Hello Little Girl”. It became a Top Ten hit in the UK in 1963 for the Merseybeat band the Fourmost. George Harrison was born in Liverpool in 1943. His father bought him his first guitar in 1956 when Harrison was 13 years old.
Richard Starkey was born in Liverpool in 1940. As a child he was sick with appendicitis, peritonitis and finally tuberculosis. The latter illness had him spend two years in a sanitorium from 1953 to 1955. Out of school for this duration, Starkey remained at home after his return from the sanatorium. He got involved with a skiffle band initially called the Eddie Miles Band which morphed into Eddie Clayton and the Clayton Squares. Starkey next joined Al Caldwell’s Texans which eventually became Rory Storm & The Hurricanes. By the fall of 1959, Starkey changed his professional name to Ringo Starr and his drum solos during their concerts were billed as ‘Starr Time.’ Beginning October 1, 1960, Rory Storm & The Hurricanes began a gig at the Kaiserkeller club in Hamburg, Germany. They alternated sets with The Beatles. On October 18, 1960, with Pete Best on an errand to find drumsticks, Ringo Starr stood in for Best to play a set with McCartney, Lennon and Harrison. This was the first time the Fab Four performed together.
The Quarrymen went through some name changes, including Johnny and the Moondogs. In January 1960, Stuart Sutcliffe joined the band and suggested they name themselves the Beatals as a tribute to Buddy Holly and The Crickets. The name changed to the Silver Beetles in May and in August 1960 they became the Beatles. The name was a cross between the insect cousin of a cricket and a nickname for rock ‘n roll: ‘the beat’. That same month the Beatles hired Pete Best to become the bands drummer. Now a five-piece band, they headed to Hamburg, Germany, on August 17, 1960, for a three-and-a-half month stint. In early 1961 Sutcliffe left the Beatles as they continued to return for more engagements in Germany. On June 22, 1961, Bert Kaempfert produced “My Bonnie”, “Ain’t She Sweet” and eight other songs. Later in 1961, “My Bonnie” climbed to #4 on the Hamburg pop charts and #32 on the German pop charts.
Meanwhile, the Beatles were developing a following back in Liverpool. Between February 9, 1961, and August 3, 1963, the group played at The Cavern Club 292 times. The group got a recording contract with EMI’s Parlophone label in the UK. At the June 6, 1962, studio session, producer George Martin objected to Pete Best remaining with the Beatles due to his poor drumming skills. In August Ringo Starr from Rory & The Hurricanes accepted Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s invitation to became the Beatles new drummer. The first EMI Parlophone single “Love Me Do”/”PS I Love You” climbed to #17 on the UK charts in the fall of 1962. “Please Please Me” climbed to #2 on the UK pop charts in early 1963. And in April 1963 “From Me To You” became the bands first #1 hit on the UK charts staying on top for seven weeks in a row. In 1963 “She Loves You” topped the UK charts for six weeks and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” wrapped up the year on top for five weeks in the British Isles.
Beginning on December 21, 1963, “She Loves You” topped the C-FUN charts for four weeks. It was replaced on January 18 by “Please Mr. Postman”, and on January 25 by “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” for six weeks. On March 7 “All My Loving” took over the #1 spot, subsequently sharing the #1 spot with the B-side “This Boy” through to April 4. After sixteen weeks at #1 the Beatles were knocked out of the top spot by the Dave Clark Five’s “Bits And Pieces”. During their streak at #1 in Vancouver from December 21, 1963, to April 4, 1964, “All My Loving”/”This Boy” kept the #1 hit in the USA, “Can’t Buy Me Love” stalled at #2 here on the west coast. Between December 14, 1963, and September 17, 1966, the Beatles had up to five songs in the Top Ten in Vancouver for 107 out of 146 weeks. Beatlemania reached North America with three appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964. But in Vancouver they were already a craze by December ’63.
In the middle of this stretch of hits in the Top Ten in Vancouver the Beatles had a #1 hit titled “A Hard Day’s Night”. The title song from the Beatles film, A Hard Day’s Night, topped the chart for five non-consecutive weeks between July 18 and August 29, 1964. One of the other songs from the the Soundtrack album for A Hard Day’s Night was “I’ll Cry Instead”. The B-side in North America to “A Hard Day’s Night” was “I Should Have Known Better”. (In the UK the B-side was “Things We Said Today”). On C-FUN “I Should Have Known Better” shared chart positions with “A Hard Day’s Night” for three weeks in September, peaking at #4. The song also charted by itself for a non-consecutive fourth week on the C-FUNTASTIC FIFTY on October 3, 1964.
Rubber Soul was the thirteenth Beatles album issued in Canada. It was released on December 3, 1965, on the same day that the non-album double A-side single “We Can Work It Out” / “Day Tripper” was released. The original North American version of the album was altered by Capitol Records to include a different selection of tracks. Rubber Soul met with a highly favourable critical response and topped record charts in Britain for eight weeks starting in December ’65, and six weeks in the USA starting in January ’66.
Two of the tracks from Rubber Soul charted on CFUN in Vancouver: “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” and “Michelle”.
“Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” is usually known simply as “Norwegian Wood.” It is a song by the Beatles, first released on the 1965 album Rubber Soul and credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney. John Lennon was the primary writer, and finished writing the words and with Paul McCartney. It is one of the first examples of a rock band playing the sitar in one of their songs. The sitar, in this case, was played by George Harrison. As Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970, “George had just got the sitar, and I said, ‘Could you play this piece?’ . . . He was not sure whether he could play it yet, because he hadn’t done much on the sitar, but he was willing to have a go.”Lennon started composing the song on his acoustic guitar in January 1965, while on holiday with his wife, Cynthia in the Swiss Alps. Lennon later explained that the lyric was about an affair he had been having. “I was trying to write about an affair without letting me wife know I was writing about an affair. I was writing from my experiences, girls’ flats, things like that.”
Lennon begins with a couplet that flips the usual rock & roll bravado: “I once had a girl/Or should I say, she once had me.” He recounts a late-night fling with a worldly urban woman, one who lives in her own pad, has her own career and invites gentlemen up for wine. She is very different from the love interests in early Beatles’ songs. In Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now, biographer Barry Miles asked Paul McCartney to provide more of the background to “Norwegian Wood.” McCartney revealed that it was popular for Swinging London girls to decorate their homes with Norwegian pine: “So it was a little parody really on those kinds of girls who, when you’d go to their flat, there would be a lot of Norwegian wood. It was pine really, cheap pine. But it’s not as good a title, ‘Cheap Pine,’ baby. It was completely imaginary from my point of view, but in John’s it was based on an affair he had. This wasn’t the decor of someone’s house, we made that up. So she makes him sleep in the bath and then finally in the last verse I had this idea to set the Norwegian wood on fire as revenge, so we did it very tongue in cheek.”
“Norwegian Wood” was swiftly recognized as a creative breakthrough. Brian Jones paid tribute with his sitar riff in the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It, Black.” “Norwegian Wood” ranked at #83 on Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs and on list of Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock N’ Roll. It peaked at #3 on the Vancouver charts and climbed to #5 on KJR in Seattle. However, these were the exceptions and the song didn’t place on the Top 40 singles charts elsewhere in Canada or the USA.
“Michelle” won the Grammy Award in 1967 for Song of the Year. As related by Paul McCartney in Barry Miles book Many Years From Now, McCartney states “Michelle” was a tune that I’d written in Chet Atkins‘ finger-picking style. There is a song he did called “Trambone” with a repetitive top line, and he played a bass line while playing a melody. This was an innovation for us; even though classical guitarists had played it, no rock’n’roll guitarists had played it. The first person we knew to use finger-picking style was Chet Atkins … I never learned it. But based on Atkins’ “Trambone”, I wanted to write something with a melody and a bass line in it, so I did. I just had it as an instrumental in C.”
In an interview in the Guardian, Paul McCartney said in response to the reporters’ comment, “I heard you wrote ‘Michelle’ to pull girls,” “Yeah, we used to go to these art school parties because John was at art school and me and George were at the school next door, which is now a performing arts school. John was that little bit older than us, which at that age is impressive. He was a year-and-a-half older than me and you really look up to people like that. But it’s funny because I don’t think I had that same feeling with Ringo, who I think was a few months older than John. John was a pretty impressive cat – being a year-and-a-half older and going to art school, all that was a pretty cool combination for us. So we’d tag along to these parties, and it was at the time of people like Juliette Greco, the French bohemian thing. They’d all wear black turtleneck sweaters, it’s kind of where we got all that from, and we fancied Juliette like mad. Have you ever seen her? Dark hair, real chanteuse, really happening. So I used to pretend to be French, and I had this song that turned out later to be ‘Michelle’. It was just an instrumental, but years later John said: ‘You remember that thing you wrote about the French?’ I said: ‘Yeah.’ He said: ‘That wasn’t a bad song, that. You should do that, y’know.'”
According to Steve Turner in A Hard Day’s Write: The Stories Behind Every Beatles Song, McCartney asked Jan Vaughan, a French teacher and the wife of his old friend Ivan Vaughan, to come up with a French name and a phrase that rhymed with it. McCartney said: “It was because I’d always thought that the song sounded French that I stuck with it. I can’t speak French properly so that’s why I needed help in sorting out the actual words.” Vaughan offered “Michelle, ma belle.” Soon after, Paul asked her to translate into French “these are words that go together well.” She provided the French translation “sont les mots qui vont très bien ensemble.” Though “Michelle” was not released as a single in the USA, it peaked at #1 in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden. It also climbed to #3 in Austria and #6 in West Germany. It peaked at #3 in Vancouver.
“Michelle” was covered by David & Jonathan. Their version climbed to #18 on the Billboard Hot 100.
In March 1966, John Lennon had an an interview with Evening Standard reporter Maureen Cleave. Lennon commented, “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink … We’re more popular than Jesus now—I don’t know which will go first, rock and roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary.” The comment was yawned at in Britain, but it caused a furore when it was reported in Datebook’s August edition in America. Suddenly there were protests that involved the burning of Beatles records. The Ku Klux Klan staged protests against the Beatles and nailed their albums to a wooden cross. There were also death threats against Lennon. This development was a catalyst for the band’s decision to cease touring. On August 19th two concerts were scheduled in Memphis, Tennessee. Both were cancelled by the city council who wouldn’t let municipal facilities be used by people who were trying to “ridicule anyone’s religion.”
The band would become the most influential rock ‘n roll band of the 20th Century. They have sold over one billion records. They began recording upbeat love songs like “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and later composed more complex songs, including on their award-winning 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles were on the cusp of whatever was new and were often the trend-setting reason for the next new thing. In 1967 they got involved with Transcendental Meditation. When they released “Hey Jude,” they had one of those rare singles that was longer than 7 minutes climb to the top of the charts. At the time, the standard formula for singles was around two to three minutes in length.
The Beatles split in 1970 after the release of the Let It Be album. Paul McCartney told Howard Stern in 2018 that John Lennon walked into a room one day in 1970 and announced that he was leaving the Beatles. All four enjoyed success as solo recording artists. Ringo Starr had a number of Top Ten hits including “Photograph”, “It Don’t Come Easy”, “You’re Sixteen” and the “No No Song”. Since 1970 Ringo has released 19 studio albums and 11 live albums. Beginning with A Hard Day’s Night, Starr has also appeared in 38 films, including several as a voice for animation. He has also authored three books: Postcards From The Boys, featuring reproductions of postcards sent to Starr by Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison, along with his commentary; Octopus’ Garden which is a children’s book based on the song from the album Abbey Road; And Photograph, a collection of 240 photographs of Starr’s that expresses a visual autobiography together with photo captions.
Paul McCartney had the most successful solo career of the four. His that included “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”, “My Love”, “Band On The Run,” “Live And Let Die”, “With A Little Luck”, “Coming Up” and “Silly Love Songs”. He has topped the charts in duets with Stevie Wonder and with Michael Jackson. His most recent international Top Ten hit was with Kanye West and Rihanna in 2015 titled “FourFiveSeconds”. Between 1971 and 2015 McCartney has had forty-eight of his single releases reach the Top Ten in one or more countries internationally. Over the years Paul McCartney had produced records for other recording artists. This includes “A World Without Love” for Peter and Gordon, “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” for Silkie, “Mellow Yellow” for Donovan, “Those Were The Days” for Mary Hopkin, James Taylor’s self-titled debut album James Taylor, Ringo Starr’s self-titled 1973 album Ringo and George Harrison’s 1981 album Somewhere In England. Other recording artists Paul McCartney has produced include Peggy Lee, Roger Daltry, Carly Simon, the Steve Miller Band, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, the Everly Brothers, Elvis Costello, 10cc, Stevie Wonder, Yusuf Islam and the Foo Fighters. Since 1971 Paul McCartney has released twenty-five studio albums and seven live albums.
George Harrison had hits with “My Sweet Lord” and “Give Me Love”. After “My Sweet Lord” appeared on the pop charts in 1970 Bright Tunes sued him for copyright infringement of the song “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons. Harrison told Rolling Stone in 1979 “The guy who actually wrote “He’s So Fine” had died years before, Ronnie Mack. Bright Tunes Music, his publisher, was suing me. So we went through the court case, and in the end the judge said, yes, it is similar, but you’re not guilty of stealing the tune. We do think there’s been a copyright infringement, though, so get your lawyers together and work out some sort of compensation. But Bright Tunes wouldn’t settle for that; they kept trying to bring the case back into court. They even tried to bring it back into court when I did “This Song.” Harrison released “This Song” as a single describing his frustrations with the plagiarism lawsuit. In 1979 Harrison helped finance with Monty Python film Life of Brian.
John Lennon’s hits included “Instant Karma”, “Imagine”, “Power To The People”, “Whatever Gets You Through The Night”, “#9 Dream”, “Woman” and “(Just Like) Starting Over”. Hopes for a Beatles reunion were dashed when John Lennon was murdered on December 8, 1980, outside his New York City apartment near Central Park. George Harrison died of lung cancer in 2001. Starr and McCartney have continued to tour. Paul McCartney has an upcoming concert in Vancouver on July 6, 2019.
May 21, 2019
The Beatles, Rolling Stone.
David Fricke, “Paul McCartney Looks Back: The Rolling Stone Interview,” Rolling Stone, August 10, 2016.
Ben Quinn, “Paul McCartney ‘saw God’ After Taking Drugs During Beatles Heyday,” Guardian, September 2, 2018.
Stephen Rodrick, “Being Ringo: A Beatle’s All-Starr Life,” Rolling Stone, April 15, 2015.
“Interview: John Lennon and Ringo Starr in Los Angeles,” Los Angeles Times, August 23, 1964.
Mick Brown, “A Conversation With George Harrison: The ‘Fab Four’ is Done For, and George Couldn’t be Happier Doing his Own Thing,” Rolling Stone, April 19, 1979.
Dave Laing and Penny Valentine, “George Harrison: The Most Handsome but Underrated Beatle, he Came into his Own as a Solo Artist and Film Producer,” Guardian, December 1, 2001.
“John Lennon Died 35 Years Ago Today: Read Original Associated Press Story,” Billboard, December 8, 2015.
Johnathan Cott, “John Lennon: The Last Interview: Three Days Before He Died, John Lennon Talked with ‘Rolling Stone’ for Nine Hours. For the first time, we present this Extraordinary Interview“, Rolling Stone, December 23, 2010.
Barry Miles, Many Years From Now, (Henry Holt & Company, 1997), 273.
Steve Turner. A Hard Day’s Write: The Stories Behind Every Beatles Song. (Harper, 2005), 94.
“Pete Doherty meets Paul McCartney,” Guardian, October 14, 2007.
For more song reviews visit the Countdown.