Back In The USSR

The Beatles (White Album) artworkWritten by: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: 22, 23 August 1968
Producer: George Martin
Engineer: Ken Scott

Released: 22 November 1968 (UK), 25 November 1968 (US)

Paul McCartney: vocals, backing vocals, piano, electric guitar, bass guitar, drums, handclaps
John Lennon: backing vocals, electric guitar, drums, handclaps
George Harrison: backing vocals, electric guitar, six-string bass guitar, drums, handclaps

Available on:
The Beatles (White Album)

The opening track on the White Album, Back In The USSR was written by Paul McCartney and inspired by Chuck Berry's Back In The USA and the Beach Boys' California Girls.

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The song was intended by McCartney to be a parody of Chuck Berry's 1959 hit.

It's tongue in cheek. This is a travelling Russkie who has just flown in from Miami Beach; he's come the other way. He can't wait to get back to the Georgian mountains: 'Georgia's always on my mind'; there's all sorts of little jokes in it... I remember trying to sing it in my Jerry Lee Lewis voice, to get my mind set on a particular feeling. We added Beach Boys style harmonies.
Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

Back In The USSR was written in Rishikesh, India, while The Beatles were meditating with the Maharishi. Another member of the party was the Beach Boys' Mike Love.

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
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

Two other influences found their way into Back In The USSR: Hoagy Carmichael's Georgia On My Mind, and the pro-industry 'I'm Backing Britain' campaign led by British prime minister Harold Wilson. According to Ian MacDonald, the song's original title was I'm Backing The UK, then I'm Backing The USSR.

The song caused an anti-Beatles conservative backlash in America, led by the John Birch Society which charged the group with encouraging communism. Back In The USSR did become a favourite song of The Beatles' Russian fans, who heard it through tapes smuggled into the country.

In the studio

Unusually, the drums on Back In The USSR were recorded mainly by McCartney, with contributions from Lennon and Harrison, after Ringo Starr had temporarily walked out of the group.

According to Barry Miles, Starr left when McCartney criticised him for messing up a tom-tom fill. With the atmosphere in the studio already often tense, the altercation was enough for the normally amenable Starr to reach his limit. He left London and spent a fortnight on Peter Sellers' yacht in the Mediterranean.

I left because I felt two things: I felt I wasn't playing great, and I also felt that the other three were really happy and I was an outsider. I went to see John, who had been living in my apartment in Montagu Square with Yoko since he moved out of Kenwood. I said, 'I'm, leaving the group because I'm not playing well and I feel unloved and out of it, and you three are really close.' And John said, 'I thought it was you three!'

So then I went over to Paul's and knocked on his door. I said the same thing: 'I'm leaving the band. I feel you three guys are really close and I'm out of it.' And Paul said, 'I thought it was you three!'

I didn't even bother going to George then. I said, 'I'm going on holiday.' I took the kids and we went to Sardinia.

Ringo Starr

The recording of Back In The USSR was completed in just two days. On the first, 22 August 1968, McCartney played drums, with Harrison on lead guitar and Lennon on bass. They taped just five tracks, the last of which was the best.

Paul completely. I play the six-string bass on that. [Sings as he pretends to play bass guitar] 'Da da da da da…' Try writing that on your typewriter.
John Lennon
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

The next day they added two more drum, bass and lead guitar tracks, a piano part, lead vocals from Paul McCartney and backing vocals from Lennon and Harrison. All three Beatles contributed handclaps.

Back In The USSR was mixed on the same day, during which they added the sound of a Viscount aeroplane taking off and landing. The effects came from Abbey Road's collection, and had previously been recorded at London Airport.

55 responses on “Back In The USSR

  1. SgtPepper1909

    I have a great book on the Beatles– “Beatlemania Forever”— and I read that John was notified about the ultra-conservatives’ charges of the Beatles being pro-Bolshevik. He was told that some were saying Beatles music was un-American. John’s response? “That’s very observant of them.”

    We can always seem to count on Lennon for the perfect defense.

          1. paulsbass

            You’re as always free to express your doubts and believe in what you think is “probably” right.
            That doesn’t make it true, of course.
            The solo has excactly the “show off” feeling Macca usually has in his solos. Also the way he plays, it sounds not as clear and precise as George, but more “spectacular”.

            Anyway, I don’t know where this “second” solo is supposed to be. It’s Paul’s song, he plays drums and guitar and piano – and most of the bass is John and George (I thought all of it).

            1. julio

              I hate to reference the rock band video reconstruction but I guess that might be an accurate depiction of who plays what guitar (with George doing the first and Paul playing and singing over his solo on the last verse. If you notice Paul makes sure that anytime there is a solo that he played he makes sure that the rock band studio scenes show him playing them (even if he is playing another instrument for the rest of this song).

            2. MrBig

              Again, I said “probably”. Not for sure, unlike Mr. Iknoweverythingthatpaulmccartneyhaseverdone here I don’t know. And what I’m talking about is the fast alternate picking.

  2. JayJay

    After having spent two years in the hazy dreamscapes of Pepperland, the Beatles were serving notice they were back on the ground, rock & roll-wise.

    No drowsy Mellotrons, no trippy backwards tapes, no eerie distorted vocals, this time they were leading off with screeching (airplane) tires, pounding piano, thudding drums, screaming guitars and Paul McCartney doing his best Elvis-meets-the Beach Boys impersonation.

      1. Phil

        I don’t think he was trying to diss anything. Just that The Beatles went from a 50s Rock and Roll/R&B influenced sound, to doing a lot of experimental stuff, and then “BACK” to the Rock and Roll sound with “Back in the U.S.S.R.”

  3. Dartos

    The harmony vocals clearly resemble the Beach Boys, but were new to Paul’s work. He use’s a similar background vocal for “Jet”, my guess is he realized they work well in the upbeat songs that play off their own intensity.

    1. SouthofReality

      Great song; one of my favorites.

      That being said, the USSR was an oppressive regime that killed and enslaved its people and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Nazi Germany and The Killing Fields. We should never forget that.

  4. david cook

    they were using elvis and the beach boys (americas greatest at the time) as a politial parody (a la marx bros) (communism vs capitalism) and they conquer!!! pure pop for the then people!
    helter scelter and manson put this song under the radar, yeah yeah yeah!

  5. suckerfly

    Listening to the isolated drums on Back in the U.S.S.R. tells me Paul had no right to tell Ringo he messed up anywhere.The drums sound like your Uncle had a try at your drumkit and someone accidentally recorded it. And then people insist paul did the drums on Dear Prudence’s finale??? All of a sudden he’s doing a fairly decent Ringo impersonation on drums when he can barely come out of a drumfill or do rolls and stay in beat with the song?? Right. I’m pretty convinced now that Ringo does the finale of Dear Prudence, he just never got credited for it.

      1. Tweeze

        Yes, it was a composite. Apparently, they needed to reassign instruments during the recording to get it properly recorded. Thus, you frequently will notice that the drums are following the song rather than driving it.

    1. Sands

      nonesense, Paul might not be as good as Ringo as a drummer, but he was the creative musician who suggested many drum patterns to Ringo.
      if you want to hear Paul drumming listen to albums like “McCartney” 1970 or “Band On The Run” 1974

  6. d nicholson

    is there any confirmation that John and George played drums with Paul on this? For some reason, I thought Paul was the only skilled drummer (besides Ringo) to take drumming responsibilities when Ringo temporarily left

  7. Mean_Mr_Mustard

    d’nicholson – I wouldn’t exactly use the word `skilled’ to describe Paul’s drumming! I’ve always thought the drumming on this track was the weakest element. Aside from that this a great recording, excellent way to open the album.

    1. Julio Sanchez

      If you mess with the balance on your stereo, you can hear one drum track on one side (Paul) and an entirely different drum track (John and George)on the other. The drums are pretty terrible, although the rest of the recording is so good, you don’t really notice or care

  8. Javierof

    It’s The Beatles restless sense of ironic humor: in the middle of the Cold War they were singing about the east girls better than western ones!! Though not intentional, undoubtedly a low blow to any John Birch Society’s like minded person!!

    What I can’t understand is how a great song can have terrible drumming!!! Obviously it sounds different to Ringo’s innovative drumming, which doesn’t mean it sounds bad… the all four were skill musicians with music playing in their heads constantly!!!

  9. Velvet Hand

    I have no idea who played drums on this song, BUT I think I just noticed something:

    Stereo: Plane sounds at the start, wind blowing at the end;
    Mono: Plane sounds at the start and at the end.

    Am I insane?

  10. Bungalow Bob

    I always liked “Back In The USSR,” and I never really noticed the less-than-stellar drumming. But I do now, and it would be exciting to hear the song propelled along by a great rock and roll drumbeat. I think it would be fun if the track were made available on the internet stripped of its weak backbeat, for different rock drummers to add their percussion styles to. Nothing too fancy, but something along the lines of Dave Grohl’s driving beats. I know this is kind of sacrilegious, but Paul’s drumming could stand to be improved on this track. Why, it would be like taking a sad song and making it better. (Not that BITUSSR is a “sad” song… maybe I’d better not quote that lyric.) 😉

  11. mja6758

    Curiosity… You have George contributing a six-string bass part and I wonder what the source is? From my reading of Lewisohn’s Recording Sessions, I thought the first bass track was laid down by John, with Paul adding, among other things, two additional bass tracks the following day.

    1. Joe Post author

      A better source is John Winn’s That Magic Feeling, which updates and corrects a lot of the earlier work that Lewisohn did in the 1980s. Sessions is a fantastic book but not all the information in it is correct.

      A fairly detailed explanation of what happened is in the session articles for 22 and 23 August 1968.

      Lennon’s bass part was erased though, so I’ll take that out of the listing.

      1. Pablo Castro

        Certainly John´s bass is there yet, otherwise he wouldn´t have mentioned in an interview. It´s just that his 6-string bass guitar part was played like a rhythm guitar, with chords and fast strumming. It´s still there loud and clear.

        The other bass line is played along, but it´s clear that there are (at least) two bass parts, one playing the role of a rhythm guitar, and that´s John´s 6-string.

  12. Cristián

    Incredible , while in the USSR the Beatles were forbidden and the beatlemaniacs investigated by the communist authorities, The Beatles were composing a song “friendly” with the USSR.
    Only a country who suffered a real comunism in the flesh could understand the evil behind this political system. My country, Chile, was nearly to suffer that, but was saved in the last minute by the Army.

  13. Sam

    So Lennon says this:

    “Paul completely. I play the six-string bass on that. [Sings as he pretends to play bass guitar] ‘Da da da da da…’ Try writing that on your typewriter.”

    But at the top it said Harrison (electric 6-string) and McCartney (electric) played bass. Does anyone know why this is?

    1. Joe Post author

      I explained this in an earlier comment. Lennon’s bass part was wiped. See the recording session pages (linked to at the top of the article) for more information.

  14. Christopher P

    Leave it to the Beatles to do a lighthearted send-up of the Beach Boys which excels almost anything the latter had recorded, IMHO. The ringing guitar over the last verse is freakin’ sublime!

    As far as the somewhat spotty instrumentation — who cares?? That’s like criticizing e.e.cummings for poor penmanship. >> It works because it works.

    1. DoItAgain1971

      There are probably 40 Beach Boys/Brian Wilson songs better than Back in the USSR, and that’s not an insult to “USSR”. It’s a compliment to the brilliance of Brian Wilson (and incredibly underrated Carl Wilson, too).

    1. Joe Post author

      It’s not included as the part was wiped the day after the recording. I don’t include everything they tried out during recording sessions; otherwise it would end up being very confusing, with instruments and performances listed that very few people have heard. A good example is McCartney doing lead vocals on one take of I Want You (She’s So Heavy) – if I included that it would just look bizarre, as he doesn’t sing on the version that everyone knows.

  15. Graham Paterson

    First loved this song, from time I first heard it on the radio in mid-70’s. They had a Beatles request show on the radio when I was about 11 and I rang up and requested this. Great Paul McCartney song in which he is also the drummer on. I eventually got this on vinyl when I received the White Album for Christmas 1980. I love Georges lead guitar on this.

  16. Sgt. Pecker

    Paul sings mostly like Elvis Presley in Back In The USSR. The harmonies, thanks to Mike Love were a take on the Beach Boys and the song was designed to be the opposite of “Back In The USA” from Chuck Berry. -Now that’s ironic? Elvis singing with Beach Boy type backing harmonies about girls in the USSR and the homeland in the East. It must have rocked folks out of their chairs when they first heard it.

  17. Jonas Svensson

    And I think it was during that Sardinian holiday that Ringo learned about the octopus and how it keeps glimmering things outside its cave, eventually leading to a certain song.

  18. Graham Paterson

    Great parody of The Beach Boys. It was great that Mike Love was on hand in India when McCartney wrote this. Of course it was inspired by the above mentioned Chuck Berry song. The Beach Boys were another great band and Brian Wilson a genius like Lennon and McCartney.

  19. Jack

    Come on people; a great song is the sum of its parts. If these three guys thought the drums were weak, don’t you think they would have punched them up. I think they knew more about producing a great tune than any of us ever will. Maybe the song sounds so great because they decided not to let the drums overpower the rest of the music. The whole of the song is punchy as hell; leave it alone and just enjoy.

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