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‘Back In The USSR’: The Story Behind The Song

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.

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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.

The super deluxe edition of The Beatles’ “White Album” will be released on 9 November. Scroll down to read the full tracklist and pre-order the box set here.

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The BEATLES (‘White Album’) releases include:

Super Deluxe: The comprehensive, individually numbered 7-disc and digital audio collections feature:

CDs 1 & 2: The BEATLES (‘White Album’) 2018 stereo album mix

CD3: Esher Demos

– Esher Demo tracks 1 through 19 sequenced in order of the finished song’s placement on ‘The White Album.’ Tracks 20-27 were not included on the album.

CDs 4, 5 & 6: Sessions

– 50 additional recordings, most previously unreleased, from ‘White Album’ studio sessions; all newly mixed from the four-track and eight-track session tapes, sequenced in order of their recording start dates.

Blu-ray:

– 2018 album mix in high resolution PCM stereo

– 2018 DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 album mix

– 2018 Dolby True HD 5.1 album mix

– 2018 direct transfer of the album’s original mono mix

Deluxe: The BEATLES (‘White Album’) 2018 stereo album mix + Esher Demos

The 3CD; 180-gram 4LP vinyl box set (limited edition); and digital audio collections pair the 2018 stereo album mix with the 27 Esher Demos.

Standard 2LP Vinyl: The BEATLES (‘White Album’) 2018 stereo mix

180-gram 2LP vinyl in gatefold sleeve with faithfully replicated original artwork

Super Deluxe [6CD+1Blu-ray set / digital audio collection]

CD1: The BEATLES (‘White Album’) 2018 Stereo Mix

Back in the U.S.S.R.
Dear Prudence
Glass Onion
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Wild Honey Pie
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Happiness is a Warm Gun
Martha My Dear
I’m so tired
Blackbird
Piggies
Rocky Raccoon
Don’t Pass Me By
Why don’t we do it in the road?
I Will
Julia

CD2: The BEATLES (‘White Album’) 2018 Stereo Mix

Birthday
Yer Blues
Mother Nature’s Son
Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey
Sexy Sadie
Helter Skelter
Long, Long, Long
Revolution 1
Honey Pie
Savoy Truffle
Cry Baby Cry
Revolution 9
Good Night

CD3: Esher Demos

Back in the U.S.S.R.
Dear Prudence
Glass Onion
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Happiness is a Warm Gun
I’m so tired
Blackbird
Piggies
Rocky Raccoon
Julia
Yer Blues
Mother Nature’s Son
Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey
Sexy Sadie
Revolution
Honey Pie
Cry Baby Cry
Sour Milk Sea
Junk
Child of Nature
Circles
Mean Mr. Mustard
Polythene Pam
Not Guilty
What’s the New Mary Jane

CD4: Sessions

Revolution 1 (Take 18)
A Beginning (Take 4) / Don’t Pass Me By (Take 7)
Blackbird (Take 28)
Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey (Unnumbered rehearsal)
Good Night (Unnumbered rehearsal)
Good Night (Take 10 with a guitar part from Take 5)
Good Night (Take 22)
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (Take 3)
Revolution (Unnumbered rehearsal)
Revolution (Take 14 – Instrumental backing track)
Cry Baby Cry (Unnumbered rehearsal)
Helter Skelter (First version – Take 2)

CD5: Sessions

Sexy Sadie (Take 3)
While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Acoustic version – Take 2)
Hey Jude (Take 1)
St. Louis Blues (Studio jam)
Not Guilty (Take 102)
Mother Nature’s Son (Take 15)
Yer Blues (Take 5 with guide vocal)
What’s the New Mary Jane (Take 1)
Rocky Raccoon (Take 8)
Back in the U.S.S.R. (Take 5 – Instrumental backing track)
Dear Prudence (Vocal, guitar & drums)
Let It Be (Unnumbered rehearsal)
While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Third version – Take 27)
(You’re so Square) Baby, I Don’t Care (Studio jam)
Helter Skelter (Second version – Take 17)
Glass Onion (Take 10)

CD6: Sessions

I Will (Take 13)
Blue Moon (Studio jam)
I Will (Take 29)
Step Inside Love (Studio jam)
Los Paranoias (Studio jam)
Can You Take Me Back? (Take 1)
Birthday (Take 2 – Instrumental backing track)
Piggies (Take 12 – Instrumental backing track)
Happiness is a Warm Gun (Take 19)
Honey Pie (Instrumental backing track)
Savoy Truffle (Instrumental backing track)
Martha My Dear (Without brass and strings)
Long, Long, Long (Take 44)
I’m so tired (Take 7)
I’m so tired (Take 14)
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill (Take 2)
Why don’t we do it in the road? (Take 5)
Julia (Two rehearsals)
The Inner Light (Take 6 – Instrumental backing track)
Lady Madonna (Take 2 – Piano and drums)
Lady Madonna (Backing vocals from take 3)Across the Universe (Take 6)

Blu-ray: The BEATLES (‘White Album’)

Audio Features:

: PCM Stereo (2018 Stereo Mix)

: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (2018)

: Dolby True HD 5.1 (2018)

: Mono (2018 Direct Transfer of ‘The White Album’ Original Mono Mix)

Deluxe [3CD digipak / 180-gram 4LP vinyl box set (limited edition) / digital audio collection]

The BEATLES (‘White Album’) 2018 Stereo Mix

Esher Demos

Standard 2LP Vinyl [180-gram]

The BEATLES (‘White Album’) 2018 Stereo Mix

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