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’.
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.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
‘Back In The USSR’ was written in Rishikesh, India, while The Beatles were meditating with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. 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.
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 Paul McCartney, with contributions from John Lennon and George 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.
The recording of ‘Back In The USSR’ was completed in just two days. On the first takes, recorded on 22 August 1968, McCartney played guitar and Harrison was on snare drum. On later takes McCartney switched to piano, and Lennon strummed chords on a bass guitar. They taped 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.
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 in mono on the same day, during which they added the sound of a Viscount aeroplane taking off and landing. The stereo mix was made on 13 October 1968.
The effects had been recorded at London Airport, and came from the tape Volume 17: Jet and Piston Engine Aeroplane from Abbey Road’s collection.
For the mono mix everything came out OK, but the stereo mix took a long, long time and I was holding the pencil to keep the effects tape taut. I guess I must have been leaning back on it and started to stretch it, because the mono has this clear, clean lovely jet sound while the stereo is an abomination of a jet sound.
The Beatles, super deluxe edition
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.