A classic back-to-basics rocker, ‘Back In The USSR’ incorporated Beach Boys harmonies and Chuck Berry riffs to become a scorching piece of rock’n’roll.
Tapes exist of The Beatles in Rishikesh singing a song about spiritual regeneration in the style of The Beach Boys: a performance not a million miles away stylistically from the Esher demo version of ‘Back In The USSR’. The song morphs into a ‘Happy Birthday Mike Love’ song, in honour of The Beach Boys’ vocalist, who was studying Transcendental Meditation with them at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Indian Ashram.
Rishikesh was always likely to inspire creativity. Set against a backdrop where the mighty Ganges gives way to the verdant foothills of the Himalayas, this was an enclave of serenity, a place where artists such as The Beatles would be able to allow their work to simply flood out of them, free from the shackles of the modern world.
“You ought to talk about the girls all around Russia”
Love has recalled Paul McCartney strolling out from his hut at the ashram one morning: “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.”
McCartney’s final lyric does indeed talk about girls from the various parts of the USSR (“Well the Ukraine girls really knock me out/They leave the west behind/And Moscow girls make me sing and shout/That Georgia’s always on my mind”) just as The Beach Boys’ ‘California Girls’ does for the US (“Well East Coast girls are hip/I really dig those styles they wear/And the Southern girls with the way they talk/They knock me out when I’m down there”).
‘Back In The USSR’ also reflected The Beatles’ desire to return to being a rock’n’roll band after the complex studio experiments of the previous few years. “Chuck Berry once did a song called ‘Back In The USA’, which is very American, very Chuck Berry,” McCartney told Radio Luxemburg in November 1968. “So this one is… about a spy who’s been in America a long, long time, you know? And he’s very American. But he gets back to the USSR, you know, and he’s sort of saying, ‘Leave it till tomorrow, honey, to disconnect the phone,’ and all that.”
While the song’s conception may have been relatively straightforward, its delivery was less of an easy ride. Like many of the “White Album” songs written in India, the group had recorded a demo of ‘Back In The USSR’ at George Harrison’s Esher bungalow, Kinfauns, back in May 1968, soon after returning to England. But by the time they got to recording the song at Abbey Road, it was mid-August, and tensions were rising. Ringo was feeling unhappy with the way things were going. “I felt I wasn’t playing great, and I also felt that the other three were really happy and I was an outsider,” he later said. During the session for ‘Back In The USSR,’ the drummer decided that enough was enough, and walked out, spending a couple of weeks on Peter Sellers’ yacht in the Mediterranean before returning to the fold after the others had reassured him of his value to the group.
A scorching rock’n’roll delivery
In the interim, McCartney took over on percussive duties, and, together with John and George, the band completed ‘Back In The USSR’ in just two days (22 and 23 August 1968), adding sound effects of a Viscount airliner to what was a strikingly heavy wall of throbbing drums, shredded guitars, driving bass, pounding piano and a scorching rock’n’roll delivery. Then, with a nod to that early inspiration, as Paul put it, “We added Beach Boys-style harmonies.” And with that, one of the most-famous double-albums in pop history had its rocking opening track.
Talking about the song in Playboy magazine in 1984, McCartney said, “It was also hands across the water, which I’m still conscious of. ’Cause they like us out there, even though the bosses in the Kremlin may not. The kids do. And that to me is very important for the future of the race.”
‘Back In The USSR’ would understandably become a particular favourite of fans behind the Iron Curtain, who listened surreptitiously on reel-to-reel tape copies. When Paul finally got to play the song live in Red Square, in 2003, the sheer joy writ across the fans’ faces showed just how far things had come since it was written, deep in the frostiest days of the Cold War. The line “Moscow girls make me sing and shout” got the biggest cheer of the night.