Day 19: “Back in the U.S.S.R.”

When was it recorded?  Aug. 22-23, 1968

When was it first released, and on which album?  Nov. 22, 1968 on “The Beatles”

Who wrote it?  McCartney (with noteworthy contribution from Mike Love of the Beach Boys)

Have I heard this song before?  Yes

What my research dug up:

I was going to attempt to catch up on all the days I missed, but then I realized I’m not doing this blog for anyone but myself and there was no reason to kill myself slaving over playing catch-up if I wasn’t going to enjoy it.  So I missed the weekend aaaand I’m going to miss even more of this week because I’m visiting my best friend, but it’s all good.

“Back in the U.S.S.R.” is the first song on the Beatles’ self-titled (or “White”) album, and its ending fades into the second song, “Dear Prudence.”

Quoth Wikipedia, “Paul McCartney wrote the song while the Beatles were in Rishikesh, India, studying Transcendental Meditation.”  Breaking down Paul’s influences for this song we have:

1.  “Back in the U.S.A.”

The title is an obvious homage to the 1959 song by Chuck Berry.

2.  “California Girls” + the Beach Boys in general

Quoth Wikipedia, “McCartney thought that when he listened to the Beach Boys, it sounded like California, so he decided to write a song that “sounded” like the U.S.S.R.”  Mike Love of the Beach Boys was also at the same spiritual retreat as Paul and later said in an interview,

“I was sitting at the breakfast table and McCartney came down with his acoustic guitar and he was playing Back In The USSR, and I told him that what you ought to do is talk about the girls all around Russia, the Ukraine and Georgia. He was plenty creative not to need any lyrical help from me but I gave him the idea for that little section… I think it was light-hearted and humorous of them to do a take on the Beach Boys.” — Mike Love (Barry Miles’ Many Years From Now)

For comparison, here’s “California Girls.”

3.  “Georgia on My Mind”

Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell wrote it in 1930; odds are if you know this song you know the 1960 Ray Charles version.  “Back in the U.S.S.R.” sounds nothing like “Georgia” but the line about the Soviet Republic of Georgia (“Georgia’s always on my mind”) is a clear shout out to it.

4.  I’m Backing Britain political campaign

I’m not well-versed in British politics/history, but I can tell you “Back in the U.S.S.R.” was a play on the slogan (… get it?  “Back in” = “Backin’”).

So to make the understatement of 2014, there was tension among the Beatles while recording the White album.  Just… a lot of tension.  To make a long story short, it got so bad toward the end of August that Ringo walked out and threatened to quit due to how picky and controlling Paul was being.  According to the Beatles Bible, “He left London and spent a fortnight on Peter Sellers’ yacht in the Mediterranean,” which I guess is the way to go if you’re the drummer for the biggest band in the world.  With Ringo gone, the other three Beatles had to record the drum parts for “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “Dear Prudence.”  Paul’s version was the main version used on this track.  Ringo returned to the band, but since the first two tracks were completed he never played drums on them.  According to the Wikipedia, the only known time Ringo ever played “Back in the U.S.S.R.” was when he joined the Beach Boys during a live show years later.

During this era, the Beatles and their music were banned in the Soviet Union, but the dedication of their fans led to their tapes being smuggled into the country.  Naturally, “Back in the U.S.S.R.” proved to be a favorite among Russian fans.  Because I’m tired and behind on my entries, I’m going to have to gloss over the controversies this song provoked in America (long story short, the Beatles were accused of supporting Communism).

I think the vocal harmonies are kind of hokey, but I really like the guitar & piano parts.  When I hear this song I definitely think “late ’60s/early ’70s.”   I don’t know that it makes me think of Russia like Paul intended though — it’s more rockabilly than the Beach Boys surf rock, but there’s too much Jerry Lee Lewis in there for me consider it anything but American.




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