209. The Overlanders – Michelle (1966)

The-Overlanders

On 30 January Palitoy first launched their Action Man figures. The UK version of Hasbro’s GI Joe, created in 1964, went on to delight children (and some adults) for decades to come. The following day, Britain officially ceased all trade with Rhodesia.

That week also saw folk-pop quartet the Overlanders begin a three-week stint at the top with their version of the Beatles’ Michelle. Originally a trio, they formed in the early 1960s and consisted of Paul Arnold on piano and guitar, Laurie Mason on piano and harmonica and Peter Bartholomew on guitar, with all three providing vocals. Originally their repertoire derived mainly from American folk tunes. The Overlanders signed to Pye Records and Tony Hatch became their producer. That July they released their self-penned debut single Summer Skies and Golden Sands to little fanfare. Third single, a cover of Chad & Jeremy’s Yesterday’s Gone briefly entered the Billboard chart during the British Invasion in 1964. After that, every release was a failure, so the Overlanders decided to beef up their sound, adding Terry Widlake on bass and David Walsh on drums during 1965. As that year came to a close, the Beatles released their sixth album Rubber Soul, and among the most popular tracks was Paul McCartney’s folk-flecked Michelle.

This song originated as a joke from years earlier. McCartney had been to a party of art students, one of whom was a French bohemian who entertained the guests with songs. Paul wrote the tune to Michelle as a spoof of that night, with comedy-French-style groaning in lieu of any lyrics. While making Rubber Soul the Beatles were considering comic songs as a potential new direction, and John Lennon suggested McCartney put some proper lyrics to his party piece.

McCartney turned to Jan Vaughan, French teacher and the wife of Ivan Vaughan, his former bandmate in the Quarrymen. It was she that came up with ‘Michelle, ma belle’, and a few days later he asked her for a French translation of ‘these are words that go together well’ . McCartney then took Michelle to Lennon, who completed the song with the ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’ bridge.

Such was the strength of the Lennon and McCartney catalogue, their album tracks were often released as singles by other artists, knowing that covering Beatles originals gave them a very good chance of scoring a hit. Although released as a single in some countries, the Beatles chose not to do so in the UK or US. At the same time as the Overlanders decided to give it a go, George Martin produced a version by David and Jonathan. However, apparently the Beatles gave their blessing to the Overlanders version, because their label Pye had agreed to Brian Epstein’s request not to release a single by Lennon’s estranged father Alfred. The Overlanders won the UK chart battle, although David and Jonathan hit number 1 in Canada.

Despite being one of the Beatles’ better-known album tracks, I’m not that big a fan. Apart from the catchy chorus, it’s a bit smarmy, fairly throwaway and should have remained a joke between the group. And the Overlanders version is worse, sounding smarmier. Beefing up the production makes the song worse, losing the fragility of George Harrison’s guitar solo (which was George Martin’s idea). Were this not a Beatles song, I’m not sure the Overlanders would have become the one-hit wonders they were.

Upon the release of their version, Paul Russell left the Overlanders to be replaced by Alan Warran. In 1967 Paul Arnold left the group to go solo and he was replaced by Ian Griffiths, and Terry Widlake left in 1968 to be replaced by Mike Wedgwood. These changes were a sure sign they couldn’t last, and soon the group was no more, sounding decidedly out-of-date by this point. Arnold formed the New Overlanders in the 70s.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: Tony Hatch

Weeks at number 1: 3 (27 January-16 February)

Births:

Footballer Keith Dublin – 29 January
Singer Rick Astley – 6 February
Journalist Sarah Montague – 8 February 

Deaths:

Barrister Ronald Armstrong – Jones 27 January 

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