For those counting, we arrive at the 3rd Beatles cover to top the UK charts. Which means that in a little under three years, Lennon & McCartney have been responsible for twelve chart-toppers! Not bad, not bad at all. A couple of posts ago I mentioned them in comparison with Bacharach and David, who recently wrote The Walker Brothers #1 ‘Make It Easy on Yourself’. But, having done some digging, it turns out that they were still way behind John and Paul with just 6 chart-topping compositions to their name, in well over double the time.
Michelle, by The Overlanders (their 1st and only #1)
3 weeks, from 27th January – 17th February 1966
Anyway, that’s all well and good; but this next chart-topper isn’t by The Beatles. Note the name at the start of this post: The Overlanders. You know, the British folk-rock-cum-pop combo? Nope? Well this was their one and only hit. And it’s a pretty faithful, note for note, cover of the original.
I’d like to write about this without comparing it to The Beatles’ version, but that would mean erasing a song that I’ve been listening to since I was a kid from my memory for the next half an hour. And I don’t have the technology to do that… Michelle, Ma belle, These are words that go together well, My Michelle… Alongside a jaunty, perky, French-salon tune. It’s slightly heavier, more deliberate version – the instruments and the vocals have a deeper finish and a gloss that the original doesn’t. The Beatles’ version is more subtle, lighter… (Oh fine, here’s a link. Compare them for yourself.)
Probably the most notable thing about this disc is that it has a full line of French in it, which is a first for a UK chart-topper. Michelle, Ma Belle, Son les mots qui vent très bien ensemble, Tres bien ensemble… Even if, like me, you have only the most basic of French abilities, you can work out that it’s just a direct translation of the preceding, English line. Still, aside from ‘Que Sera Sera’, which is actually gibberish, this is the first in a long line of ‘non-English’ #1s, or ‘not-completely-English #1s’, which will take us through ‘Je T’Aime…’ to ‘La Isla Bonita’, to, um, ‘Gangnam Style’…
As a hit record, this is alright. It might as well have been done by a pub covers band for all the personality they bring to it, but it’s OK. It’s not as good as the original, you’d never choose to listen to this version over it, but the only bit I think that really lets The Overlanders down is the creaky I love you… before the solo.
What it kind of reminds me of is the electronic keyboard that I had as a kid, for the six months or so I attempted to learn, which had a bunch of famous songs pre-programmed into it. ‘Michelle’ wasn’t one of them; but if it had been I bet it would have sounded quite like this. Perhaps the problem is that, unlike the previous two Lennon & McCartney written chart-toppers, everyone thinks of ‘Michelle’ as a Beatles song. It’s a well- known track from one of their best-regarded albums, ‘Rubber Soul’, and features on several Greatest Hits compilations (which is where I first heard it all those years ago.) Whereas, Billy J. Kramer, and Peter and Gordon, could more easily pass ‘Bad to Me’ and ‘A World Without Love’ off as their own, with no ‘official’ version of those hits ever recorded by The Fab Four, The Overlanders wouldn’t be as lucky.
But then again, if you wanted a guaranteed hit in the mid-sixties, you couldn’t do any better than nabbing yourself a Beatles’ cast-off. They got their big smash; but very few people remember them for it. Like I wrote at the start, this was The Overlanders’ one and only hit record. It raises a philosophical question to finish on: What’s better, plugging away valiantly on your own with little recognition, or riding the coattails of the world’s biggest band for three weeks of reflected glory?